Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Wacademia, Impotence, and Envy

No, not that kind of impotence, though if I were a Freudian (and I most emphatically am not), I would argue that it amounts to the same thing.

What I mean is the nagging suspicion that is held among the humanities types--most notably those in literature--that what they're doing might not be all that important, in the great scheme of things.

After all, if you're an engineer, you make things, real-life things that operate in the real world in a real way. People pay you real money for them. And depending on what you make, you could be offering the world something of great importance.

And if you're in medicine, you heal people or make discoveries that lead to better health. Or even if you're in law, you at least do something tangible that affects the way the world works, even if for one person only.

But if you major in Comparative Literature or Spanish Literature or Women's Studies or Philosophy, you are being groomed for one thing only: to teach your subject in a university to other students who will eventually grow up to teach your subject in a university. There is no practical, real-world application for these Humanities degrees outside of the university.

I should know; I majored in Spanish Literature, went up to the PhD level at Cornell University (didn't finish the dissertation), decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life teaching, and was loosed on the world with no marketable skills. (What skills I now market as a technical writer I mostly learned independently of my degree.) Trust me, no one is going to pay you to write a killer essay on the metafictional elements in Don Quixote outside the university.

On the other hand, the professors who teach chemical engineering or biology or even math are teaching students who will go out into the world with some very definitely marketable skills, skills that make a difference in the world. Some of those students will spend some time in the field, then return to the university to impart that field experience to their students.

In other words, majoring in the humanities is supremely incestuous in that all you have is professors producing more professors who produce more professors. The sciences, on the other hand, produce people who make the world go, from airplanes to computer software to skyscrapers.

Consequently, the humanities (and often the social sciences) receive less prestige and certainly less funding than their hard-science peers. (For handouts, I had to use a mimeograph machine instead of a copier at 10¢ a pop!) And that reallygets under the skins of the humanities types. As would be expected with ordinary human beings, this perceived impotence provokes envy of the worst kind.

When you're in a position of lesser power and prestige, it's natural to want to remedy that inequality, to catch a little sunshine for yourself. You can go about it in a positive way, by making sure you are actually doing something that merits prestige, or you can go about tearing the other guy down. One of these is easier than the other, and therefore is the one that most people will choose.

See if you can tell which path many humanities academics have chosen in the following example: physicist Lee Smolin explains the debate scientists had with his "lesser" colleagues.
The social constructivists [a group of humanities and social science professors] claimed that the scientific community is no more rational or objective than any other community of human beings. This is not how most scientists view science. We tell our students that belief in a scientific theory must always be based on an objective evaluation of the evidence. Our opponents in the debate argued that our claims about how science works were mainly propaganda designed to intimidate people into giving us power, and that the whole scientific enterprise was driven by the same political and sociological forces that drove people in other fields. -- Lee Smolin. The Trouble with Physics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, xix.

This approach elevates the humanities without diminishing the sciences, right?

Ok, not so much. What interests me here are the accusations of intimidation and power-grabbing. Have you ever noticed that people who are extremely insecure will often accuse you of having the very motives that they have? It's called "projection," for those of you not up to speed on this kind of thing.

(I have just barely started reading Smolin's book, but he tells us the punchline in the introduction: that in studying String Theory, physicists unmoored themselves from their own prime directive -- prove it -- and went off spinning thousands of theories (actually, there are 10500 string theories, according to Smolin), none of which could or even can be proven. And the result was that physics began to take on the unhealthy characteristics of the humanities: lock-step thinking, shunning for not believing in or studying String Theory, denied funding and hiring for those who didn't take the Official Position, and in general a huge void in the progress of theoretical physics, something unheard of in the past two centuries.)

At any rate, the point is that one of the reasons that humanities has become so unhinged is that they're frustrated beyond belief at their own impotence. They're at the bottom of the scholarly pile and they know it. So they take on various "causes" meant to change the world -- feminism, socialism, queer theory -- and make those the subject of their study, rather than what novels and poems and plays actually say.

Because like I said, no one cares if you can describe the differences between a sonnet by Garcilaso de la Vega and one by Góngora. But if you can persuade people that you've got the key to solving the world's problems, maybe people will take you seriously for once.

No comments: