how to disagree

Hey, you! Yes, you! Non-academic reader. This post is for you as well as my academic readers. What are your thoughts? Apropos of my previous post (and future ones), I like these paragraphs on the gap between scholars in academia and the general public from Gerald Graff‘s Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education:

Part of the problem lies … in the peculiar difficulty of representing intellectual developments in the press. A vulgarized version of a theory or critical approach is inevitably easier to describe in the confines of a brief news article than the best, most sophisticated version of the theory or approach. A doctrinaire assault on ‘dead white males’ can be easily summearized in a column inch or two, whereas it would take many pages to describe intellectual movements that are complex, diverse, and rife with internal conflicts. Glib falsifications can always be produced at a faster rate than their refutations.

Then, too, few readers of the popular press are in a position to recognize misrepresentations of academic practices, a fact that relieves anyone who wants to debunk these practices of the responsibility to do their homework. So feminism, multiculturalism, and deconstructionism are understood not as a complicated and internally conflicted set of inquiries and arguments about the cultural role of gender, ethnicity, language, and thought but as a monolithic doctrine that insists, as D’Souza formulates it, ‘that texts be selected primarily or exclusively according to the author’s race, gender, or sexual preference and that the Western tradition be exposed in the classroom as hopelessly bigoted and oppressive in every way’ [‘Illiberal Education,’ Atlantic 267.3 (March 1991): 52] … [A]nyone who takes these views to be typical of academic revisionist thinking simply knows nothing of the reality…

There is still another reason why myths about the academy have flourished, however, and this is one for which the academy has itself to blame. Academics have given journalists and others little help in understanding the more difficult forms of academic work. As this work has become increasingly complex and as it increasingly challenges conventionally accepted forms of thinking, the university acquires an obligation to do a more efective job of popularization. Yet the university has been disastrously inept in this crucial popularizing task and often disdains it as beneath its dignity. If the university has become easy prey for ignorant or malicious misrepresentations, it has asked for them. Having treated mere image making as beneath its dignity, the academy has left it to its detractors to construct its public image for it. (34-35)

Well, I’m not sure I agree with the characterization of the academy as arrogant in those last few lines, but it’s true that if we largely ignore the image that the public has of what we do, we allow those who don’t like what they think we do to take control of that image.

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5 thoughts on “how to disagree

  1. Just a quick comment to note that I’d disagree with Graff’s characterization of the academy as arrogant, too. I think this question is what I was trying to address in an old post I wrote about cinematic representations of teaching and why I find them so frustrating. I’ll try to come back to this later, but I’m working from a public computer.

  2. George,
    I write extra-muros — as an intellectual who is not an academic.
    What strikes me in the Graff passage you cited is the breast-beating. What is at work there is a narrative of sin and retribution.
    There is no gap. The history of popular education from Chautaqua to Public Broadcasting tells me so.
    There is a tradition of anti-intellectualism and oddly it seems to be reinscribed in the discourse of culture wars.
    I think that your entry on “what is a blog for” is a better starting point for action and thought. That entry doesn’t seem to be caught up in a polarization and disputationousness.
    Angela Davis has a passage in her autobiography that seems emblematic for me of true intellectual humility. She writes about a reading group composed of people who had limited educational opportunities and she relates how, with dictionary at hand and struggling over the words and sentences, they read Marx and arrived at an understanding of the text.
    [Tangent: Gramsci and Methodism]

  3. Chuck, are you talking about this post?
    Francois, Graff certainly seems to endorse embracing an agonistic approach to these issues (and as my post here indicates, not everyone thinks such an approach is productive), but I don’t think he’s wrong when he says there’s a gap in what the general public understands about what goes on in American colleges and universities.

  4. Yep, that’s the one. It’s not really a well-formed idea, but I think these movies reflect/frame how some people might view the academy.
    There’s not as precise a connection as I implied earlier (I was reading blogs at a Kinko’s–too expensive really), beyond the fact that movies offer a very slanted, partial image of what academic life really is.

  5. Blogging and Journalism

    Andrew Cline and Jay Manifold have recently announced a cool new concept (and I’d say that, even if I wasn’t participating),, a blog designed to cultivate the relationship between the blogosphere and more traditional media. Cline and Manifo…

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