Thursday, November 17, 2011

No tears for Massimo

Massimo Pigliucci is a self-styled public intellectual who runs a blog misleadingly called Rationally Speaking. It is in fact highly politicized, a vehicle for Professor Pigliucci to promote his left-liberal views – and himself. Which (apart from the misleading blog name) would be fine, if it wasn't for the site's (and Massimo's) loyal followers, and the feeling that one is dealing here not with a group of freely thinking individuals but with a sort of cult. [Update Nov. 2013: Whether or not this was true at the time, I have to say that this is no longer how I see the site. For one thing, one of the secondary writers there who was very political has gone, and my sense is that Massimo himself (with whom I have had some productive interactions) has focused more on non-political topics in the last couple of years. Also, there is much robust debate in the comment threads, and a variety of views on display.]

So I had a sense of Schadenfreude (unworthy, I know) when I read this post by Pigliucci on an imminent restructuring of the curricula at the City University of New York where he is employed as a philosophy professor.

The proposal incorporates a reduction of the compulsory general education requirements from more than 50 to 30 credits (out of a total of 120 credits necessary for graduation). And within that 30 there is a 'required core' of 7 credits in English composition and 8 in mathematics and science. Professor Pigliucci alleges that this is part of a national trend towards "dismantling liberal arts education" and that these efforts are motivated by an attempt to produce not "intelligent and critically thinking citizens" but "workers who are trained to do whatever the market and the reigning plutocracy bids them to do." Unfortunately, the phrase "reigning plutocracy" gives him away.

It's my view that many - too many - academics in the humanities have betrayed their calling by allowing the content of what they teach to become politicized to an extreme degree. Too often divergent views on controversial issues are not welcomed and students are required to echo the politically correct clich├ęs of their teachers in order to succeed. Feminism, multiculturalism, standard liberal views on social issues, geo-politics and capitalism dominate teaching and writing in many areas within the humanities and social sciences. And so the process continues, as indoctrinated college graduates become teachers themselves or journalists or public employees of one kind or another or occupiers of Wall Street.

So I'll not be shedding any tears for Massimo and his like if they lose their battle to maintain their power and influence. All in all, I think some good may come from the withdrawal of funding from the humanities as certain particularly noxious forms of indoctrination will be curtailed.

And whatever there is of abiding value in the areas affected by funding cuts will more than likely be incorporated - under other names perhaps - into new curricula, or find other modes of survival.


  1. ... misleadingly called Rationally Speaking ...

    All too often left-liberals masquerade their implicit values behind the facade of rationalism. It spares them the trouble of having to defend their values and inherently disqualifies opposing views. Much of contemporary humanism functions the same way.

    Professor Jonathan Haidt called for affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology. So Massimo called him incompetent/disingenuous.

  2. The cultural climate in the humanities and social sciences drives many otherwise interested students away. By focusing on linguistics and language learning I managed to get through the humanities and social sciences without having to put up with the humanities' groupthink. (Even then I had to suffer through a few painful lectures about critical discourse theory.) Many students are put off by the ideology and switch faculties, from what I've seen. It's a nasty cycle.

    Hopefully your prediction that the humanities re-form as a more sensible discipline comes true.

  3. I agree with what you say, ideologee. My views on rationality are still evolving. I've just had a look at some of Jonathan Haidt's ideas and they certainly seem interesting and useful. Thanks for the link.

  4. Hortensio, I know what you mean about the attraction of non-ideological topics (like theta grids) and subjects (like most of linguistics). At one stage I was planning to write the definitive work on the subjunctive. (Funny that the imperfect subjunctive has faded out of French and use of the subjunctive generally has declined in many languages.) My blog Subjunctively speaking would no doubt have had a cult following.

  5. Mark, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. As a classics major oh so many years ago, I was partly sheltered from the propaganda and ideology because we had to spend so much time just learning the languages. There is a point to be made in favor of the humanities, properly understood, as opposed to the business philistinism of most of the Republican party. The trouble is, of course, you cannot find proper humanities in the universities. We see dueling insanities: amoral business types versus shrill political types (the Left makes everything political). As Charles Schultz used to say, "sigh."

  6. CONSVLTVS, I've been reading some old (1990s) material on that absurd Black Athena controversy. Misunderstandings and deliberate falsifications abound.

    There's always been implicit ideology in the humanities - I don't think we can get away from ideology. But, from my perspective at any rate, the implicit values traditionally associated with classics and similar studies were positive and healthy and in touch with reality. Truth and good scholarship mattered.

  7. I feel like a huge nerd for saying this, but if you started a blog called Subjunctively Speaking I would probably read it regularly.

