The Brain and the University:
Survival with Two Imperfect Organs
Philip J. Regal
Part One: The Brain
Why does it matter exactly how our universities are mismanaged? Consider first the human condition.
I was lunching at the Smuggler’s Inn at the outskirts of Madang in Papua New Guinea when I first heard the story of how Michael Rockefeller had been killed and eaten. Our table was right at the edge of the open dining room, up against a railing that kept careless or curious diners from tumbling into the ocean, and we paused in the middle of our conversation to watch a spotted octopus gracefully glide through the warm crystal waters and bounce and probe among the corals.
It was a relaxed meal. Cannibalism is not exotic enough to get steamed over in New Guinea, even the cannibalism of a Rockefeller. What isn’t just a little exotic there? And the weather is so very hot and humid. So why get excited? There are over seven hundred distinct languages, and thousands of dialects, in Papua New Guinea alone, the country that makes up the east half of the enormous island or subcontinent of New Guinea (Indonesia’s Irian Jaya makes up the west half). The spine of New Guinea is a jumble of steep mountains and deep valleys in which numerous human populations are scattered; and these mountain belts are flanked by low areas that are cut into isolated areas by rivers that snake through thick forests. Several hundred exotic cultures have evolved under such conditions; and this cultural diversity in turn means that visitors who get critical of other people’s ways can waste a lot of energy being endlessly offended.
From afar, New Guinea may seem to be abundant in wickedness; and this may be why so many missionaries have flocked to its coral beaches and rain forests and mountain valleys. From afar, it may seem like a very “Gosh! Lets-roll-up-our-sleeves and change-those-guys” sort of place. There has been a lot of money from Omaha, Nebraska, and even Vienna, Austria, to send missionaries there to change-those-guys.
However, once they arrive, most of the missionaries have settled down and adopted a more tolerant view of their hosts. The more crowded ‘modern’ towns such as Port Moresby have indeed developed serious crime problems. But level-headed missionaries usually find that Melanesians out in the traditional villages are basically very nice folks. Even with all those hundreds of cultures, there seems to have been no slavery, no political tyranny, and wars of ambitious conquest have been extremely rare. Melanesians love children, and I saw or heard of no child neglect, abuse, or exploitation. The more open-minded missionaries have found that a lot of Melanesians are a lot nicer than a lot of us modern folks are, even though they do have a lot of ways of thinking that are very different from how we think, and that have upset a lot of people across the oceans.
In some cultures in New Guinea, there is cannibalism. But by and large people are not killed and eaten to satisfy hunger. Only a couple of tribes think of strangers as meat for the pot. More often people are eaten who have died naturally, and only certain people. “I may cry when the day comes that I will have to eat my father. It will be a very difficult thing to do. But he is my father, and I love him very much, and I must honor him. I have a duty to keep his spirit alive. Maybe our customs will change before he dies and I will not have to eat him,” one gentle young man told me.
Cannibalism has a lot to do with keeping spirits alive, obligations to the ghosts–or, taking over the powers of one’s enemies to aid the common defense–and that sort of civic stuff. And it is not very common nowadays anyway.
Melanesians often do think rather differently than we do. They may have rich inner worlds of serious dreaming, and of multiple souls, and magic. In some cultures the men and women may sleep and eat in different villages and may even speak different languages–and this reflects different ways of thinking about interpersonal relationships and goals in life. Of course husbands and wives visit almost daily to enjoy each other’s company and to talk over family matters, and then they may use a third common language. The point is that in many Melanesian cultures folks treat their families like we treat a job we love, as something important to our lives, but not something one wants to live in constantly. They would rather relax with, and get their emotional support from, friends of the same sex. A lot of Americans might complain that their spouses too are seldom home. But these living arrangements in New Guinea reflect far more radical alternative attitudes to a nuclear family model of emotional investment than does slipping off with one’s buddies all the time.
On the other hand, among New Guinea’s many cultures there are also those where the living arrangements are much like our suburban rows of homes for nuclear families.
A key word to describe Melanesia is ‘cultural diversity.’ Melanesians have long been experimenting to try to make living together more harmonious. The fundamental goal, across hundreds of cultures, has not been to get rich or to get into heaven, but to get along, to enjoy the sunshine and the butterflies, and to try to stay as happy and healthy as possible.
Now back to how Michael Rockefeller got eaten and why the eaters were never punished. It was Christmas when I first heard the story; and the tall dark carvings of naked and fierce warriors that watched over our tables on the large open-walled dining room of the Smugglers’ Inn were draped with colorful Santa Claus hats and long ropes of glittery tinsel. Porpoises loafed about within a hundred feet of our lunch, and the green and brown lizards near my elbow, on the wooden railing over the sea, licked their chops excitedly and poked their heads curiously at the sparkle of the sun off my coffee cup as I toyed with it. New Guinea is an exotic place, but it is very real and has its own logic. The day was one to learn, not to judge.
The story was that back in 1961, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s twenty-five year-old son had become separated from a Harvard expedition. There was a massive search of the southern coast where Michael’s raft had drifted into the strong currents of a river–one of the largest and most highly publicized searches in history–but he was never found. At the time, suspicions that he had disappeared into the stomachs of cannibals were discounted. But years later, convincing stories started drifting out of Asmat country that he had found his way to a remote village where he was killed and cooked with sago in a ground oven and eaten. It seems that the villagers had become convinced that Michael had caused bad magic (a recent cholera epidemic), and ate him according to custom. Why punish the village? They were basically very nice people, and were doing what they thought was healthy and right.
Moreover, how could they know that around the world there would be so many people who would find disgusting, and even Wrong, to eat a Rockefeller? Why punish them for something that they would not even be able to understand?
A lot of local whites and blacks alike were quite convinced by the evidence for this story. But in any event–in fact, the reason I am telling this Rockefeller story–the story illustrates a lot about New Guinea. It is consistent with the fact that it has not been meanness or bad character, but it has been beliefs in spirits and magic that has caused a lot of the strife and killing in the Melanesian South Pacific.
Despite the fact that Melanesians tend to be among the most warm and friendly people one could hope to find, there has long been endless war between the tribes; and most of it has had to do with beliefs in magic and ghosts. Example: suppose a healthy young man dies mysteriously (heart disease in our terms). A dream may tell his people that someone from a neighboring village cast a spell. Suppose some sign seems to confirm it; then by custom his people are obligated to his ghost to pay back the crime by killing some comparable young man from the neighboring village. Their code is quite fundamental–one good turn deserves another, but an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Their beliefs in magic and their important custom of pay-back have led to endless feuds.
