Tag Archives: Academia

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!

Academic beachheads

As a academic and a historian of philosophy, I find these sorts of initiatives baffling:

COLORADO SPRINGS — Acknowledging that 20 years and millions of dollars spent loudly and bitterly attacking the liberal leanings of American campuses have failed to make much of a dent in the way undergraduates are educated, some conservatives have decided to try a new strategy.

They are finding like-minded tenured professors and helping them establish academic beachheads for their ideas.

These initiatives, like the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, Austin, or a project at the University of Colorado here in Colorado Springs, to publish a book of classic texts, are mostly financed by conservative organizations and donors, run by conservative professors. But they have a decidedly nonpartisan and nonideological face.

Their goal is to restore what conservative and other critics see as leading casualties of the campus culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s: the teaching of Western culture and a triumphal interpretation of American history.

These are not ideological courses,” said James Piereson, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, which created the Veritas Fund for Higher Education to funnel donations to these sorts of projects. The initiatives are only political insofar as they “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class studies, and postmodernism in general,” he said.

The programs and centers differ in emphasis, with some concentrating on American democratic and capitalist institutions and others on the Western canon, the great books often derided during the culture wars as the history of “dead white men.” They sponsor colloquia, seminars, courses, visiting lecturers and postdoctoral students. At Brown, the Political Theory Project even put on a play by the capitalist heroine Ayn Rand.

Some, like the effort in Colorado Springs and the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia focus solely on exposing freshmen to classical thinkers. Others favor a return to a more traditional teaching of America’s past, featuring its greatest accomplishments instead of the history of repression and exploitation that had been the trend.

Not surprisingly, such initiatives betray no understanding of how academia actually works.  I have never understood why they can't just try to make arguments for their views.  

Conservative thoughts

Perhaps this person could be nominated for the Self-Refuting Chair of Logic:

“The University of Colorado is considering a $9 million program to bring high-profile conservatives to teach on the left-leaning Boulder campus.”

From this affirmative action hire the occupant could rail against university education, intellectualism, and affirmative action.   

**h/t Stanley Fish.

Majoring in Philosophy

This justification for majoring in Philosophy is ironically circular:

When a fellow student at Rutgers University urged Didi Onejeme to try Philosophy 101 two years ago, Ms. Onejeme, who was a pre-med sophomore, dismissed it as “frou-frou.”

“People sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff — I mean, who cares?” Ms. Onejeme recalled thinking at the time.

Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her
major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to
be successful. “My mother was like, what are you going to do with
that?” said Ms. Onejeme, 22. “She wanted me to be a pharmacy major, but
I persuaded her with my argumentative skills.”

If anything, a philosophy major will help you find an argument to justify your being a philosophy major.