building alternative intellectual establishments

Think back to the year 1970. ….

  • Almost all university professors are men. They seem to be interested only in male historical figures and male issues. They select their own advanced students and colleagues and decide which manuscripts are published. They defend their profession as rigorous, objective, and politically neutral. Feminists respond by criticizing those claims; some also try to create a parallel set of academic institutions (women’s studies departments, feminist journals) that can confer degrees and tenure and publish.
  • Certain academic disciplines, including law, history, and political science, are seen as predominantly liberal. They seem to support a liberal political establishment that has considerable power. For example, law professors are gatekeepers to the legal profession, which produces all judges. Professors in these fields choose their own successors and claim to be guardians of professionalism, expertise, independence, and ethics. Conservatives–disputing these claims–decide to build a parallel set of research institutions, including the right-wing think tanks and organizations like the Federalist Society (founded 1982).
  • The National Endowment for the Arts gives competitive grants to individual artists. NEA peer-review committees are composed of artists, critics, and curators. They are said to be insulated from politics and capable of choosing only the best works. The artists they support tend to come from the “Art World” to which they also belong: a constellation of galleries, art schools, small theaters, and magazines, many based in New York City. Most of the funded work is avant-garde. It is usually politically-correct, aiming to “shake the bourgeoisie.” Critics complain about some particularly controversial artists, and ultimately the individual grants program is canceled.
  • Almost all professional biologists are Darwinians. They assert the legitimacy of science; but their religious critics believe that they depend on false metaphysical assumptions. Biologists use peer-review to select their students, to hire colleagues, to disperse research funds, and to choose articles for publication. Religious critics cannot get through this system, so they build a parallel one composed of the Institute for Creation Research, Students for Origins Research, and the like.
  • The most influential news organs in the country (some national newspapers and the nightly television news programs) claim neutrality, objectivity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness: in a phrase, “all the news that’s fit to print.” Critics from both the left and right detect all sorts of bias. They try (not for the first time in history) to construct alternative forms of media, including NPR (founded in 1970) and right-wing talk radio.
  • If you are influenced by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Foucault, you may see all knowledge as constructed by institutions to serve their own wills to power. Then you must view all of the efforts mentioned above with equanimity–or perhaps with satisfaction, since they have unmasked pretentious claims to Truth. If you believe in separate spheres of human excellence, then you may lament the way that various disciplines and fields have been enlisted for political organizing. You may concede that all thought has a political dimension, but you may be sorry that scholarly and artistic institutions have been used as strategic resources in battles between the organized left and right. (I owe this idea to Steven Teles.)

    I guess my own response is ad hoc and mixed. For example, I think that conservative ideas about law, history, and political science are interesting and challenging and should be represented in academia. I’m sorry that some legal conservatives have found their way to the Supreme Court, but the solution is to win the public debate about the meaning of the Constitution–not to wish that conservatives would go away. The Federalist Society provides liberals with a valuable intellectual challenge.

    I suspect that the NEA’s peer-review committees of the 1970s and 1980s often identified the best artists: meaning those who were most innovative, sophisticated, and likely to figure in the history of art as it is written a century from now. (Although who can tell for sure?) But I’m not convinced that taxpayers’ money should be devoted to the “best” artists. Other criteria, such as geographical dispersion, various sorts of diversity, and public involvement, should perhaps also count. If it’s fair to say that the New York Art World dispersed public money to itself, that sounds like a special-interest takeover of a public agency.

    Finally, “creation science” and “intelligent design theory” strike me as both scientific and theological embarrassments, destined to disappear but not before they have done some damage. Nevertheless, the anti-Darwinian organizations reflect freedom of association and freedom of speech and must certainly be tolerated.

    (These ad hoc judgments are probably not consistent or coherent at a theoretical level.)