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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Bromwich on the Current Awfulness

It's paywalled, but this interview with David Bromwich in the Chronicle of Higher Education is interesting and eloquent. (The Chronicle is decidedly a mixed bag, but the Chronicle Interview feature, which is conducted regularly by Len Gutkin, is one of the most consistently readable sections of that journal.) Among other things, Bromwich speaks about the current willingness of university administrators to "acquiesce to a social tendency--a wave of opinion and emotion"; argues that "the consensus on what constitutes good speech, speech that lends itself to the hygiene of the culture, has become too sure of itself"; notes "the absurd exaggerations of politeness"--and, as he notes, silence--"that you can see in classroom behavior over the last few years"; correctly states, about reactions to a recent op-ed from a University of Virginia student, that "the claim that what she’s describing doesn’t meet anyone else’s experience is just disingenuous"; criticizes the growth of a conception of the university in which the guiding assumption about its mission is that "it should be socially improving, interested in creating a good society or a model of a good society"; and notes that the way in which academics have taken to Twitter "simply goes against the vocation of being a scholar:"

I know of faculty, both here and at other universities, who are major personalities on Twitter. They tweet links to articles, and they tweet instant reactions, off the cuff, sometimes witty and sometimes not. And there is some demagoguing. On occasion, they are compelled by an inward or outward pressure to delete their tweets.

To me, this simply goes against the vocation of being a scholar. Let’s not be too high and mighty, but still — we are understood to be people who deliberate, who take some time to get at what we believe to be the truth. The whole ethic of snap reactions goes against that. In the long run, it’s going to reduce the prestige of professors. It makes us more like everyone else, which a lot of academics have wanted to be all along. That’s part of the problem — the idea that we should try to erase the distinctions that separate university life, academic life, from society.

Of course I am not interested in whether the prestige of professors goes up or down. If I had to choose only one, I would probably prefer down. But the point about temporality I find valuable and well-stated. It is a fundamentally bad thing, and a personally and disciplinarily corrupting one, for academics to adopt the time frame of social media. And Bromwich is right that it is a mistake to erase the distinctions between academic life and society--not because we should be above it or because we are outside it, but because we have a specific calling to answer to, a specific job to do, and that job is something, not everything. There are many things academics are free to do in their off-hours, and many other places they can work if they decide those are the activities they would rather dedicate their lives to. 

A note on Bromwich's point about overconfidence about what constitutes "good speech," and specifically the word "consensus." Academic consensus in general is, I would venture, both a dangerous thing and a very, very common one. The academy, like the New York Intellectuals that Harold Rosenberg was referring to with his aperçu, tends to be a "herd of independent minds." It is sufficiently consensus-oriented that even a relatively obvious and simple point of disagreement can seem like a striking bit of novelty and brilliance; and conversely, sticking with the consensus and making appropriate obeisance to it, while not a path to success, is the strongest hedge against failure. The problem is not agreement as such; saying that two and two don't equal four is novel but idiotic. It's the freezing power of consensus, the myriad ways it is enforced, and the manner in which it moves easily from tentative and sensible agreement, in lieu of a closer independent look at an issue, to casual, cheaply attained overconfidence. Anyone who has witnessed a conference in which four or five éminences grises expound as one on some common view, as if to think otherwise would be a sign of insanity, is familiar with the phenomenon. Although there are people and places in which treatment of this issue is serious and considered, it seems to me that overconfidence about what constitutes good speech is a common characteristic of most general discussions of or references to "disinformation" or "misinformation."   

Of course I don't agree with everything Bromwich says here, or in his other writing. It's still a fine read. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 17, 2022 at 11:04 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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