  8. Massimo and many other humanities professors are opping-ed wherever they can, decrying the march of a heartless commercial tradeschool mentality into the halls of academe, warning that if this trend continues, soon there will be no one left to inhabit the ivory tower where the (bleeding) heart of (non-commercial) rationality should be protected. There is some merit to that view, if we admit that education should be about more than producing skilled technocrats and shrewd bankers, but as you are pointing out, the ivory towers (thus the humanities) were taken over long ago by a narrow breed of "critical theorists" who dismantled (deconstructed) most of the classic structure of the humanities. What we're left (!) with now resembles a bunch of zookeepers who, after a century of mistakenly feeding steroids to the animals, managing to damage their DNA, now complain when the zookeeper fund is cut by screaming, "But what about the animals?"

  9. Mark, things may be as bad as you and GC and many others say. But in the field I know best, philosophy, the ideologists did not succeed in taking over, and in regular philosophy courses students can learn the skills needed to combat ideology. I doubt that cutbacks will selectively cut back only those things that should be cut.

    As a rule of teaching, I think one should distinguish between the known and the debatable, and teach them in quite different ways. Teachers should teach debatable topics by presenting the competing considerations and not their own take on the topic.

  10. Hortensio, I think there's something reassuring about having specialist knowledge and something special (and peculiarly effective) about communication between specialists.

  11. GC - what? Students as mutant animals? But I see your point, even if I believe that many of the zookeepers were not unaware of what they were doing.

  12. Alan, I'll say this for philosophy - at least in theory there are no taboos and everything can be questioned and the questioning is a part of the discipline. In practice however - at least from what I have observed and read - philosophy has not been immune from the trends we are discussing even if there are (which I do not doubt) many philosophy teachers who apply the methods and espouse the values you outline.

  13. Certain philosophers indeed have been knee-deep in devaluing the classics and making the humanities suspect, especially by emphasizing leftish/Marxish forms of "critique." Analytical philosophy, as a method, since it is mostly about dissecting terms and their meanings, has been easy to hijack by those who want to upend the meanings. Philosophers have been knee-deep in a form of skepticism meant to unhinge us from the past, and although the analysis of language does not necessarily lead to deconstruction (or unhinging), it is ideally suited to it and we see in Rorty, Foucault, Derrida, Marcuse and countless others like them, a form of anarchy promoted as "critique." Questioning certainly is part of the discipline, as noted, and that can be a healthy thing. In fact, it's required in every academic discipline, or else thought would never progress. The problem in the humanities (as we are picturing here) has been the peculiar leftish answers to the questions and how common these answers have become, even changing the curricula to drown out other answers. The highest-profile universities seem to be where most of this happens, and it takes quite a bit of effort to sidestep the indoctrination (re Consvltvs). I don't take philosophy off the hook there at all.

  14. GC, I know of no philosophy department where Rorty, Foucault, Derrida and Marcuse are core curriculum (that is, you must know their work to pass the degree).

    Philosophy has always included the teaching of skepticism, as one strand -- usually it is via Descartes' demon or Hume's induction problem. But this is never passed off as the last word. It's one more problematic way of thinking. Every competent philosophy student will have been taught the counter-argument that skepticism is self-refuting.

    The core curriculum in philosophy is still -- roughly -- Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, logic, ethics, and epistemology.

    I think we are also going through a boom period for excellent popular philosophy in the bookshops. People want to be stimulated to think better.

    PS. Is anyone reading Marcuse today?

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  16. You're right, Alan. Philosophy majors usually are not required to study phi post-modernists et al as core curriculum. Most programs start at Plato and march forward as you say. Still the universities are peppered with postmodern and politically correct content and professors to match.

    I wish you hadn't asked that PS question though (LOL).

    I suppose you meant "does anyone read Marcuse seriously as a source," not literally "has anyone read him lately." But ... in some of the bars (er... blogs) where I hang out, the answer evidently is yes.

    R. P. Wolff did a mini-tutorial on Marcuse on his blog a few weeks ago here. Wolff knew Marcuse personally and treated his Marxist readers to a three-part review.
    (I link to his blogsite from mine btw, for reasons of my own.)

    Since Marcuse's book is part of my auto-didact's booklist, I pulled it down and re-read it along with Wolff's mini tutorial. (Tutorial was not up to Wolff's usual standards, I thought.)

    Ahem. So. Yes. Some weirdos such as I have read Marcuse in this century. LOL.

  17. I too sometimes read Wolff's blog, though not for a while. I may have heard of it from you. It is nicely both personal and philosophical.

    I guess the question is: does he wear a bow tie?

    The best thing about Marcuse, I think, is that he provoked Alasdair MacIntyre to write his short "refutation".