The New McCarthy?

There’s a piece in the Guardian that was recommended to be by my co-worker Jim, but which slipped my mind until I found the link to the article again on Dan Drezner’s page. It’s a piece by Gary Younge titled Silence in Class, and I have to say that judging by the comments on Drezner’s site, I’m not wholly comforted by his own underwhelmed reaction. At the same time, calling it a “New McCarthyism” might be overdoing it a little.

Yes, nasty little groups of rightwing students do report on their professors; this is not a surprise. Yes, some professors do say crazy things — my previous link this morning about the Ebola-loving’ professor in Texas is one despite the falsehood of the example provided, there are plenty of cases where some academics do need to be castigated and mocked for their offenses against their profession. Holocaust-denying historians, for example, should be publicly mocked with fervor.

But I also think that, as someone in the article was quoted as commenting, these things comes in cycles. As a rather left-leaning individual myself, I cringed at a lot of the comments these people made: right-wingers know that there’s a certain way to talk to reporters. Leftists don’t, and the result is that, as one of Drezner’s commenters said, some of the profs’ comments read like parody. Leftist academics suffer from the same thing leftist activists suffer from: they can’t seem to get past the gobbledegook to some kind of clear vision of the world that they can articulate and that non-academics, non-activists, that regular people, can grab onto and believe in.

This is the tragedy of the academic left, and it seems to me, insofar as it’s polluted the activist left, it’s threatened the Left’s chances of actually getting anything done in this world. It’s enough to make me want to write my own modern The Treason of the Clerks that castigates the intellectual left not for embracing nasty, awful politics, but for failing to come up with a decent, accessible critique of the popular nasty, awful politics, one that they could pass on to the masses and that the masses could do something with.

I’m thinking the first step is to get all PhD candidates to explain their doctoral theses to a group of intelligent people who weren’t educated in the University system. These people would, of course, have to be willing participants, and open to the idea of sitting down and learning a whole bunch of difficult and complicated stuff. Maybe it wouldn’t even have to be a graduation requirement that they completely understand, but instead that they report that the candidate did her or his best to help them understand. (ie. I wouldn’t understand really complex mathematics, but that wouldn’t be the candidate’s fault.) This could help encourage young academics to recognize the difference in communication that is needed when trying to explain concepts to people outside their field, but also outside of academia; it would also remind them of the importance of connecting what they do out to the world. I mean, academia isn’t suppose to be mainly for the gratification of other academics, is it? But it seems to me this is how a lot of non-science academia operates. And I think it’d be good to have even science PhDs doing this.

By the way, this would not be a new practice. A PhD student once told me that this was the norm in Medieval Universities in Germany, or so his research suggested. (I have no idea if I’m recalling it exactly right, but I trust my memory enough to say that this practice was actually performed somewhere in Europe’s history.)

Another step? Well, I have to say I’ll need to think about that. Changes are best introduced one by one, and on top of that, I think, I’m not the man to think them all up.

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