Germs in the Ivy Tower

The ivy tower of academia is a highly fertile environment for culturing bad ideas. Not to say that it only produces bad ideas. Certainly not. Rather that it is the nature of the modern university, by the simple virtue of what it is, to provide an insulated environment that allows unworkable ideas to “work” within a very artificial and controlled locality. In a sense, academia is very similar to Petri dish cultures of bacteria in that they allow bacteria to grow in locales where it would normally be impossible to attain such high concentrations. Therefore, like a Petri dish, academia gives us the exciting opportunity to study bad ideas in high concentrations. Also, like a Petri dish, we are done a moderate service by keeping all the bad ideas together, all the bad eggs in the basket, curtailing the infestation from spreading into the real world; for the most part.

A little easy humor to brighten a day: next time you are in a book store walk to the philosophy section. Look through the authors for Jacques Derrida. There should be at least five or six books. Any book will do, although some have more chuckles than others. My personal favorite is [Specters of Marx]( and its uproarious first paragraph:

Maintaining now the specters of Marx. (But maintaining now [maintenant] without conjuncture. A disjointed or disadjusted now, “out of joint,” a disajointed now that always risks maintaining nothing together in the assured conjunction of some context whose border would still be determinable.)

Beginning an intellectual work with a paragraph composed of such goobledygook: bad idea.

Derrida goes on to buttress the compelling points made in the previous paragraph with the next paragraph”s trenchant observations:

The specters of Marx. Why this plural? Would there be more than one of them? Plus d’un? [More than one/No more one]: this can mean a crowd, if not masses, the horde, or society, or some population of ghosts with or without a people, some community with or without a leader – but also the less than one of pure and simple dispersion.

Following up a baffling paragraph with an equally perplexing one: bad idea.

One must wonder if they are simply making this crap up. As if to confirm this suspicion we have the ingeniously conceived and brilliantly executed [“Postmodernism Generator.”]( Click the link and you will find your way to a typical postmodernist essay called, say, “The Narrative of Absurdity: Postsemantic narrative in the works of Burroughs” that bears all outward resemblance to an actual essay but has, in fact, been randomly generated by the Dada Engine – “a system for generating random text from recursive grammars.” The essay you are viewing only exists right now, only on your computer screen, and will cease to exist when you close the window. The essays will be filled with passages like: “If one examines postsemantic narrative, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocapitalist discourse or conclude that class has objective value.” Of course these essays, having been randomly generated, are totally meaningless. But it is quite humorous that, although the competition is stiff, the random essays make more sense then Derrida’s supposedly thought-out and carefully considered self-indulgent bafflegab.

(Incidentally, another way to write a post-modern essay is to write a serious essay about any other subject, say, a sociohistorical analysis of people who wear crazy hats while skiing, and then go back and “put” “every” “single” “word” “in” “quotes” “just” “like” “this.”)

These aren’t just bad ideas, although they are certainly that. They are bad ideas compounded with horrendous delivery and the type of pompous aloofness that makes you want to throw a drink in their collective faces. It is intellectual elitism at its absolute worst. A sneering pleasure derived from the ability to construct essays and theories and then write them in a way that only the anointed “in-crowd” can understand them.

Bad ideas tend to sprout up in cloistered, closed-off situations. Habitual loners may spend their time formulating wonderfully ornate and garishly erroneous theories about human social interaction. Insulated cults living in artificially constructed environments are free to spin fanciful webs of conspiracy myth and bigotry. Extremists groups, be they in Pakistan or Michigan, find perpetual solace in an isolated community.

Bad ideas are a guarantee, but their continued flourishing is not. They flourish because of artificiality. Like the parks and fountains that populate the desert city of Las Vegas, bad ideas need synthetically constructed support systems to create fertile environments. But feedback from the world – that is, what is actually true – tends to crash the party. An egalitarian socialistic commune can work under controlled circumstances with the agreement of those involved. But the truth has a nasty habit of popping up and throwing wrenches into the gears. The fountains dry up, the bacteria die, and people starve to death.

