Tuesday, December 06, 2016

To Lift Up Their Eyes

"I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma." (Freddie deBoer)

The motto of my alma matter, the University of Calgary, is taken from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes.” It evokes the widening of horizons that has traditionally been associated with a university education. We sometimes forget, it seems to me, that “academic” knowledge is precisely the sort of thing that, when presented to young men and women, typically between the ages of 17 and 23, will raise their sights and broaden their vistas. It is important to notice what this implies: before arriving at university their minds are somewhat narrower, their view of the world somewhat more parochial. The university experience is fundamentally that of having your pet ideas challenged by a wider view.

To put this in its perhaps starkest terms, imagine a freshman, 18 years old, who believes that homosexuality is immoral—bad for the soul. It is not difficult to imagine where a young man might get such an idea. His parents and his pastor, let’s say, have been quite clear that homosexuality is contrary to the will of God, not “conducive to human flourishing,” as some evangelicals like to put it. Let us assume, further, that he is a congenial, curious and compassionate human being, intelligent and understanding in his interactions with others. As a Christian, he is committed to loving the sinner, even where he hates the sin, and he is used to being around people whose lifestyle he disapproves of, while remaining courteous and helpful to them. He comes from a good home, never having doubted the love of his family.

In order to make this interesting, however, let us suppose that he is destined, over the next four years, to change his mind about homosexuality, and therefore to a certain extent about Christianity. Like I say, he is naturally curious, and once removed from the direct influence of his parents and pastor, he will “lift his eyes” and consider novel points of view. Indeed, while at university, he will discover that he is himself gay, and, like so many other college students, before he graduates he will meet the man he will marry. Applying his intelligence, he will find a way to reconcile his love of Jesus with this unexpected love of a man. He will go from following the ministry of someone like John “Desiring God” Piper, perhaps, to something more like that of Rob “Love Wins!” Bell.

Needless to say, this will be a major life crisis for him. He will have to find a way to come out with his parents, who will in turn have to decide whether to accept his new lifestyle. He may have siblings who have not yet lifted up their own eyes. It’s a difficult situation for him, and all of it will be happening at a time when he is also earning his first university degree. Given his intelligence and interests, let us say he is destined to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, to graduate with honors, and to enter the law school of his choice. Once there, he should once again do very well, eventually becoming a very successful civil rights lawyer. It will not be an easy life, perhaps, but it will be a rich one.

I have said he is “destined” for one or another outcome a couple of times now. What I mean is that these things are “in his nature”, part of his developing set of dispositions. By the time he gets to university his personality and character have been shaped in a certain way, with some moveable and some immovable parts. He has a certain intellectual aptitude and a certain set of interests. He is emotionally predisposed to fall in love with a particular man who happens to be attending the same university at the same time. If left to his natural inclinations, I am saying, this is what we would expect to happen.

But what actually happens—whether he “fulfills his destiny”—will of course depend on all manner of happenstance and circumstance. A beautiful (or tragic) accident will (or will not) bring him together with the man of his dreams. And favorable (or unfavorable) institutions will (or will not) allow him to pursue his happiness. We have already touched on his family and his church as institutions that will either help or hinder his development toward his future identity. But what about his university? This is the question I want to raise. Given his destiny, what should it be like for our young hero to attend four years of university? What sort of experience do we wish on him?

He’s a history major, let’s remember. So let us suppose he takes a course called “Civil Rights in the 20th Century.” He might have expected it to cover mainly the struggle of African Americans for equality since the 1960s, but is quickly enlightened about the struggle for women’s and LGBTQ rights during roughly the same period. While he has long taken the philosophy of Martin Luther King as gospel, as a freshman his traditional Christian values are still less amenable to expansive freedoms for women and gays. Moreover, he is somewhat shocked at the fervor with which these ideas are presented, somewhat confused by the “appropriation” of the “We shall overcome!” rhetoric. But he’s here to learn and he will do what he can to understand the course material.

