(Swans - July 1, 2013) Lately I have considered what it means to live the "life of the mind" in a modern context. This goal perhaps descends from Platonic and Aristotelian notions that once defined the good life. For readers familiar with Plato's Republic as well as his other works, reason occupied the highest place within his ideal society (recall that philosophers in his ideal political society dominated the social order) while for Aristotle, the speculative life -- a life spent contemplating scientific truths -- represented another type of life that was virtuous. In both cases, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was one of the fundamental goals of human life and such a goal should be reflected in the social order.
The modern academy has sought to sustain this goal but this endeavor seems all too hollow these days. On the one hand, many a wide-eye graduate student has skipped through the halls of philosophy or history departments to parade the banner of "big ideas" only either to drop out of the program due to faculty politics, while on the other hand, those who do make it through succumb to epistemic myopia for the rest of their academic lives. This myopia assumes one of two forms: dogmatism of doctrine or dogmatism of specialty. The former generally has a decidedly epistemic agenda: to either deny all claims to objective knowledge or reduce knowledge to constructed systems whose foundations can only reflect personal or social biases, class interests, or racial and gendered predilections. "We must," proclaims the advocates of this doctrine, "demythologize claims to objective knowledge by unmasking the subjective nature of their foundations." Such a doctrine rejects the goal of pursuing knowledge for its own sake because of its own religious allegiance to skepticism. All truth claims cannot be trusted, nor can genuine inquiries into the study of nature provide any insight into the way the physical universe is truly constituted.
The latter dogmatism, which stresses the priority of academic specialty, mires the academic or intellectual in a swamp of obscurity and irrelevance. Within the human disciplines and liberal arts, the attraction to specialty is the poison ivy which continues to impede their progress. I've run across dissertation proposals that, for example, sought to argue that Kanye West's rap lyrics deconstruct religious axioms, and that it is worthwhile to deconstruct West's attempts at deconstructing those axioms. This folly is perhaps a good example of academics who try to do two things at once: to show their depth of specialty while also intellectually addressing popular culture elements. With respect to the latter, the academic obviously needs to sell his or her research to the public so "big ideas" must obviously take a backseat to whatever Kanye West is doing.
Not only have these forces rendered the life of the mind barren: we also need to observe the changed landscape of employment in academia. Tenure track positions, which used to allow such lofty pursuits, are becoming relics, and as universities and colleges hire more adjuncts to meet the bottom line (read: pay a contingent labor force next to nothing to make a tidy profit in teaching overcrowded classes), the university and four-year college has bought into the notion that the life of the mind is extraneous to its mission. Higher education at the community college and undergraduate level has become a product, as opposed to a process, which must be delivered to the student as a watered-down, assembly-line, cookie-cut consumables. The study of history, ideas, and cultures -- say the academic bottom-liners -- should be taught as isolated, Jeopardy quiz-show facts solely subjected to memory (as opposed to critical analysis) and teaching is the measurement of the student's repetition of these facts.
So these are some of the problems that have rendered the life of the mind extinct.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)