I remember exactly when I stopped watching network news. It was after Timothy McVeigh blew up those poor people in Oklahoma City. That’s when the networks discovered the militia movement and they started sticking mikes in the faces of those loons.
The dialogue always sounded something like this to me:
Loon: “Black helicopters from the UN are swooping down at night and stealing our brains!”
Voiceover: “Black helicopters from the UN: Another matter of controversy.”
When the media stopped using its brain to draw basic conclusions, I checked out of the media.
Last night, I went to read Wisconsin’s best paper, the Capital Times, so that I could learn more about the magic 7500 votes in the Supreme Court election there. Instead, I came upon an extended interview with Bill Cronon. The whole thing is well worth reading even if you’ve OD’d on the issue of his e-mail.
What struck me as particularly important though was his assessment of the Wisconsin Idea, basically the mission of a public university:
“You can tell the emotion in my voice, but this event has changed me fundamentally,” says Cronon. “My life has changed and my life in this state has changed, and that bothers me. I can feel the chilling effect on the part of me that believes in putting academic ideas into the world for public discussion. I just feel like the Wisconsin Idea is at risk in this space.” Attributed to UW President Charles Van Hise more than a century ago, the Wisconsin Idea is the principle that education should influence and improve people’s lives beyond the university classroom…
“I believe deeply in public universities,” Bill Cronon says. “The Wisconsin Idea, that universities exist to serve the public good, is one of my ruling passions. The idea that scholarship and science should be seeking to improve the life of people in Wisconsin and around the world, I cherish that value. We need places like this university, and that’s why I’m here.”
Contrast that with Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing last week in the Washington Post:
A significant portion of the professoriate sees engagement in politics as part of the job description. And, unfortunately, they are right. It is becoming harder and harder to find professors devoted to teaching traditional academic subjects for their own sake, to undergraduates who lack the basics in the humanities and the social and natural sciences. The academy has not become politicized because of a few radical professors. Rather, entire departments and university administrations see the goal of higher education as political. At a time when the percentage of students needing remedial education is at an all-time high, when the need for job training beyond high school is pressing and when we worry about how even our top students will compete with their peers around the world, political activism should be at the bottom of any university’s list of priorities.
Translation: Get out of the conversation. We pay your salary, therefore we own you. Who cares if it’s been this way since the Progressive Era since our new Tea Party overlords have no respect for the way things used to be?
Cronon, as we now know, is usually the least political of professors, but living in Wisconsin he couldn’t just check his brain at the door. His blog is called “Scholar as Citizen,” for Pete’s sake. Looking at facts and drawing conclusions is what he does for a living. If those conclusions are considered political, then so be it.
Suppose I teach Political Science and I mention those magic votes in Waukesha County in class or in an op-ed somewhere. I could, like Ed at Gin and Tacos, compare Wisconsin to Nigeria, but I won’t go that far. I’ll simply have my new hypothetical self write or say in class: “Having 7500 votes appear two days after the election is highly suspicious.”
Oh no, I’ve committed politics! Yet as a political scientist (or a historian for that matter), drawing conclusions is a fundamental function of my job; just like the job of the media should be to draw basic conclusions about what they report.
Unfortunately for everybody, the media has been cowed into submission for at least the last fifteen years. What happened to Cronon is just the first shot in the battle to do the same thing to the professoriate.
Update: The more things change, the more things stay the same.