Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

This is the Samizdata quote of the day from yesterday, and it leads to a most interesting article by Kåre Fog in Quillette. Not a particularly easy read, but very valuable and highly recommended.

From this laborious work, and from all my other efforts in this field, I have drawn the conclusion that the evidence for social constructionism is a mirage in the desert. It does not exist. Most people in the humanities – including those who are able to express their opinions freely without fear of being fired – presuppose that gender roles are social constructs, and that the results obtained by natural scientists are determined by their social and political environment. Thousands of pages of academic ‘research’ express such notions, and thousands of university students are taught that this is how things are. But it is all hot air. The whole scenario is reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes – nobody listens to the little boy who alone has the courage to point out that the Emperor is naked.

Much of this material – and Judith Butler’s obscurantism, in particular – functions like a Latin liturgy. It is not meant to be understood. About 600 years ago, the clergy in England supposedly existed to combat evil and make the world a better place. The sermons were in Latin, and the Bible was only available in Latin, so laypeople had no means of verifying what the clergy told them about religious doctrine. When a number of idealists translated the Bible into English so that common people could read and understand it, the idea – in principle, anyway – was that this would give more people direct access to God’s word. But instead of embracing this opportunity, the clergy fought all attempts at translation. And when the Bible became available in a language that people understood, the clergy burned the English translations, and those who distributed them were caught and executed. Given the choice of either supporting the wider dissemination of God’s word or preserving their own power and authority, they chose the latter.

A similar pattern of motivated self-interest is in evidence today (although opponents are no longer executed). Social constructionism has transformed the humanities departments of many universities into a kind of postmodern clerisy. In its own understanding, this clerical class strives to improve the world by insisting that all differences between groups of people are social constructs that testify to the unfairness of society. Society, therefore, can and must be reconstructed to dismantle these iniquities. But if wide-ranging social change is being demanded, then the basis for those demands needs to be firmly established first. Scholars ought to be labouring to prove the extent to which such differences are indeed social constructs and the extent to which disparities can be mitigated or dispelled by the radical reorganisation of social policy and even society itself. But this step in the process is simply absent. Instead, theorists make claims without bothering to substantiate them. Confronted with a choice between the disinterested pursuit of truth and understanding, or preserving their ideologies and positions of influence, they consistently opt for the latter.

And so, large swathes of the humanities and social sciences have been corrupted by ideology. Pockets of integrity remain but they are the minority, and they are only tolerated so long as they do not contradict the central planks of the accepted narrative. The unhappy result is that our universities are corroding, and our students will graduate with nothing more than the ability to further corrode the rest of society.

These are the concluding paragraphs of the paper and summarize very well what is documented in it. Many of us often wonder why the scientific method is falling into disrepute, and here is our documented answer. Do read it, and take it to heart, it will clarify many things.


The Hardest Course in the Humanities

Most of you know that while I’m appalled at what passes for the humanities today, I’m a huge supporter of the real teaching of them. Yesterday, at Powerline, Scott Johnson had some good news for us. This comes to us from Mark Bauerlein, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s out from behind their paywall, at least for the present. Do read it all.

For most of my professional life, the future of the humanities was a conceptual matter. That’s no longer the case. When enrollments are down, majors are down, funding and jobs are down, adjuncts are up, and departments are being closed, abstract debates over which new theory or interdisciplinary vision is on the rise don’t much count. When a formation as renowned as the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University is proposed for shutdown (it later was saved in modified form), we know that the prosperity of the humanities doesn’t rest with people at the top.

No, it depends on the people at the bottom, undergraduates who vote with their feet. If an English department’s chairman tells the dean, “We’ve got to hire someone in this new area of ____,” the dean replies, “But you can’t even get your existing courses half-filled.” If, however, a parent calls and grumbles, “I’m paying lots of money, and my daughter can’t get into any of the English classes she wants,” well, that calls for action.

It’s a situation that few humanities professors are equipped to overcome. Graduate school and assistant professorships don’t impel you to attract freshmen and sophomores. Instead you learn how to impress senior professors. But right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.

Hopefully, and their parents, at least indirectly, but it is true enough, it’s a somewhat competitive market. But what to do?