Their wars have tended usually to be quite relaxed and low-key, by our standards, because the people do try hard not to lose control to the point where unmanageable blood baths, and really hateful cycles of revenge killings, become the norm. One of Michael Rockefeller’s co-workers, Karl Heider, used the term “peaceful warriors” in the title of his ethnography of the Grand Valley Dani, to try to underscore the point that their constant fighting is not at all what Euroamericans might tend to imagine.
But even very low-intensity wars do reflect an atmosphere of constant potential violence among people who paradoxically are quite nice and quite friendly. Real spears are thrown and real axes are swung and real nice people do die from time to time.
There are of course other reasons why tensions may develop, yet they are often also related to magic. Suppose the Jones tribe sells the Smith tribe some magic; but the magic does not work when the Smiths try it. Then for some reason the Jones will not return the payment to the Smiths. That will create hard feelings.
The more I saw of such things in New Guinea, the sadder I became to see so much good will, so much social experimentation and evolution of democratic and humanistically interesting tribal arrangements, and so much spontaneous human warmth–tarnished by so much unnecessary suspicion, hostility, violence, and killing.
But one afternoon my consciousness shook loose from my exotic world, perfumed with fragrances of orchids and rain on hot tropical soils, embellished by the laughter and warmth of gentle cannibal warriors with bones and cigarettes through their noses, and memory reached back to the smell of newsprint and to the grim faces of people commuting home from their offices, to the fact that so many problems in our own self-congratulatory and self-proclaimed civilized world are really quite unnecessary and are caused by our own wrong beliefs.
How much unnecessary unhappiness and even violence have been caused by wrong theories about why our lover acts strange, or our neighbors seem to cheat us, or our job is not going well, or our businesses can’t compete in foreign markets, or the economy goes bad, or our youth turn to drugs, or wrong perspectives about the ways in which another culture is different, or about why Johnny can’t read, or Jimmy won’t wear a condom, or Eddie wants to wear a condom, or Judy can’t hold a job and is on welfare, or why we ourselves are unsuccessful, hostile, depressed, etc.? Westerners may try to phrase their theories in scientific terms or religious terms instead of in terms of magic, but when such theories are wrong and incorrect knowledge of causes, this makes it impossible to deal properly with bad effects, this may just as easily lead to tragedy as Melanesian magic may.
A lot of us Euroamericans, after all, have the capacity to be pretty nice, and would be much better people if only we knew how to. Who wants to be frustrated and fighting all the time?
“Fundamental tragedy,” I scribbled one afternoon while the tropical rain pounded outside. “Re-read Oedipus Rex.” Wise King Oedipus, in the play by Sophocles, had tried terribly hard to be a good king; yet in fact he did not even know who he really was. And so without knowing it he had killed his own father, married his own mother, and fathered children by her. This brought punishment to his city; but he could not see the connections between his patricide and incest and the wrath of the gods, for he had resisted facing who he really was and what he had done, even though he was given a great many clues. Thus Sophocles asked, in effect, how can any of us realistically strive to be moral people if we are so prone to illusions?
I knew from my background in neurobiology that the human brain itself is sort of an illusion-generating organ. On the upside, this makes abstract thought possible, but on the downside this makes convincing realities possible when in fact they are misleading illusions. That is bound to be a problem for a social animal, striving for stable social relationships and trying to base these on abstract ideas and language. And so the interconnection between the issues of reality and morality was surely universal. I started to furiously research and write a book that I intended to title The Eyes of Oedipus. (In the end, my editor and I decided to call it The Anatomy of Judgment). Oedipus put out his own eyes when finally he learned the truth about himself. Of course his self-blinding was also misguided because it was not his eyes that had tricked him. It was his self-assurance and intellectual contentment, his failure to question his most basic assumptions, that had tricked him. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. But is this good enough? Who am I? What am I really, Sophocles was suggesting we must ask.
The issue of intellectual blindness and morality did indeed turn out to have been as important an obstacle throughout history for harmonious human interaction and sound individual life choices as I had first suspected back in New Guinea. But the full range of implications of intellectual blindness turned out to be more involved than I had first projected then as the Man of Science bemoaning the follies of the superstitious and uninitiated. I had the naive idea for a time that lots of test-tube tinkling and math would advance our species past irrationality.
This can surely help, but the quirks of the brain and the dynamics of its programming by society turn out to be too unexpected for such a simple solution. The brain’s quirks and society’s programming of it must be understood in their own terms. They do not reduce to simple ‘ignorance’–and chemical, physical, and biological facts alone are unlikely to liberate us from social, economic, ethical, and political problems.
A decade of research followed and in the end, The Anatomy of Judgment explored judgment not only at the level of the individual brain and its quirks, and of the brain’s programming by parents and society, but at the level of organized institutions such as science, and intellectual traditions such as Eastern and Western philosophy and religion, that have long influenced the consciousness of individuals and groups.
I had a clear idea back in New Guinea that I would have to polish up my background in neurobiology, the classics, anthropology, sociology, theology, philosophy, and the history of science. But it did not occur to me at first that the research would also take me into management theory, or into the administrative subculture of our universities, or into the issue of what a liberal arts education should be, and why on earth it has become so hard to get one.
Let’s turn briefly to one intellectual tradition, Western philosophy, out of which grew science and standards for scholarship in general, in terms of the brain and the problem it has in seeing truth.
Our undisciplined brain will not give us all the insight we would like and may need–as organs go, it is something like weak kidneys. Insufficient organs can be serious problems for daily life and effectiveness and even for survival. Philosophers, in a sense, are like urologists–they have had jobs throughout history because of problems with one of our more important organs. The Ancient Greek thinkers such as Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle were dealing with profound issues of reality, illusion and ethics that plague every one of us whether we are tribal Melanesians or university professors or politicians. Philosophers call models of what reality may be “ontologies.” And there are lots of ontological models around the world. Is truth in the permanent form of things, or in the process of change; or is it in the heavens and afterlife; or is it on this material earth, in the simple forces that hold together atoms, or in cybernetic systems of the organization of biological matter; or is it in the patterns that our minds see? Are we real and can we trust our eyes or are we all the dream of a butterfly? Are we naked apes or tarnished miniatures of God? If our thought organs were perfect, we wouldn’t have to wonder about such things, for the Truth would be clear to everyone. But brains are not perfect, so how can we find out what ontological truth may be?
Systems, methods, to try to find truth are called “epistemologies.” In a sense these are intellectual prosthetic devices, like artificial kidneys, that have been invented to compensate for the defective thought organ. Experimental science would be one epistemology, and pure logic would be another, and communication with spirits would be another. There are lots of arguments about which epistemologies might be any good or not.