What about his personal views about the immorality of homosexuality? While his destiny is to abandon these views, he has not yet begun the transformation. How should he feel about expressing them and discussing them? If he did, should his words be denounced as “hate speech” or opposed with arguments like any other opinion? Should he be browbeaten into silence in the name of a “social justice” it is his destiny to one day represent in the courts? Where, and how, should he be able to express his vision of “human flourishing”? How, and when, should it be challenged? Should he be exposed to speakers that help him to articulate it more clearly, thereby opening it to the criticism of others who can help him carefully dismantle it? Should speakers on both sides of the issue be brought together before him, engaged in vigorous, enlightened debate?

These are rhetorical questions on my part of course. While you may not agree with my answers, I hope we can agree that the questions are timely. We need to talk about what it should be like for our young hero to attend four years of college. There are some who would make it hell for him. Some of them, ignorant of his destiny, would do this quite deliberately. Others would perhaps excuse his treatment as the necessary cost of “progress”. While they might regret the inconvenience done to this particular young man, whose heart is in the right place, if at the wrong time, they don’t want to risk according even a modicum of respect to the true, “ingrained”, incorrigible "homophobe". I would encourage these people to lift up their eyes a little too and take a wider view. All I am proposing is, indeed, a modicum of respect. It is, I would argue, what the university is all about.

On Justice, Truth and Beauty

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the first virtue of systems of thought." (John Rawls)

In this age, obsessed with justice, it is worth asking whether it is the only virtue. Let's simplify Rawls's statement a little and say that, as justice is the virtue of our institutions, truth is the virtue of our intuitions, and beauty, of imagination. We have politics to improve (i.e., make more virtuous) our institutions; we have science to improve our intuitions; and we have art to improve imagination.

It is no doubt possible to pursue any one of these aims to the detriment of others. There are politicians who have no respect for scientists, and scientists who do not respect politicians. There are those who would subordinate truth to justice, and others who would sacrifice justice for the truth. The mind reels, the heart breaks, to imagine what all this clamor is doing to the arts.

Somewhere in the back of this is the highest virtue of all: happiness. And somewhere in that vicinity is the perhaps basest drive: the drive for pleasure. I can easily imagine social progress that makes advances towards "justice" (in the Rawlsian sense of "fairness") while undermining our conditions for pleasure, and therefore minimizes happiness. After all, one way to make the world a fairer place is to make exceptionally happy people as miserable as everyone else. Likewise, it is possible to imagine social change that improves our capacity for pleasure wherever possible, without worrying too much whether it is equally distributed. Such change might make everyone a little happier.

I am against the fixation on justice. I am also against the fixation on truth. I think we need to find a balance between science and politics. Instead of making a wasteland of the imagination between them, we must negotiate a peace that allows the arts to flourish. We must cultivate the ground of beauty. We must find again the pleasure of experience. We must learn, first, to experience pleasure.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Secret Order of the White Knights

I agree with Michael Brown that "less secrecy" on the subject of sexual harassment in astronomy would be a good idea. But perhaps not quite in the sense that he intends.

Near the end of the ABC Background Briefing on the allegations of harassment at CSIRO, Brian Gaensler makes some remarks which I find rather disturbing. Hagar Cohen reports that "after three high profile astronomers in the US and the UK were exposed as serial sexual harassers ... Gaensler decided to stop his students working with two of the professors in question." Cohen doesn't say who the astronomers were, but my guess is that at least one of them was Geoff Marcy. Gaensler explained his reaction as follows:

That was an incredible shock. I'd heard rumours about these people, and I knew that they were people that I needed to keep an eye out on around young students, but when you actually hear names, and see the details, and hear about the things they did, it's really confronting that someone who's a very distinguished profound brilliant scientist would actually do these things. [...] I felt that I had no choice but to remove them from the project in both cases. So I wasn't punishing anybody, I wasn't taking the law into my own hands, but knowing that the activities that we were going to be pursuing was going to involve people at the very beginning of their research career, who are enthusiastic and excited and for whom there is a whole range of possibilities, I cannot take the chance of them having a negative experience that could really sour their whole career.

But is it really true that he wasn't "taking the law into his own hands"? It sounds like he made the call. It does not sound like he offered the students the choice of taking the risk. And if the professor in question was in fact Geoff Marcy I think this is a very important question. While some women might have experienced his attention to be inappropriate, as Sarah Ballard did, it's not at all likely that all women would. And even Ballard appears to have mostly benefited career-wise from the association.

