Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gray Cows

Russell Jacoby reviews Western academe's modern trend toward rigorously dulling every knife in the human mental drawer.

The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can "complicate" our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be "problematized." We rejoice in discarding "binary" approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing β€” once again β€” that everything varies by circumstances. We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity. We seem to believe that truth and falsehood is a discredited binary opposite. It varies according to time and place. "It depends," answer my students to virtually every question I ask. That notion permeates campus life.

At the same time, without acknowledging it, he illustrates the reason this sort of thinking, no matter how deeply injected into the student brain, drains out of him with every step he takes away from the auditorium stage on graduation day:

To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium. It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld, but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic. Binary logic structures the very computers on which most attacks on binary logic are composed. Some binary distinctions are worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death. Others are at least worth noticing β€” for example, that between a red and a green light. You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be "complicated"?

Academe will have to wrestle its way out of the intellectual chained box it has locked itself into. In spite of those who go directly from classroom seats to lectern positions and never breathe the free air and, in the end, don't want it.

My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:--even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

Meanwhile, real life goes on.