Socrates was dealing with this issue when he compared the deceptive reality that our eyes see to mere shadows on the wall of a cave. He proposed that only by questioning our most basic assumptions, and with sharp reason, can we know the Truth that casts the shadows. Plato then championed pure reason as the only trustworthy prosthetic (epistemology). But Plato’s student Aristotle rejected pure reason as a crutch and argued that we have to study nature and combine reason with observation.
Why did such thinkers care? What were they trying to limp toward? It was the same exact humanistic and ethical issue that Sophocles was exploring in his play about King Oedipus. How can we figure out how to be decent human beings unless we can grasp the truth about the world and ourselves?
Surely we are social animals and need and crave some social harmony. Surely we are also selfish animals and crave some personal peace in addition to emotional and material security. But how can we satisfy cravings for harmony, peace, and security if we must see and deal with the world through incorrect perceptual lenses, and even carry about incorrect models of who and what we are ourselves?
A lot of human distress comes from foolishness, bad judgment, folly, misperceptions, denial, illusions, rationalizations, ignorance of true facts, selective attention, motivated inattention, fear and “paranoia.” It comes from crazy ideologies. It comes from an inability to correctly see individual and cultural differences of perspective, and from an inability to understand the true natures of conflicts, and from an inability to see different interests coming into collision, and then to head them off. If conflicts do come, then worse problems may follow from an inability to see their true natures and to resolve them with sensitivity and vision.
There are, of course, vital conflicts of interest as well as many quite unnecessary ones. Economic and political demands can indeed threaten survival. But we could avoid some of these or at least resolve them better than we do, if people did not so often deny their true economic motives to others and even to themselves, and argue instead in terms that are not really key to solutions. If we can not see the true nature of a conflict then how effectively and lastingly can we steer away from trouble, or compromise, or make real peace?
Moreover, some supposed economic ‘needs’ are more psychological ‘desires,’ having to do with culture-bound standards of prestige, or compulsions based on insecurities, than they are true basic-resource survival needs. In such cases, there may be more room to negotiate or compromise than one might at first have thought. Such distinctions are important, for how can people negotiate on the basis of rational self-interest if they are in a fog about their vital interests?
How does one sort out real issues from imagined, artificial, or misunderstood ones? In other words, how does one sort out truths from illusion? One must begin by swallowing one’s pride and facing that the subjective nature of one’s realities is likely to be at the core of many problems. Thus, don’t just see the other guy as selfish and aggressive by nature. Try to see her or him also as someone with a point of view; with a ‘mental ecology,’ with fears and insecurities and personal models of how the world works and of why life is worth living. And imagine how the other guy sees you. We should all try to practice this. But it is easier said than done. We need to understand the dynamics of illusion much more deeply than we usually do in order to accomplish this goal.
Say, didn’t we invent science and universities to tell us the truth, to be fountains of wisdom, to slay illusions? What is science all about anyway? And what are universities all about anyway? If we give them enough of our time and money will they deliver us from illusion? Can they deliver us? Before we try to answer this, let us next better frame the issue by pondering the brain and its quirks a little more deeply. What is it about the brain that cripples us so?
Voltaire said, “As long as men believe absurdities they are condemned to commit atrocities.”
And thus the issue may be phrased, why do people believe absurdities so easily? Moreover, how can people be manipulated so easily? Given the way our brains are wired, it could not be otherwise–without special education that is.
James Thurber said, “The brain of our species is, as we know, made up largely of potassium, phosphorus, propaganda, and politics, with the result being how not to understand what should be clearer and clearer is becoming easier and easier for all of us.”
And thus the issue may be phrased, why do the brain tissues so easily fill with propaganda and politics? And what is the solution? Is there a way out?
Why is it that our brains cannot simply see truth? Part of the answer, obviously, is that the world outside our heads is complex. But then–why do we not see that it is complex and thus not jump to conclusions so easily? How come our brains make us so very comfortable with overly simple views of life?
The brain is an illusion-organ by its very architecture of biological wiring. The potassium and phosphorus part of the brain was put together by evolution, handed down from fish to reptiles, to shrew-like insectivores, to apes, to us. Before I went poking about in New Guinea, I had studied neurobiology at the Brain Research Institute at U.C.L.A. and a lot of fragmented information from this course and that, this experiment and that, started to come together as I pondered the relationship between superstition and conflict. The potassium and phosphorus brain–the basic hardware of consciousness–has big problems as organs go. The eyes and ears and other sense organs are wired so imperfectly that what the brain gets from them is a confusing jumble. It must construct a model of reality that is far ‘cleaner’ than the information that comes across the nerves from the sense organs. The resulting personal reality is an artificially sharpened illusion, somewhat like computer-enhanced photographs. The photographs always look just great. The problem is that sometimes the computer-generated images can be wrong, no matter how pretty and convincing they look.
Consider the eye. Its lens casts an upside-down image on a retina than not only jerks about constantly, but numerous blood vessels and nerves are not tucked away neatly and instead are laid out across the surface, an accident of evolution. Not only is there a large blind-spot, but the light-sensitive cells point away from the light instead of toward it! Clear and complete images are impossible, and the brain must take low-quality visual information and generate a most-probable model of what a clear and complete image probably looks like. It can make some serious mistakes in poor lighting, but it does pretty well under ideal viewing conditions and, when there is time, to stare and automatically check the internal model of the external image.
Each person’s reality is also like this. It can seem very convincing and authentic even when some of it is wrong. This is one big reason why sworn eye-witness accounts so often prove in court to be wrong. Dreams are the most extreme example of the brain’s being convincing but wrong; since when we are asleep, the sharp and convincing realities that the brain generates cannot at the moment be checked out to any degree against the real world.
With physiological or psychological stress awake and sane people may see the simple physical objects of life in a distorted way. Sleeplessness, hunger, darkness, fear, high expectations can each or in combination lead to unusual levels of distortion and even to dream-like fantasy. Shamans on all continents, without having planned it out at a Shaman’s convention or anything like that, have always learned to take advantage of these imagination enhancing factors to help them on their Vision Quests, in which they explore subconscious symbolic transformations of their culture’s systems for understanding the world and its meanings. Sleeplessness, hunger, and such, are pretty obvious ways to break perceptual habits and get to see strange things, if one wants to.
Dreams and stress illustrate that the brain has the inherent capacity to create convincing but false experiences of reality. But what of ‘normal,’ daily experience? Usually, the waking brain is correct about its basic model of the physical forms of objects and events because there are automatic neurological mechanisms to check the personal, subjective models of physical objects against real external objects several times each second. A big problem comes in with how we focus, and with the interpretations and values that go along with physical objects and events.