For the most part we can ignore the bad ideas and their cloistered environments. However, they often find a way to seep out; sometimes with disastrous consequences. When the loner grabs a gun, the cult kills an actress and her baby, an extremist group destroys a building, or a professor makes ridiculous comments about the “little Eichmanns” of 9/11 we must take a serious look at the system that allowed the ideas to flourish.

University of Colorado (my alma mater) professor Ward Churchill”s recent, and now near infamous, comments are just a small piece of the iceberg showing above the waterline. Mr. Churchill is not a unique minority. His ideas, though perhaps not his “little Eichmanns” word choice, are representative of a majority of modern humanities professors. The populaces of the humanities departments at the major universities throughout the western world have become undisputed masters of inane and meaningless scholarship. They couch ridiculously simple and mundane ideas in, as we have seen, unforgivably turgid prose. A dash of linguistic philosophy, a pinch of Marxism, a sprinkle of “discourse,” shake well, and there you go; there are the ideas they obfuscate so effectively. They say nothing that cannot be said with the gratuitous use of quotation marks. In every sense they must be seen as unqualified intellectual failures – despite whatever periodic cleverness they display. Writing about simple ideas in complex, bewildering prose is neither difficult nor worthy of the slightest approbation. At times one must wonder how so many people became enamored with writing an endless procession of papers that achieve as much progress as spinning one’s tires in the mud. “A Foucauldian Interpretation of Three”s Company” “The Hyperrealism of Performed Gender Roles in Chat Rooms” “Divergence, Distress, and Demolition; A Deconstruction of Mr. Bean” blah blah blah.

What is going on is precisely what one would expect from a discipline that has disavowed truth as a meaningful criterion and yet still participate in scholarship and teaching as their profession. They are acting under the incentives that they have created. Ideas are judged by how they work. This is true of any context; the concept of an idea “working” is contextual and based on a view of ends. Post-modern ideas and scholarship most certainly work; but not toward any goals other than tenure, higher salary and elitist intellectual status. In the artificial context of modern academia they do quite well to achieve those goals. Goals that, if you have ever spent any time around an English professor (under 60), are clearly the driving motivation of the entire endeavor.

How could it be otherwise? Historically, scholarship has placed the search for truth as the central motivating desire. And, this should still be the view of scholarship. But not post-modern theorists. Without truth – a concept, due to its “oppressive nature,” that has been removed from the post-modern view of the word – there is no intellectual status. Without truth, there is no reason to read a paper on “The Foucauldian Discourse of Information” rather than listen to your two-year old daughter babble incoherently.

However, on the other end of campus, where the science professors hold office hours, the concept of an idea working is entirely different. Down where the professors are geeky math whizzes donning unassuming collared shirts and penny loafers – as opposed to the long-haired, professor-mensches clad in hip Dead Kennedys shirts – the rules of the game are distinctly different. Their ideas must work too. They must build their quantum cooling systems, infinitesimally precise lasers, and other machines of an arcane nature. The machines work (often) and are ultimately based on theories and conjectures about how things are, about how the universe is, about what is true. Only after producing working, true ideas will the professors on the other side of campus be granted tenure, higher salaries, and intellectual status.

And so the line is drawn. On one side of campus the professors must find truth in order to be granted intellectual and professional gains. On the other side of campus the professors must spin ever more elaborate webs of rhetorical vacuity that need not pass any litmus test other than being suitably arcane. The rewards are offered, the incentives given. Some will thrive, some will die out. Our ecosystem for bad ideas has been created.

In many ways, these intellectual pretenders are as predictable as a Petri dish of bacteria into which a syringe of antibiotics has been discharged. With the advent of the modern university system, a mere 200 years ago (more or less) disciplines were segmented into discrete and well-defined fields of study. Before, knowledge had a more holistic edge to it and intellectuals were required to be true renaissance men. Leibniz and Descartes are pillars in both the history of mathematics and philosophy; Adam Smith in economics and philosophy. They were “natural philosophers” and sat with the whole pie in front of them, forks clinched in their ready hands. But soon knowledge was to be split up like a cake at a party and the pieces meted out. The growing defined presence of science and the increased awareness of what “truth” actually means and how it can be obtained served as antibiotics to kill off many wannabe “natural philosophers” and required the survivors to adapt specialized skills towards specific disciplines. If they couldn’t cut it as a renaissance man, as few of us can, then at least they could find something they were good at. They had to evolve in order to survive. They did this very simply; they took their ball and went home. They insulated themselves from feedback and decided to play a different game, one not based on potentially lethal “facts.”

