I was recently asked in an email exchange if perhaps I was bit of an alarmist (Or perhaps the implication by the writer was that I am just dead wrong) in my persistent rants about the state of affairs in the contemporary academy. “After all”, said my pen pal, “My personal experience as well as that of my kids hasn’t been as anti-truth and as adversarial to intellectual freedom as your writing suggests.” Here is a quick response as I offered it to my questioner in case y’all (That’s conjunctive slang – an Okieism if you will - for “any of you) care to join in on the fun.
A rule of thumb if I may: When we enter into these kinds of debates I think we are always wise to start with the bigger issues – to go to the top of the funnel so to speak. This always helps to clarify what is really fueling the argument. It helps to separate the important from the peripheral and the primary from the secondary - the fallacies from the facts… So here goes:
With this as context, I think we first need to vet the ontological and epistemological assumptions of today’s academy. These are, indeed, the bigger ideas that serve as the guiding force for our institutions of higher learning and they are, I would argue, much more telling than any of our personal anecdotes or isolated experiences. In other words, we need to ask: What are the school’s assumptions about reality (i.e. ontology) and what are the same institution’s assumptions about what can be known (epistemology)? By looking at this bigger picture we can learn a lot about what is actually guiding a university’s mission, hiring practices, tenure procedures, research priorities, publication strategies, etc.
My experience has shown over and over again that nearly all of today’s universities fall unabashedly within a post-modern paradigm both ontologically and epistemologically. This is to say that the faculty and administration of most all of our schools of higher learning believe truth (with a lower case t) is constructed rather than revealed – that all reality and all corresponding knowledge of such realities is relative and subject to individual interpretation – and that all who claim to believe in objective Truths (with a capital T) are hopelessly ensconced in the fallacious thinking of empiricist modernity or the black and white buffoonery of the Religious Right. In other words, the leaders of today’s academic enterprise sincerely believe that the business of the post-modern university is to cultivate a field of opinions and then to assist students in the consequent building of malleable social constructs rather than aiding them in pursuing and finding what is objectively true and right and immutable.
If you would like a shorter read then, at the risk of coming across like a shameless self-promoter, let me refer you to a white paper published by the Oklahoma Wesleyan University Veritas Worldview Institute Truth Matters.pdf. This is a summary of the prodigal path of today’s academy and in it you will see several real world examples that corroborate my claims of a post-modern malaise and yes many of the examples I cite in this paper are from my own personal experience. Therefore, I can vouch for their accuracy and Truth (with an upper case T).
So - Yes, I am claiming that today’s universities are hopelessly muddled in a swamp of opinions where the guy with the loudest voice (i.e. biggest mouth) or the most obnoxious attitude (i.e. the one who is just down right rude) or the most prestigious diploma (Question: Do the words oligarchy and elitism mean anything to you?) wins the day and controls the debate and its corresponding ideas regardless of the veracity (otherwise known as truth) of his claims. Indeed there are many faculty who are polite and, in spite of their affection for post-modernity, they do allow students to express their views freely. But for every one of these kinder and gentler post-mods there are literally hundreds who sincerely believe that they are justified in not tolerating those they deem to be intolerant. They seem to proudly say that they “hate those hateful people” and that they are “sure that nothing is sure” and that they “know that nothing can be known” (Do you feel like you are watching a dog with the name “Self-Refuting” chase his tail a bit here?).
Now finally, after reading the above and the sources I cite and thinking through the corresponding anecdotes of your own educational experience I encourage you to go to David French’s, book A Season for Justice and perhaps then to Jim Nelson Black’s white paper entitled I Will Not Be Silent or to Black’s corresponding book The Freefall of the American University. And if you still need more convincing that something is terribly amiss in the academy and that we as learners have essentially become a bunch of feckless frogs in Kohlberg’s kettle of moral meandering (Forgive me for that one but I just couldn’t resist) you could go to the University of Michigan 2002 Course Catalogue which openly states in its description for a course entitled Ethics of Corporate Management that such a course “is not concerned with the personal moral issues of honesty and truthfulness” because it is assumed that all students attending the U of M have already “formed their own standards on these issues.” You see, with post-modern confidence (Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?) the U of M proudly teaches that “honesty and truthfulness” are relative constructs subject to the whim of the individual and then the leaders of this university along with all the rest of us wonder with righteous (or is it relative? Sorry couldn’t resist again) indignation why folks (an Okieism again) with the prestigious diplomas hanging on their office walls at Enron, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac and AIG are liars, cheats and crooks?
I know – I know… All of us have some positive stories to tell about our trek down the road of via del la alma mater but shouldn’t we challenge ourselves to look beyond the pavement and curbs of our subjective existentialism and critically evaluate the governing ethos and intellectual paradigms that serve as the map for today’s educational journey? All ideas have consequences. All ideas lead somewhere and, frankly, the road signs abound that tell the travelers of today’s academy that the ideas of post-modernity are bearing very negative fruit right before our very eyes. Like Digory in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew we see the Witch standing before us with the red juice of an intoxicating fruit dripping from her lips and we hear her triumphantly declare, “Do you know what this fruit is? I tell you it is the apple of [subjective truth], the apple of life, I know for I have tasted it …You and I will both live forever and be queen and king of this whole world…”
But as Digory instinctively knew that he should ignore the Witch’s temptations because she spoke of her rules and not Aslan’s, so we know in our hearts that when we begin to define our own standards and laws, when we become the authors of what is honest and what is trustworthy, when the truth becomes a construct of man rather than a revelation of God , it is then that we become “as God” and, thereby, travel the road of original sin over and over again as have our ancestors before us - Ancestors who likely now know the final destination of all roads paved with good intentions.
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