In any case, Gaensler appears to have made this call on behalf of at least two women. And it's part of a larger practice of making such decisions for women. Cohen tells us that "Gaensler thinks there's much more to be revealed. In fact he's got a black list." And Gaensler says he's not the only one who is protecting unsuspecting women from sexual harassers. (Do please note the double sense of "unsuspecting" here: these women don't suspect that their future supervisor or collaborator is a harasser, nor do they suspect that their current supervisor is making the decision about whether to take the risk.)

There's many of us who have these informal lists of people to watch out for, either because of rumours or because of things we know first-hand. There's a long list of people who've had investigations against them, or findings against them, or people that you simply do not want your students to be around. [...] I personally know of about 20 senior tenured male astronomers who've had some accusations against them. Whether the accusations are substantiated or not, I can't say, because I haven't participated in the investigations, but I know of about 20 people.

That is, if you're one of Brian Gaensler's students—"particularly [his] female students," as he makes clear—there are about twenty astronomers in the world that, whether you'd like to work with them or not, he will secretly prevent you from dealing with. In some cases, he will do this on the basis of rumors and without knowing "whether the accusations are substantiated or not". Notice that if you're a male student he might let you take the risk. Notice that this gives male students a much greater range of career options and research trajectories. The women will have to make do with whatever path professor Gaensler thinks is safe enough for them to tread.

It's this conception of female agency that I'm always so surprised to see soi-disant feminists promoting. If I were a woman I don't know what I would find more objectionable: the lone harasser or this Secret Order of White Knights, conspiring behind my back to keep me safe from the "inappropriate attentions" of my male professors. I wonder how many women could have discovered an exoplanet under Geoff Marcy's tutelage but were prevented from learning the technique from the master because their supervisor had heard a rumor.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Two Petitions

It is instructive to compare the petition in support of Mary Bryson with the petition in support of Jordan Peterson. By signing the latter, you are petitioning the University of Toronto not to punish Peterson for expressing his views, nor restrict his ability to do so. By signing the former, you are petitioning the University of British Columbia to "to express their clear and unequivocal support for Dr. Bryson" and "to condemn the intentional and malicious attacks that have been directed at Dr. Bryson in public and in private." Notice the very important difference. While UBC is being asked to "express support" and "condemn attacks", UofT is merely being asked not to punish someone for exercising their academic freedom.

The most telling part of the Bryson petition addresses Christine Blatchford's column in the National Post. Blatchford, the petition tells us,

intentionally refused to use Dr. Bryson’s pronoun ‘they/them’ in the article, referring to Dr. Bryson instead as ‘she’, thus self-consciously violating the terms of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The extent of expressed hate in the National Post article Comments sections provides extensive evidence of the efficacy of incitement of hate towards LGBT people.

To me, this reads as an indictment of Blatchford's column as hate speech. UBC's administrators are presumably being petitioned to "condemn" this column as well, and to do so with reference to the Ontario Human Rights Code. I think this makes it starkly clear that Jordan Peterson was onto something when he worried that refusing to use preferred pronouns was indeed implicitly covered by C-16, and that those who support it do, in fact, intend to use it to compel compliance in this regard.

The worry here for me is that if Blatchford can be accused of "inciting" the "hate" expressed in the comments to her articles, then surely Peterson can be similarly accused. The Tim Hunt case made it very clear to me that the universities have an obligation to the scholars they employ to protect them from mobs stirred to action by hurt feelings. What we're trying to do here is maintain a sense of decency. That means that when a reasoned, principled refusal to use particular words, or, for that matter, a reasoned and principled request to use such words, elicits angry responses and even hateful rhetoric, we cannot hold the person who was, indeed, reasoned and principled responsible for the least thoughtful members of their audience.