Interpretations and values can be culture-bound, yet clearly they are part of one’s models of reality. The ways individuals in various cultures consciously and unconsciously notice and focus, catalogue and value things and events, also influence where one will focus next and what one will remember from the past.
‘What was that?’ the brain’s filing system asks. ‘Which pigeon hole should I put it in? What are the boundaries between my pigeon holes? Which of my pigeon holes are high or low in importance? How are my pigeon holes related to each other? How does where I have filed the new information determine how much attention I should pay to it and determine where I should focus next or what action I should take, if any?’
Such split-second, automatic decisions are terribly important to the focusing of attention, to the dynamics of memory, to the conduct of daily life, and to our models of reality. Yet the rules for them are implicit and not conscious, and they vary from culture to culture.
Thus, even at the physical level, the thought organ can easily be misled if it focuses on just some of the countless physical forms and events around it. Focusing leads to construction of an interval model that is only one slice of the big pie of objects, events, memories, and the relationships among them that surround us and involve us. If we start to treat one small slice of the pie as though it is the whole pie, that is clearly an illusion, though people don’t like to think of their realities this way. We can come away from a film or a vacation with some very different images from those of a companion–even one from our own culture. In this sense, we often end up with a very skewed view of even the purely physical end of life.
“When a pickpocket sees a saint, all he sees are the saint’s pockets.” It is not that the pickpocket could not see the rest of the saint if he or she tried. Rather, she or he doesn’t pay much attention to anything that is not felt to be relevant, and comes away with a distorted experience of the whole. Thus, selective attention or motivated inattention influence our internal models of reality quite importantly.
The detailed mechanics of subjective reality-construction, once understood, make it scientifically clear why it has been so easy, time and time again, to manipulate the realities of countless millions of people by influencing their habits of attention by raising fears and hopes, and popularizing customs of language.
The understanding of the human brain as illusion-organ and the humanistic implications of this is key to today’s challenge for our society to sort out in fresh terms what a major job should be of science and of our universities and of a liberal arts education. The quirks of the thought organ present humanity with a universal issue. There are the most serious implications, for each individual who seeks true freedom and justice for self and others must struggle with the quirks of his or her own brain, and strive to comprehend the social forces that help shape inner worlds and public action.
Maybe we should not expect pristine Truth from the brain, since the illusion organ is only the product of evolution. But what of our expensive and carefully constructed knowledge factories –the universities? And what of the science-Establishment: the so-cial matrix of interacting scientists and their leadership? How well are these ‘socially constructed’ knowledge and information pro-cessing ‘organs’ put together? How do they function? How well do they function as prosthetic devices to compensate for the quirks of the illusion organ? What hopes can we have for them to improve on the illusion-prone brain that evolution has given us?
To approach such questions from the broadest perspective, it can help to first put our illusion organs into historical and cross- cultural context. What array of intellectual ‘tools’ (or prosthetics) have different cultures (Western scientific tradition included) developed that might supplement and correct the illusion-prone, imperfect brain? After all, all human cultures have had to face this quirky organ problem. We are social animals; yet how can we have social harmony, how can we be fair to ourselves and to others if illusions come all too easily? This is the humanistic issue. How can we sort out what seems to be from what is? Wise people everywhere have asked this.
This cross-cultural question was a most laborious and yet fascinating issue to sleuth and to analyze. I built upon what I had encountered in my travels and, over time, found abundant evidence that cultures everywhere have indeed invented traditions to try to sort out truth from illusion in order to find peace. Modern science developed originally for quite humanistic purposes, for example (before it became useful to the State). Eastern and Western philosophies are two other efforts. Each of these three has had a lot to offer for the humanistic challenge of how to be a thoughtful and decent human, but each also has had some shortcomings. Even aspects of the oldest effort of all, shamanism, have had some useful things to offer in moving beyond egocentric habits of thought to treat emotional disorder, learn the habits of game animals and the properties of plants, and so on. And historically, even alchemy, astrology, and numerology were efforts to formalize knowledge that made important contributions, largely in the sense that they were among the direct ancestors of modern science.
In this humanistic sense–of intense quests to improve human judgment and to minimize folly and strife, to find personal, spiritual, and social peace–what is science, how did it develop, and what has it become? Has modern science become only good for understanding the physics of what rainbows are, or can there still be a pot of humanistic gold at the end of physics, biology, and other sorts of technical knowledge? Can science tell us how to be better people?
We can tend to overlook how much science actually has already helped us to improve our potential for critical thinking, and our potential to be fair to others and ourselves. The strict rules of evidence in a modern culture reflect the scientific spirit of enlightenment, for example.
But science offers no guarantees. Scientific arguments, data, statistics, and blinking machines have also been used to snow or distract the innocent, as well as to enlighten. Science can be profound, but it can also be razzle-dazzle. And it can be used politically, to lull us into being too passive and too willing to wait for technological magic bullets to solve all our problems for us, instead of exploring social solutions to social problems.
The humanistic effects of science so far have been a very mixed bag and probably will continue to be. Science has led to television and mass communications, which can expand our awareness; but they are not all good. And neither is the science of psychology, which similarly can be used to enlighten, or on the other hand to seduce us ever more effectively into escapism, or even used to brainwash. And neither are the atom bombs, that long protected us, all treat and no stomach ache. There have been all the bloody consequences of eugenics enthusiasm. And so on.
In their agendas to promote economic activity and stay popular, our leaders have historically tended to paint the upside of science and technology more aggressively than they sketch in and provide for the downside. It would look good for the powers-that-be, if ordinary people believe that science and technology are going to cause steady net progress, rather than zero-sum games; or worse, cause a net drain on the world’s humanistic and environmental capital.
And the scientific Establishment as a whole has not been very good about even trying to be honest with itself; for example, it does not question how free it is or not from ideology and manipulation; it takes little interest in trying to warn society about the whole truth of where science and technology may lead. And it has not been good about telling society, in time for society to make good decisions, about what scientific knowledge alone can do and not do. Scientific knowledge can improve conditions, but we should keep in mind that it cannot in and of itself liberate us from illusion and its costs.
Let us look beyond science alone, to the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the intellect–to our universities. We have taken the brightest and the best of our people and have organized them into a machine to generate knowledge, to ponder society and its needs, to ruminate on the Great Issues. And we also use the machine to process our youth and impart into them something of its civilizing nature. The machine does many things well. But what are its limits, and how well maintained is it? Let us remove a panel and look inside at some of its mechanism.
Part Two: The University
Universities form the larger and more general context for much of science and scholarship in general. We can think of them as artificial social organs that should try, at least, to make up for the imperfect brain, and to help humanity to better limp along in its quest to escape illusions and the unnecessary tragedies that they can cause. Let’s keep firmly in mind that the brain is biologically booby-trapped when it comes to trying to see truth. Let’s accept Thurber’s insight that, “The brain of our species is, as we know, made up largely of potassium, phosphorus, propaganda, and politics, with the result being how not to understand what should be clearer and clearer is becoming easier and easier for all of us.” Can universities give us an independent reading on the way of life that we are all swept up in?
Be forewarned. I am not going to end up revealing a grand plan for how to rebuild universities and science and scholarship in general. I am going to end up saying that we have to understand what we are dealing with here if we as thinking individuals are going to be able to cope with and avoid getting lost in these huge knowledge factories. For if one can’t make significant progress on some significant level of understanding, it is premature to expect much from enormous reforms.
Can our expensive knowledge factories only spew out streams of miscellaneous facts and technical conjectures to provide technical information and training, to feed the economy and the bureaucracy, or can they actually sweep the propaganda and politics out of our brains? Can our knowledge factories help us to see the intellectual booby-traps and side step them and help us to become more wise and humane as well as more knowledgeable of sets of facts and theories?
Not very directly, is the quick answer. Of course, reliable facts are a great help in our individual and collective struggles. But there remain a lot of philosophical and ideological forests to fight one’s way through in figuring out what to do with and how to think about even the most reliable of facts. Usually we are so deep in such forests that we can’t even see them–they are invisible to most people. Help is very much needed with this–with seeing and understanding the ideological forests we are born into and have formed comfortable habits of foraging in our youths, even before we have our own babies and begin teaching the innocents our old perceptual trails. But where shall we get help? Are the universities up to the job?
To begin with, universities and professional societies are organizations, and as such must worry about authority and money, and how to live with and manage the coordination of diverse egos and points of view. They are political to the core, and, as Mary Douglas, in How Institutions Think, put it of all institutions, from the family on up, myth-making is a conventional part of how all organizations work.
Any institution that is going to keep its shape needs to gain legitimacy by distinctive grounding in nature and in reason: then it affords to its members a set of analogies with which to explore the world and with which to justify the naturalness and reasonableness of the instituted rules, and it can keep its identifiable continuing form.
Any institution then starts to control the memory of its members; it causes them to forget experiences incompatible with its righteous image, and it brings to their minds events which sustain the view of nature that is complementary to itself. It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and foes identities. All of this is not enough. It must secure the social edifice by sacralizing the principles of justice.
Thus, to begin with there is a sorting-out job of institutional myths from truths. And as if such general problems with all organizations weren’t bad enough, universities specifically are poorly organized and badly managed in terms of their ability to generate much more than a lot of isolated streams of good facts and stabs at knowledge; even though they claim they can provide intellectual leadership. If one stands back and looks at the Knowledge Machine in the present context, the grand agenda of social leadership often claimed by universities looks more like folly than progress even on the face of it. Faculty are pushed by the administration culture and its values and needs into competition with each other and even with the students. Why? Keep in mind that government and university administrators’ career ladders are climbed most reliably when they can claim a distinct turf and control large budgets and researchers that use lots of grant dollars and that have lots of prestige and status. So the universities are organized for administrative convenience into specialized departments; and then these are forced to form alliances that compete with each other for funds and space. This competition between alliances of specialists creates a narrowness of self-interest and outlook that has been calls departmentalism. It has also been called the Balkanization of knowledge.
Of course, some scholars love to isolate themselves in specialties, and are more than eager accomplices. But others hate narrowness. As a partial solution to a generalist’s needs, if one can find the time and money for travel, one can move about more or less freely between different national professional groups. Many of us belong to several scientific and scholarly societies, and not just one. But on campus, the management system artificially confines those with broad leanings. Rather than encourage individual scholars to do whichever they do best, administrators tip the balance toward specialization.
Then departments become like hungry baby birds in a small nest, each so focused on how to get the worm that they don’t worry too much about pushing each other out. ‘Better him who crashed to the ground than me.’ The institutional pressures tend to make specialists specialize more and more. And more and more the pressures to compete push specialists to make claims that what they and their professional network are doing is more important than anything else could be. The administrative system pressures bright people to lose perspective of the whole. It encourages a significant unreality. Beneath the intellectual surface of legitimate professional networking and information-exchange, the system encourages ever-more politics and alliance-formation, mostly to help get and keep grants and to help get the good letters of recommendation, etc. upon which tenure, promotion, job mobility, and freedom from excessive teaching and harassment depend.
All this in turn encourages intellectual fads, even in science, which claims to be pure and objective. Vogues can determine who gets the bucks and who gets the enthusiastic letters. It is a system in which professional status and reputation loom large and become key to one’s security and to how one is treated. How well one is treated can be based as much or more on how well one is networked or on how much in vogue one’s research is or on how large one’s federal grants are as it is on intrinsic merit. In this way science managers in government capitals can to a surprising degree manage science without directly ordering about most of the individual researchers. And because the system of manipulation is one of incentives, threats to pride and security, and of the social matrix, it is very easy for the individual researcher to remain naive about what it is that managers do other than simply hand out money to bright people.
Control of the prestige system is all-important for running human affairs (even too often affairs in supposedly objective science). The advisors to the king of Huainan, China wrote, over two thousand years ago,
There was a king who liked slender waists, and people starved themselves to become thin. Another king admired bravery, and people endangered themselves and fought duels to the death. As we can see from these examples, the handle of authority and power easily influences fashions and changes morals.
The management philosophy has dictated that there is prestige in the sizes of research grants, the sizes of classes, the numbers of students comfortably processed, the numbers of dollars moved about all register large before the eyes of the administrators–and everybody else in the system who does not have a Noble Prize learns what their bottom line is.
So what does this mean for the ideal that a university is a community of scholars, researchers, thinkers, students in pursuit of truth and values? It is obvious that it steals time and energy, but it also is handicapping in terms of perceptual and communication capacities. The problem with our knowledge factories is not so much the cheap cliché that the faculty don’t want to teach, or even that they don’t have time to teach. Processing a classroom full of students in itself is easy and there are actually a lot of good teachers in this sense. The more difficult challenge is to get administrations and faculties to think outside of departmentalism and to work on what the whole educational experience of a student should be, and what a community of scholars should be, in the sense discussed here. To get and keep grants professors must form tight professional/political networks in their own fields. They must pay attention to intellectual fashions. They have little time to escape from their intellectual myopia. They can become stuck perceptually in their own boosterism.