Like nearly every other aspect of modern life, specialization has changed the nature of the academic game; mostly for the better. But, now that science has been defined, discovered innumerable truths, and achieved such startling and evident progress the humanities are left with less claim on a unique territory that adds to the quality of daily life. Yes, the territory is unique – striving to make it so has been one of the goals and effects of post-modernism – but it will never invent the microchip, the iPod, vitamin-enriched grains, or air conditioning. They will not lengthen our lifespans, purify our water, or raise the general standard of living for billions of humans. Leibniz and Descartes were able to have the best of both worlds. However, modern academic specialization now precludes the intellectual dilettante from wading in a variety of departmental pools. This produces another aspect of the ecosystem of bad ideas, an evolved defense to the threat of irrelevancy of one’s discipline; the departmental panacea. One’s individual subject is seen as the be-all-end-all of intellectual ideas, an ubersubject under which all other segments of knowledge are to be classified. This attitude can be seen throughout a campus in Sociologists, Anthropologists, Psychologists, Philosophers, Economists, and, especially, English Professors/”Theorists.” Of course, such attitudes are to be expected from a university system that engenders a (generally) respectful interdepartmental warfare by demanding ever more impressive revelations and holding professional and monetary gains as the carrot on the stick. However, in general, only those on the humanities side of campus formulate departmental panaceas. No one devoting a career to the mating habits of primates or the behavior of oxides in a barium solution believes that they are formulating groundbreaking theories that will elucidate the nature of the universe, our place in it, and the meaning of our lives.

Those scientific specialists have their small slices of the pie – are dilligently working on it – and are content with being a small part of an increasingly complete and accurate body of knowledge the human race is actively forming. They play on the team, do their part, and do not try to take control of the entire enterprise. On the other side of campus the professors are much less willing to be team players. Their panaceas make the game obsolete, teams unnecessary, and the entire history of human intellectual accomplishment and progress an item of oppressive discourse. With Foucault, Lacan and Derrida in tow one lone theorist can take the team of scientific progress to the championship game, serve up a crushing defeat, and stand on the pile with a fist in the air. Of course, as previously stated, they cheat; and then dispute whether it is possible to “cheat” when the concept of “cheating” is just a manipulative hegemonic device. No! The real cheaters are the “referees” and the rules they uphold and Blah, blah, blah. It is cheating and, at the risk of sounding banal, cheaters never win; at least anywhere outside of their own heads…or departments. Time to take the ball and go home.

But, to a human mind that delights in distilling a multiplicity of facts down to simple propositions, the most attractive revelations are exactly so; huge and all-encompassing. Modern humanities professors think so big. They formulate magical panaceas ala Marxism and Deconstruction that they use as machetes to hack through the jungle of intellectual progress. Their attractive tinctures have the exact same allure, particularly to the nascent minds of iconoclastic humanities students, as the snake oils of the past; they are simple and all-effective. Like self-help programs and weight loss pills, we are promised large gains with little effort. Such things will always be magnetic. Who needs painstaking research on the orbits of electrons when we have the theories of Karl Marx, Lacan, Derrida and Foucault? It slices, it dices! Yes, they think so big, but they are just so small. The riddles of truth will not be solved by a Foucauldian, Marxist, and/or Derridan cure-all tonic. Solving it, or the smallest part of it, will always be a team effort.

For the most part these theorists are simply inadequate – and also remarkably boring. They can’t do math (in general), they can’t deal with the high stakes game of “right answers” so they react like schoolyard bullies: they make fun of those who can. With a straight face, without a hint of an ironic smirk, they call science an object of oppressive white male discourse (although not in that clear of language, of course) while writing on a computer, in a heated office, with indoor plumbing, in a structure with a stable foundation, listening to an iPod blasting Miles Davis’s fusion-era pieces. The nature of the game changed drastically and in a very real sense they have taken their ball and gone home.

In some sense I don”t blame them. I prefer to play games I”m better at too.

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