One last thing. I had never heard of Mary Bryson before the U of T forum. Bryson, I soon found out, is "not 'gay' as in happy but 'queer' as in fuck you." This was in a video profile on YouTube that has since become inaccessible, no doubt because it was discovered by trolls. Now, while I wouldn't ordinarily use such language myself, I'm happy to let public discourse include strong language. But I don't quite understand why someone who does talk this way would find it particularly distressing (or even surprising) to be called, say, a "dyke bitch". That seems to be merely an equal and opposite reaction. "Queer as in fuck you?" the trolls might well have been thinking. "Well, fuck her!"

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Maintaining the Value Proposition of the University

For quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

Patricia McGuire seems to think that, since Trump owes his victory to non-college-educated Americans*, the disaster (if that's what it is) could have been avoided by getting more Americans through college. I think that misunderstands what the true "value proposition" of the university is.

In so far as it has anything to do with politics, the university should teach people what Hillary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them. Those who hold university degrees, especially from elite colleges, are likely to enter the governing class, whether in business or politics. Their job will not be, as many progressives assume, to transform society, but, rather, to maintain civilization. The skill set that is needed for this is quite traditional. Indeed, it's pretty conservative.

Higher education is almost by definition elite education. It should be reserved for the most intelligent and curious people among us. But if your education only works with other educated people it's not much of one. Imagine an engineer who knows how to build bridges that only other engineers can safely cross. Or a doctor that can only explain a healthy lifestyle to another doctor. Or an architect who can only design buildings that are livable and workable for other architects. Indeed, imagine a nation's poetry that can only be enjoyed by other poets, or novels that only novelists can appreciate. (I'll leave it to you to decide how far along we are.)

In a civilized society, there should be no shame in not having a university education, nor should not having one make life particularly difficult. A university education certainly shouldn't be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in civic life. And it is the responsibility of our educated elites to maintain a public sphere that it doesn't take an elite education to participate in. If you ask me, it was their failure to provide such a sphere that gave Trump his victory, not the failure to provide the masses with a college education.

I realized where McGuire went wrong when I read this sentence: "We need more focus on students and less on institutions." That is exactly backwards. Universities have been chasing after students for way too long. (as McGuire actually implies when she says they "obsess" about "rankings"). They need to reassert themselves, precisely, as institutions. "Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions," McGuire says, "claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students." That's not how it looks it to me. My sense of the unrest on college campuses is that the institutions have been bending over backwards to "ensure success" for students that might otherwise struggle.

The problem is that the struggle university students are being spared is the very "value proposition" of the university. It is supposed to be providing an environment in which that struggle can go on and where the skills to overcome it can therefore be developed. To use McGuire's propositions, it is the struggle to exercise "free thought and speech" and, ultimately, become a "public intellectual voice" in society.

It's interesting to note that McGuire doesn't say that it's the students who should be these voices. She believes that the university, in the person of the university president, should be "the public intellectual voice of society". That's an interestingly authoritarian sentiment, and implies that higher education is the process by which one comes to respect an intellectual authority, understand what the master's voice is saying. Indeed, what was most notable, at least to me, about the reaction to Trump's victory on college campuses was how inarticulate it was. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, uneducated. It was unformed. The students lacked voices of their own, and so they joined various mobs.**

What is needed is for the universities to reassert themselves as institutions of free speech and thought. This does not mean that they should "enlarge the pipeline" of academic success. On the contrary, it means that they need to insist on "interior circumstances" that require a great deal of discipline to master. It's true that some students—those who come from already elite segments of society—will find those disciplines somewhat more natural than others. But the universities are supposed to be precisely the place where their natural advantage is redistributed a little, where those who aren't born with it can gain some of it. The value proposition of the university is most certainly not to subject all 17-23-year-olds to such coddling that they are unable to deal articulately with a populist president and will then have to look to their college president to speak for them.

University should be a place where you learn to make up your own mind and speak with your own voice. It should make you a better interpreter of the vox populi, not deaf to it or, worse, afraid of it. (After four years of "safe spaces" is it any wonder that so many young people can't stand to hear Trump speak?) The existence of a cadre of highly educated people should enrich the public sphere for all. It should not require the indoctrination of the same "value proposition" into every citizen.

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*There is good reason to think this is true.
**We see here the important sense in which so-called "elitism" is actually a form of anti-authoritarianism. But I'll save that for another post.