Apparently professors are no longer allowed to hold opinions.

12 06 2010

I first noticed the controversy about the “Cry Wolf” project when Ralph linked to everything written about it a couple of days ago. My first inclination was to chuckle and move on, but the more I read the more I’m convinced this is an excellent teaching moment for understanding why the left and right in this country spend so much time talking past each other.

I think this all boils down to competing paradigms. The criticism of “Cry Wolf” is based on the traditional notion of hypothesis testing. Scholar ponders bog question. Scholar creates theory. Scholar tests theory. If the theory is true, then you publish it.

The “Cry Wolf” folks are working off a paradigm that’s so prevalent in Academia that I never even heard the name for it until after I left graduate school: Rational Consensus. Everybody provides a little piece of the puzzle with their individual research. From all those pieces, a consensus can emerge that will be the closest thing we can get to truth. That truth will shift as the nature of the research shifts, but that’s a good thing since it means that understanding can incorporate new research that will come along later.

As I never clean out my e-mail, I actually still had the “Cry Wolf” solicitation letter in my inbox. The assumptions of the Rational Consensus Paradigm are right there at the surface from the beginning:

Today, as in the past, the fight to transform American politics and policy takes place on a battlefield in which ideas, narratives, and the construction of a politically driven conventional wisdom constitutes a set of highly potent weapons. Too often conservatives in the Congress and the media have captured the rhetorical high ground by asserting that virtually any substantial, progressive change in public policy, especially that involving taxes on the wealthy or regulation of business, will kill jobs, generate a stifling government bureaucracy, or curtail economic growth.

But history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are “crying wolf.” We therefore need to construct a counter narrative that demonstrates the falsity or exaggeration of such claims so that the first reaction of millions of people, as well as opinion leaders, will be “There they go again!” Such a refrain will undermine the credibility and arguments of the organizations and individuals who use such dire social and economic prognostications to thwart progressive reform.

Horrors!, says K.C. Johnson (via Ralph again):

In short, the Wolfers intend to reverse customary academic procedure (researching the evidence, and then attempting to ferret out the truth). They have already established their truth: that “history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are ‘crying wolf.'” They look to pay academics to assemble evidence that will “prove” the foreordained truth.

No K.C., they already have their opinion. The truth, as they used to say on the X-Files, is out there. While K.C. certainly isn’t guilty of doing this, if you carry this no preconceptions position to the extreme you get some pretty ridiculous outcomes and as this is a political issue the extremes are easy to find among Ralph’s original links. When I first read this, for example, I almost spit up:

These professors’ ties to the labor movement and the glorification of its struggles are indisputable – which is fine, being that their interests reside in that area. But it does lead to the question: Should these professors be allowed to use our higher education system to push their progressive political ideologies in the guise of disinterested academics?

I think most would answer simply: no. Our publicly funded schools should be institutions of unbiased research, not propaganda vehicles for a particular ideology — especially one with longstanding and well-documented ties to the Communist movement.

Labor History = Labor unions = Communists. Red-baiting. Pure and simple.

While I have developed many interests, I started my career (and to a great extent still am) a labor historian. I didn’t develop an interest in the subject by studying it, I studied it because of my interest in the subject. If you treat history as some kind of disinterested, hypothesis testing science, all kinds of scholarship along these lines would immediately become suspect. I can hear it now: “You can’t study women’s history because you’re a woman. You’re not properly disinterested!”

Of course, in the eyes of the Right, all this scholarship is inherently suspect already, which is precisely why ther’ve throwing around words like Academia-Gate in the first place. They’re looking for proof of their preconceptions.


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