It is difficult to focus on goals anywhere, though it may seem that it has been relatively easy in American Universities compared to elsewhere. The small University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby does an impressive job of taking young people who have learned to read and write and such in the mission schools out in the villages and getting them to think about what Western civilization has to offer, without at the same time forcing Western culture down their throats. I congratulated colleagues there on this.
“But it is difficult,” a young administrator said.
We do have several materially ambitious tribes in PNG and too many of our students simply see Western science and literature as some magic to be learned that will bring cargo to their people. They are not interested in the deeper significance of what they are learning. This can be the most difficult form of primitivism to deal with.
“Ah, so things are not so smooth beneath the surface,” I sighed sympathetically.
“True; but you have the same problems in the United States, do you not?” he responded with collegial concern. “Is it not true that many American students only think of knowledge as memorized rituals and incantations to gain status and get jobs?”
I looked into his twinkling eyes and wondered if sometimes Melanesians do not know us better than we know them. I wondered how long the plain-spoken young man would last as an administrator in the United States, having to dine and deal with the business community and the state legislature and the sports-alumni, if he were to compare rote memorization with magic, and economic ambitions with cargo cults. We are supposed to be better than them, our script reads, not just packaged differently.
If it is so easy, what should a liberal arts education be? Let’s take a crack at it.
1. It should empower the individual intellectually, with more than technical skills alone, and with more than mere facts to dazzle with at cocktail parties.
2. It should address issues such as–What am I? How does my mind work?
3. How come we can so easily deceive ourselves? How come others so easily deceive us? How do some people undeservedly become social scapegoats? How do other people undeservedly become celebrities?
4. Why does all this matter?
5. How have the world’s societies and intellectual traditions dealt with all this?
6. How does the Big World work politically, ecologically, demographically? What would it mean to be a global thinker? What are the obstacles? What does it matter?
7. Where has our own society come from, where is it going?
8. How can the individual use educational resources to grow intellectually and morally throughout life?
This approach to liberal education will never be vigorously pursued at the institutional level so long as faculty locked into different disciplines are not free to break disciplinary boundaries and conventions, free to really care about such things, free to regroup, and free to develop creative research, teaching, and public service projects that go beyond cosmetics.
The problem with our universities is not merely ‘specialization’–which is more a symptom of a misguided management scheme than it is a primary cause of troubles.
What keeps the misguided management scheme in place? Bureaucratic inertia, surely. Lobby pressures from special interest sectors in society, clearly. But it would be incomplete to ignore the fact that when discussing educational policy at the higher levels power one often finds active and conscious opposition to a Jeffersonian model of education that will prepare citizens to comprehend the realities of social organization and control. Whatever they say in public, there are influential people who would find an enlightened public troublesome. They have tended not to advertise their views since Bernard Mandeville in the 1700s publicly argued that people should not be taught more than they need to do their jobs, and scandalized his cause with such phrases as “should a horse know as much as a Man, I should not care to be his rider.” So the influence of secretive philosophies is hard to document or to judge the exact influence of. But we can say at least that it is a real force to be dealt with in educational policy.
Even though parties who hold these views today tend not to admit it openly, such views are fairly widespread among the world’s policy makers. For example, eighteen respected political scientists and economists met and corresponded at length to analyze the implications of educational development for emerging nations. Their analysis was one part of an enormous project of the Committee on Comparative Politics of the Social Science Research Council concerning the applications of lessons from Western nations to emerging nations. This study group struggled with the fact that leaders tend to be very skeptical of broad popular education because they fear it would contribute to political instability. Leaders much prefer narrow, technical educations for the population, since narrowly educated people are less likely to understand how The System works and to question it, are less likely to aspire to policy positions, and are less likely to become frustrated when they cannot join the higher ranks of power; they are less likely to join revolutionary forces, and are less likely to add diversity and competition to the ranks of the elite if they do manage to rise to high levels. Development economists also favor mathematics and natural sciences, and in crafts and occupational skills, the task force noted, rather than education in those social sciences “which break up accepted attitudes” and may even produce “large numbers of unproductive and destabilizing unemployables.”
The study group found that as a pragmatic matter they had to agree with many people in power that narrowly educated people are more easy to manage, and that technical-leaning educations would also be best for the social stability of developing nations in the short run.
But they confessed their embarrassment at this anti-democratic agreement: “We find ourselves in the astonishing position of casting the relationship between education and political development in essentially negative terms.” So then the task force tried to argue that leaders should also consider the long-term benefits of broader education, that hopefully “releases talent and creativity and maximizes the dispersion of energy and initiative throughout the society on behalf of the total development process.” They recommended a “mix” of technical and broadening educational programs. Yet they recognized regretfully that people in power necessarily will have overriding concerns for social stability in the short term.
So much for the idea that all the problems in higher education are the result of left-wing knuckle-heads on campus. It is not going to get anyone anywhere in understanding the crisis in higher education to follow Allen Bloom in his erudite but superficial and misleading The Closing of the American Mind. In many ways this is simply Ayn Rand’s The New Left warmed over and served with attractive intellectual garnish. Bloom tries to blame University troubles primarily on so-called left-wing, allegedly anti-civilization programs such as women’s studies and black studies that developed during the proverbial 60s, much as Rand had earlier tried to paint the left as anti-civilization existentialists and environmentalists, and blame campus problems on them–and on the soft, wishy-washy liberal professors who tolerate these things.
Bloom’s argument is effectively a red-herring; a scape-goat or maybe a sacrifical lamb, but certainly a stuffed turkey. The problems in our universities were growing rapidly well before the 60s, and they have included structural problems–such as how these enormous institutions are linked evermore to even larger forces in society both in terms of lobby pressures on the academy and in terms of management practices taken from models in government and business.
Moreover, the new programs of the left have been only a tiny part of campus politics. They have been quite marginal in terms of their political clout on campuses. They are presently under attack from both inside and outside for too often tediously insisting on “political correctness” in language, attitudes, etc. In fact, good or bad, the new programs amount to a mere drop in the proverbial bucket as campus politics go. There are much more powerful standards for covert political correctiveness on campus that are not as visible since they don’t have a label and they are not new. Universities are fleets of cozy and steamy love-boats of quiet but extremely significant political deal-making with the business community, the military, the health and legal industries, rich sports fans, agribusiness, state and federal governments, and even foreign governments with major interests in the United States. It would be politically quite incorrect on nearly any United States campus to rock these armadas of love boats.
And sometimes the tiny new ‘liberal’ scholarly programs have actually been quite productive, even if other times they may have been regrettably overzealous or stumbling. To keep this issue in perspective let’s remember that there can be a lot of unfortunate trivia and faddishness, ruthless careerism, vicious conceit, overzealousness and stumbling, even in mainstream ‘hard science’ as well as the humanities and social sciences.
The problem with our universities in major part has been that, for whatever reasons, there has been little intellectual leadership and vision to develop coherent, integrated educational programs and to deal creatively with the troubling Balkanization and other trends that had been developing for some time before the 1960s. Management-oriented people who can talk turkey have long been in command instead of profound scholars. Diverse demands have been placed on universities, from demands for research and teaching that are aimed to serve diverse industries and their special needs, to great sports programs that are dominated by intermural theatrics and gate receipts.
Regents, Trustees, State Governors, influential business people sincerely think that all this makes good sense. Let us never forget that universities are economic and political resources. No resources should be ‘neglected’, by many ways of thinking. People with power and responsibility have a keen eye for where to find easy resources.
But then having been organized as resources, it becomes too hard for faculties that have been split up into production then to care or be able to talk and work together across departmental boundaries for educational coherence. The universities and their agendas thus simply are not structured for such intellectual matters by administrators and by those who they in turn must answer to. So there is noble rhetoric and only token action. And the oldboy networks shuffle sets of required courses to look good on paper, instead of taking a hard enough look at content and delivery and the coherence of sets of ideas and facts, and at the goals and challenges that should guide the intellectual development of students and debates over national culture. The advisors to the king of Huainan over two thousand years ago made a point that is still well worth thinking about. One may propose solutions that look good on paper. But in fact, it is real people and the dedication of their energy and sincerity and the mobilization of their creative energies that must make things work or not. There must be more than token leadership and slick rhetoric.
If a rule is not straight, it cannot be used to make a square; if a compass is not correct, it cannot be used to make a circle. The individual is the rule and compass of affairs: no one has ever heard of being able to rectify others while being crooked oneself.
What kind of leadership is there in academics? What is the management culture that has developed? What are their perceptions? What are their habits of rationalization? What kind of language do rookie administrators have to learn to break into the Higher Levels of The System? What really are the administrative values when push comes to shove?
Most people anywhere are well-meaning, and university managers are no exception. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”–that means there are a lot of good intentions always around. It is a buyer’s market. Good intentions are not at issue. And doubtless there are some very good individuals. I would never paint everyone with one brush. And we all know that universities do manage to do quite a lot of very good things. Sure there is an upside; and it is obvious. But on the other hand we very much need to drag some critically important skeletons out of the family closet that might stay locked up forever if one uses all one’s wind to trumpet the upside.
One can examine the management culture the quick and easy way, by turning to books written to guide university administrators. Let’s take Leadership and Ambiguity by Michael Cohen and James March. For one thing, their book was based on a big study with scores of interviews. The study revealed that management models from business and the military that had been popular not only in business and the military but in civilian government in America especially during and after W.W.II had been adopted by most universities by the 1960s and 1970s. The management models employ central power ideals, reliance on schemes for structuring an organization, psychological control, and tactics of authority. They put formal programs, and measurable goals and budgets ahead of the cultivation of ‘fuzzy’ collegiality, self-organization based on idealism, exploration, invention, individuality, sense of historical participation, mentorship, etc.. In other words, the academic admin-istration culture had well absorbed the world view of the general management culture in America by the 1960s and 1970s.
The research for this ‘leadership’ book was supported by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, the Ford Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation. It was originally published by Carnegie and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching held the copyright to the first edition. The Harvard Business School controls and publishes the second edition. So this is hardly an obscure or unimportant publication. So what? Let’s take a more detailed look at what this suggests for the Academy and ask if it translates into a social organ for seeing truth and for helping young people to see truth. Leadership and Ambiguity is “built on specific research findings” (p. xi) after scores of interviews with high college and university administrators, and it aspires to formalize what is often informally practiced by the culture of administrators. Universities do not overall have clear goals (it argues); the administrator has an impossible job (it argues) and thus must be Machiavellian to get the job done. One must not be timid about being manipulative. For example,
Almost any educated person can deliver a lecture entitled “The Goals of the University”. Almost no one will listen to the lecture voluntarily. For the most part, such lectures and their companion essays are well-intentioned exercises in social rhetoric, with little operational content [p.195]. . . . The tactics of administration in an organized anarchy are somewhat different from . . . a situation with clearer goals, better specified technology, and more persistent participation. [This] suggests a minor Machiavellianism …. The concern about malevolent manipulation is a real one (as well as a cliché), but it often becomes a simple defense of the status quo [p.205].
One way for an administrator to gain more control and bypass the faculty decision-making process is to overload the faculty self-governance apparatus and thus sabotage the faculty’s abilities to be effective at decision making, and their self-confidence–“Rule 5: Overload the system.” When the academic administrator has particular goals that he or she wishes to advance, “Overload is almost certainly helpful to his or her program” (p.210).
…accomplishing overload is not hard. In practical terms this means having a large repertoire of projects for organizational action. It means making substantial claims on resources for the analysis of problems, discussion of issues, and political negotiation [p.210].
Cohen and March have other handy recommendations as well, such as providing outlets for faculty and student emotions and energies, so that they do not contaminate the concrete high-priority items that the administrator has–“Rule 6: Provide garbage cans.” “The prime procedure for making a garbage can attractive is to give it precedence and conspicuousness” (p. 211). But the administrator must be careful, for example, because a leader on a garbage can issue may become seen as a potential leader and may be able to challenge the administrator in the arena of true power unless the administrator takes steps to prevent this.
Also, be covert–“Rule 7: Manage unobtrusively.”
Unobtrusive management uses interventions of greater impact than visibility. Such actions generally have two key attributes: (1) They affect many parts of the system slightly rather than a few parts in a major way. The effect on any one part of the system is small enough so that either no one really notices or no one finds it sensible to organize significantly against the intervention.” And then the administrator’s programs tend to stay activated without any further attention [p. 213].
The book also surely discusses the obvious–the administrator has the power to manipulate the utilization of labor and the structure of organization using the purse strings, space, the agenda, etc. etc.
Status has become so central to one’s security in academics that it is not surprising that administrators have learned to play on this. “Rule 3: Exchange status for substance.” The administrator should try to get her or his programs past their opponents by trading a little acknowledgment of status for cooperation. Notice the vicious circle? Administrative philosophy pressures faculties to scramble for the status ladders, and then it recommends finding ways to manipulate these strong leanings.
The study also recommends the Orwellian manipulation of history–“Rule 8: Interpret history.”
