Document Type

Article

Publication Date

4-2016

Abstract

Message from President: Among the axioms endorsed by literary people is the assumption that comedy coincides with confidence. Those who laugh are those who rise above worry: those who feel superior to or at least capable of dealing with whatever situation is amusing them. Similar statements could characterize a less jolly mentality, skepticism. Those who doubt are those who delay urgency, who allow time for reflection prior to action, emergency or otherwise. Old-timers can probably remember an era when well-funded universities encouraged skepticism. In the days of yore, professors routinely doubted that everyone who entered college would enjoy what the new wave of remedial educators calls “success.” Although American academe has always suffered from fashions, frenzies, and fervor, it is only in recent times that the expectation of career advancement became overtly associated with the rejection of skepticism: with being a “team player” or with being “committed” or with doubt-reducing “leadership” over an agreeing group or with quick adoption of undoubted “innovation.” The curious, indeed dangerous inversion of skepticism that characterizes not only angry political movements but also modern universities affects almost every aspect of academic life. The profusion of university team-branded and logo clothing and trinkets, the sale of which has expended geometrically in recent years, expresses a new tribalism—a new if disguised aversion to heterodoxy; the lack of any significant critique at the campus administrative level of university athletics licenses aggressive gender stereotyping (how many doubters have come forward to question the segregation built into football, with its showcased cheerleaders and “Golden Girls” with its fully male teams?); the “strategic plans” that every university prepares never even admit the possibility of doubt; the mantras of “workforce development” and the rise of heavily funded “career services” centers certainly do little to encourage doubt about capitalism or any other economic system; the gigantic effort to raise money from donors or from granting agency depends on the concealing of weaknesses, for no funding party wants to doubt the positive outcome of a donation; the candidate profile and “opportunity” descriptions developed by executive search firms suggest that campus leaders never entertain doubt but are driven by delirious optimism; and, again, legislation such as the LAGRAD Act, with its emphasis on completion of degree requirements, epitomizes the new fideism: the notion that thou shalt not doubt anyone or anything. Students of skepticism—readers of Plato; Montaigne; Descartes; Locke; Hume; or even Shaw—recognize that doubt serves a hygienic purpose. In the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, it clears the mind of rubbish. It sweeps away debris disguised as artistry; it recognizes the pervasiveness or at least the inevitability of fraud, failure, and fragility. The practice of skepticism demonstrates that competent, thinking people can hold back consent until they can make reasonable estimates concerning the truthfulness or viability of proposals. Skepticism is also a characteristic of the public world and a favorable influence on the common good, for its favorite target is fallible individualities, whether the individual actor or the individual assertion or the individual ideology. The drive to privatize universities by making them increasingly important on occasional, anecdotal, and individualized support represents an attack on skepticism and thereby an incursion on academic freedom. Better to accept the public burden of a little more tax in exchange for a lot more thinking room than to lunge after private money or otherwise embrace private prerogatives at the expense of dignified doubting.

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