Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wacademia, Humility, and Gratitude

Victor Davis Hanson asks "Why? Why? Why?" about "this increasingly corrupt institution, whose health is so necessary to the welfare and competitiveness of the United States?" About "Why when academia is so critical of other American institutions, from the Republican party and corporations to churches and the military, does it ignore its own colossal failures?"

I can answer part of that. Academia, or "Wacademia," at it has become, is utterly devoid of two virtues: humility and gratitude.

These two virtues are so absent that there aren't even counterfeit versions of them running around.* The virtues of tolerance and open-mindedness and critical thought are non-existent, too, but they're at least touted. (I can't say if that's better, though, than being ignored entirely.)

Humility does not appeal to academics, regardless of their political leanings. Academics have made their way in life on their book smarts, and society rewards you for being smart: good grades, parental approval, high-paying jobs, and most of all, credibility. It's easy to be self-important in this case, and to believe that because you have are well read and can converse intelligently with other well-read people, you must know quite a bit.

And you do. But to be humble means not over-estimating what you know. It means being aware that there are libraries chock full of things that you don't know, and people living in trailer parks whose understanding of human nature and other kinds of non-book smarts makes yours pale in comparison.

Humility, contrary to popular belief, does not mean that you downplay your strengths, or that you operate in a constant state of humiliation, but that you have a realistic understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

Humility also means that you're teachable, that you're not so attached to your pet theories that you can't see where you were wrong in the past.

Humility guts hubris, though, and hubris feels good. Oh, it feels good! Not having to ever admit that you were wrong is a place we all want to be in, but it's a position that is contrary to reality. We're all wrong about something, but it doesn't feel good to be wrong and it feels much worse to admit it. Especially when your social standing or your career are dependent on being right.

No, humility doesn't fit into the academic environment very well. So it gets ignored.

Gratitude is also unwelcome, because it erodes hubris as well. You can't think of yourself as self-sufficient if you owe anything to anyone, and you can't enjoy the endorphin rush of hubris if you indulge in gratitude.

But this is also contrary to reality. Universities exist only when there is enough wealth and security in a nation to permit such institutions to emerge. Wealth comes from business, and security from the military, both of which are despised by Wacademia. Could it be that Wacademia despises these two institutions because they know that they are indebted to them? Or is it that they eschew gratitude because it would mean acknowledging their debt to hated institutions?

Either way, humility and gratitude would go a long way to cure what ails Wacademia, but these two medicines are far too bitter for the average Wacademic. Destroy my hubris? Death first!

* The new praise of "uncertainty" coming from cerebral luminaries such as Bill Maher stands to fill that role as a counterfeit of humility. Of course, it's only a virtue when the other guy possesses it.

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