Monday, October 06, 2008

Academic Conundrums

Tibor R. Machan

After I entered college, somewhat late in my life, I searched for a discipline I would be able to be devoted to. Took me a couple of years but my very first inclination had proved to be right--I became smitten by philosophy. One reason was that I didn't detect any orthodoxy in the field, not at least as taught where I first took courses in it. Not that I liked the idea that no philosophy could be correct, not by a long shot. But I liked that none was officially embraced, like Marxism was in my native country at the time. I have never regretted entering this discipline despite the many frustrations that I have encountered there.

My eventual choice was to defend something fairly ordinary, namely, that the world exists independently of how we feel about, perceive it, wish for it to be, etc. Even in ethics and politics I concluded there are right answers, though this is not as simple an idea as it may appear at first. To this day I enjoy taking part in various Socratic discussions--nearly free-for-all exchanges--inside or outside the halls of Ivy. But I admit that sometimes it is frustrating to take seriously what fellow academicians defend, or give voice to. Yet that is just what those who sign up for an academic career must accept, a lot of frustrating, even bizarre ideas being aired by one's colleagues.

At a couple of recent gatherings, for example, there were several notions circulated that just didn't seem to me to make any sense. For example, some of my colleagues from the natural sciences argued that time is unreal or, perhaps more accurately, that times is something different for those belonging to different cultures. (No wonder, I suppose, that many participants came "late" to the event and we started about 20 minutes "later" than scheduled!) In the course of the discussion it was even proposed that "everyone is right," meaning, I take it, that no right and wrong can be found about anything at all--which I take to imply that this idea, too, is neither right nor wrong. And that is quite difficult to make sense of for me.

Another notion that got aired, quite seriously, is that what counts as bona fide, genuine art is entirely flexible and certainly changes from one era to another. So standards of art would, for some of my colleagues, amount to something very temporary. (Does this invalidate the idea of timelessly worthy works? Or works that are artistically excellent in any period of human history, like the classics?) The only problem with this idea, as some even admitted, is that there would be no way to distinguish genuine art from trash. Ah, but I guess this is philosophically appealing to some, even while in matters of politics diversity is mostly frowned upon. (Many academics love diversity on the surface but when it comes to substantive diversity they disapprove--is liberalism a sound political idea, socialism, capitalism, or affirmative action or the minimum wage law?) Yet if everyone is right, then surely nothing can be politically correct, either.

When I teach undergraduate courses I sometimes imagine what my frosh students must go through as they try to explain to their relatives what is happening in college while visiting home on their Thanksgiving holiday. Of course, teachers don't often wholly convey their own ideas in their class rooms, especially if these ideas can only be fully appreciated by those who have a good sense of the history of a discipline. But students do not encounter their professors only in the classroom and if they come to some of faculty seminars and report back home what they hear there, this could land them in some emotional difficulties. Unless their relatives understand that university education is a kind of smorgasbord where many ideas are explored and none is required to be believed, only mastered.

Yet this idea, what is probably the meaning of a liberal education, is not all that widely understood by parents and relatives who have been away from college and university classrooms for decades. One can only hope that however perplexing the ideas of some professors may be, students have enough confidence in their own minds that they will think things over before they accept the more incredible ones. Yes, there are some serious issues to be explored about time but, yes, time is real--so show up for class when it begins!

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