Thursday, February 13, 2003

Academics and their opinions

I want to clarify a bit about something I said a few days ago about academics and politics.

Your average academic is probably a only little brighter than your average person. That is to say that when you take all the crack whores, criminals, and the insane, add to them your average Joe-Sixpack-factory-worker, who is a good guy, but really has never done any thinking in his life and then add to them your average housewife who watches Oprah all day, you have the bottom 50 or sixty percent of the population. Just above them on your IQ scale you have your PhDs in poetry, sociology, French, literature and the like, and above them you have the good hard working people of this fine nation who actually do work. In other words, it seems to me that (and I mean no disrespect to anyone) your average professor in the humanities probably has an IQ lower than George Bush, only George Bush spends a lot of his spare time talking to intelligent people about foreign policy and academics talk to each other and get a lot of inbred information.

Nonetheless, academics all sit around and dis W, and moreover when they get in front of a classroom they are suddenly all experts in foreign policy and ethics, and the theory of Just War, and political economics, and environmental sciences, and just about every other field of knowledge that they are not in because they are just not bright enough.

There is of course free speech. In this country you have the irrevocable right to speak your mind and I would never deny it to anyone. A professor too has that right, so long as he or she also teaches what he or she is supposed to be teaching. He does have obligations to his students and his right to free speech does not permit him to ignore his duty to teach writing just because he has the right to rant about Bush. There is something I would like to stress though: It is a clear breach of professional ethics for academics to speak with authority on something they are not experts in. Professors are respected not because they are the social consciousness of America. Professors are and ought to be respected for their scholarship. Many of us really work hard to become good at what we do, and many of us think long and hard about how to best convey what we know to our students. For that we deserve respect and some deference to the authorities that we are. However when it comes to issues outside our field, like whether George bush should go to war, the moral instinct of anyone is not that much better than anyone else (with the possible exception of a very well informed foreign-policy-educated ethicist who has written or taught in this field). When one hears from a professor that there is some right and wrong about these issues it is an abuse of the power of the professor.

Now of course one may claim that a professor will have considered his opinion rather carefully, and have some special insight in to this. I have yet to see this. Reading the postings of the professors, talking to them, and talking to students about other professors where I teach tells me that the average professor has learned all he or she needs to know about the war on Iraq from watching the people speak at the rallies on CSPAN. Your average professor knows about as much about the affirmative Action debate as they once heard about on CNN. Your average professor (economists excepted) knows less about political economics than a second year economics undergrad. (I frequently hear this stuff, and that is explained by the annoying and usually irrelevant "but in my other class we leaned . . ." phenomena.)

Speaking on one's authority as a professor is no less an abuse of power then taking advantage of a student sexually - it is quite analogous actually. In the latter case professors are repeatedly cautioned that we are acting from a perceived pedestal, a position of authority. Students are vulnerable, an can be manipulated by a clever professor in to doing something that he or she may not want to do normally. Students are often susceptible to being taken advantage of for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. This is an abhorrent practice, and I have heard of more than one case where this has happened. Many of us have. I am glad I have not heard about it happening in any place I am teaching now, certainly not lately, but anyone in academia with their ear to the ground can repeat stories. This case is no different. Students in search of meaning, or an ideology, or a political consciousness are very susceptible to ideological manipulation. Forcing ungrounded, unconsidered, non-expert opinions down their throats is the intellectual version of rape - And I do not say this lightly, nor is my meaning to be taken as hyperbole.

I say this as a caution to my fellow educators, and to students as well. If you do it stop, and apologize to your students and tell them that they are allowed to think for themselves. If this happens to you, say "no" and tell someone you trust. I have seen too many students with their heads messed up because they believe what they are told. Many of them then repeat this cycle by going to graduate school, just like their professor.

If our students are expecting facts and grounded theory from us and our respective disciplines, and we feed them rhetoric and the latest crap that comes to our head, we are not only abusing our professions, but our students as well.