.. definitions of what is happening and what has happened become important tactical instruments…. Minutes should be written long enough after the event as to legitimize the reality of forgetfulness. . . [Etc. Etc.] The model of consistency is maintained by a creative resolution of uncertainty about the past [p. 215].
Well, the above is enough to give the reader the flavor of things that the study found and recommends formalizing. I am far from convinced that a really bright and scholarly leader with good social skills would have no alternatives but to be so manipulative. But in practice such talented people may be genuinely scarce, and in any event it does seem that it would be very hard for them to meet constituency tests and get hired these days.
All administrators who do practice such Machiavellian tactics may not be cynically conscious of what they are doing. One senses that many of them come to do such things quite consciously by carelessly allowing previous administrative models to influence them as they begin to climb administrative career ladders and strive to fit in as one of the Big Boys; or by discovering for themselves that certain chaotic situations are convenient for their immediate needs. Administration is largely an oral culture, and new administrators begin to develop perspectives and behaviors implicit in the terms of discourse that are used in their new oral cultures of university administrators, business people, and politicians. This acculturation may not be entirely conscious. It may come to be extensively rationalized only after they begin to see what they have become part of. People like to feel good about themselves.
But in any event, such administrative philosophies and traditions can have serious deteriorating effects on faculty and student morale. Whether or not the manipulated faculty and students can detect specific manipulative campaigns at any one moment (the whole idea is they aren’t supposed to notice), such conditions can produce frustration, withdrawal, unhealthy levels of cynicism, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, lack of optimism, mistrust. They can discourage campus ‘civics’ and collegiality, which are potentially vital to the overall quality and to the nurturing of creative energies in a community. For the price of hanging on to power (and very large salaries) and getting some chosen programs through, administrative attitudes can contribute to a situation that becomes ever more unmanageable. The words ‘morale’ and ‘collegiality’ do not even appear in the index of Leadership and Ambiguity.
This Ambiguity study, in fact, does not present any way to measure the overall ratios of costs to benefits of such manipulative philosophies. Yet its authors make rosy claims: “Contemporary theories of decision making and the technology of reason have considerably strengthened our capacities for effective social action” (p. 229).
This superficially appealing claim should not go unexamined and unquestioned. Easy manipulation of people is not necessarily the same thing as ‘effective social action.’ One can see the awful effects of generating garbage can issues on our society in general, for example, beyond the universities. When powerful interests and politicians steer participatory debate during elections away from substantial economic, social, management, and environmental issues by diverting media attention to emotional issues concerning flags, sex, or even war, it keeps the citizens from exercising their intelligence, imagination, and energies and connecting these effectively with the real machinery of society. And yet such connections are critical if the principle of self-government is to work. Instead, a lot of decent and able people get so disgusted they don’t even vote, let alone get involved in civic activities. By my participatory definition of social action, the administration culture’s ‘technology of reason’ may be a complete failure or even worse. The administrative views of Cohen and March, even their starting claim to so-called ‘rational’ administration, unfortunately do seem to reflect the dominant administrative philosophy in business and in the higher levels of government in the United States that came into vogue following the emergency demands of W.W.I and especially W.W.II. The more formalized models for public administration in a democracy seem to have come out of the Herbert Simon school. And now this philosophy is insinuated in most universities as well. It has too extensively become the reality of our daily lives. It is a philosophy based on central power models, psychological manipulation, and idealizations of structure and functions. It has been reviewed and criticized at length and from various points of view by Vincent Ostrom in The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration, though not with an analysis of its role in university administration. Ostrom especially noted the failure of this philosophy to replace the benefits of more traditional democratic organizational models. And,
Dare we contemplate the possibility that the contemporary malaise in American society may have been derived, in part, from the teachings of public administration? Have our reform efforts to eliminate fragmentation of authority and overlapping jurisdictions so altered the basic structures of American government that many of its benefits have been eliminated as well?…Without an appropriate theory of political organization, we shall be unable to discern the causes of our misery and we shall suffer ills of which we are ignorant.
Well, in any event, back to our universities. Can all the above world of overloading the system, creating garbage cans, covert agendas, manipulated history, blindness to collegiality, elevation of structure relative to intellectual community, preoccupations with power and turf–and influences from those who feel liberal education would be politically destabilizing–and so on, translate into an Academy that can be a splendid social organ for seeing some larger panoramas of truth and for helping young people to see larger panoramas of truth? I think not. And it is not. At best we hobble along.
And so in the Bird’s Eye View of humanity, what hope is there for us, with our two imperfect organs–the brain and the university? We can try to reform the system, but business and bureaucratic influence is already enormous. If we let the powers-that-be try to reform it, it is likely that they will mostly use the exercise as an excuse to tighten their grip. That’s real life. And faculties have, over time, let go much of their tradition and idealism and have long since become part of the problem too.
Of course we should not give up trying to make the knowledge factories better, in terms of the liberal arts perspective that we have been exploring here. But we should not put all our eggs in this one basket. It seems that for the foreseeable future, we may very likely be stuck with two imperfect and illusion-generating organs.
So, should we, individuals, just give up trying to weed out nonsense and narrowness, and aspiring to wisdom? In fact, I do see hope at least for alert individuals. In part, I see hope because the intellectual resources today are better than ever before in history. Think how much was accomplished during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, without nearly the resources that we have today. What would Leonardo or Galileo or Voltaire have given to have had free-rein in a contemporary university library? But one must very shrewdly develop in his or her own individual. personal. strategies to use the mountains of resources today. Universities are great, potentially useful libraries of books and people, films, and lectures. But they are also intellectual jungles, full of pitfalls and poisonous fruit and distractions, and places to get lost wandering in circles, however beautiful are the flowers and the birds also to be found there. Caveat emptor.
For individuals who are rightly excited at the possibility of personal intellectual and moral development, our libraries of books and people indeed have precious resources and treasures in them, but there also are the elaborate worlds of those who have been mistaken, misguided, mismanaged, manipulated, and the worlds of the irrelevant, and of those who have been bought and sold. It is best to go in well provisioned with a sense of purpose and of the depth and scope of the challenge, and with a clear sense of the nature of the potential pitfalls. As a survival guide, one can keep in mind the personal and cultural humanistic issues raised here and in my book, The Anatomy of Judgment. One who is alert will need lots of moral bug spray. And one should prepare to keep track of the landscape and to make a sort of map of the territory as one goes along. That is, one should develop powers of observation and study the academic establishment itself, for what it does and for what it doesn’t do. The resources for personal intellectual development are rich, they can be located, and one can learn how to use them. One can have a good and productive time, imperfect brain and all. One must take time to stop to rest and reflect. There is no reason to give up.
© 1997 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.