Nothing could be further from it than what W.H. Auden did at the University of Michigan in 1941. Auden had left England in 1939 and became for a time a visiting professor at Ann Arbor. He called his course “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” a timely theme in the days of mass killing and existentialist moods. Its syllabus resurfaced a few years ago and provoked much commentary on its mass of 6,000 pages of the most powerful and challenging literature in the canon: The Divine Comedy in full, four Shakespeares, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe BrothersKaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Auden even included nine operas. Opera in the 1940s was a popular art form, with millions of people tuning in each week to the Met’s Saturday broadcast, but it’s hard to imagine anything less consonant with millennials’ attention span than one of Wagner’s Teutonic enormities. Auden assigned three of them.

Sounds to me like a fascinating but quite difficult course, I’d have loved it, but it would surely cut into the time spent drinking and chasing girls. Continuing:

[..]  “Where on earth today would one find institutions or teachers or students so audacious as to attempt something similar?”

That question, in fact, appears on the syllabus of LTRS 3803, the first part of the two-semester, team-taught course at the University of Oklahoma that goes against all the conventional wisdom. It’s modeled on Auden’s course, with a few changes. The instructors — Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English — have spread it out over an entire year, and they’ve excised a few books (Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka). But they added The OdysseyThe AeneidBeowulfSirGawain and the Green KnightParadiseLostRobinsonCrusoePride and Prejudice, Nietzsche, InvisibleMan, and other 20th-century masterpieces such as Derek Walcott’s neo-Homeric epic Omeros. They dropped most of the operas but kept Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They speak frankly in the course description of taking “delight in the Western canon” and hold fast to themes of little currency in the research world: destiny, God and “the gods,” a meaningful life, authority.

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

Well, how about that!

[…]There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature. “This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Their attitude was enlivening. But the only thing that really matters is enrollment. “Will you sign up for next semester’s course?” I asked. “Definitely,” they replied, all of them. (This semester has 32 students enrolled, more than the original cap of 22 because many more petitioned to get in.)

(emphasis mine) The precise opposite of the bigotry of low expectations.

I advise the traditionalists to try the Oklahoma way. Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

I agree completely!!

Huzzah, Huzzah, Huzzah!

May this trend spread widely, and well. This is what the liberal arts are supposed to be all about.

Autonomous Mayhem, and Poor Advisors

Well, the autonomous automobile passed a milestone over the weekend. One of Uber’s autonomous vehicles struck a woman pedestrian and killed her. Here is the story from Gizmodo.

Last night a woman was struck by an autonomous Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. She later died of her injuries in the hospital.

The deadly collision—reported by ABC15 and later confirmed to Gizmodo by Uber and Tempe police—took place around 10PM at the intersection of Mill Avenue and Curry Road, both of which are multi-lane roads. Autonomous vehicle developers often test drive at night, during storms, and other challenging conditions to help their vehicles learn to navigate in a variety of environments.

According to Tempe PD, the car—later clarified as a grey 2017 Volvo XC90—was in autonomous mode at the time of the incident, with a vehicle operator sitting behind the wheel. The self-driving vehicle had one operator and no passengers, Uber said.

I’m sorry for the woman, and her family, but it was going to happen someday, and there will be more.

Apparently, the car showed very little sign of slowing down

And here comes a major can of worms for the lawyers to sort. The car was running autonomously, but there was a driver in it. There is video from several angles that has not been released. So who is at fault here? Uber, whoever built the control system, the driver, or the victim. Interesting times, what?

This follows on from yesterday, from The American Spectator.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said of the prospect of being tarred and feathered that, “Except for the honor, I’d as soon skip it.” (Though with Twain you can never be sure. It may be in his case, as Yogi Berra put it, “I didn’t say everything I said.”) Except for the honor of having a (very expensive) sheepskin, young Americans today may find there are many more profitable ways to spend four years than idling at a dumbed down, overpriced, and highly politicized university.

In Friday’s edition of TAS, our Allen Mendenhall calls out a woman history professor for her exercise in misandry poorly disguised as an academic article in that progressive newsletter, the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The men-are-useless-at-best-and-swine-at-worst genre is popular among female academics just now. It mostly derives from free-floating hostility that unhappy women have decided to attach to an easily available and approved target, to wit: men. Annoying, but not to be taken too seriously. In her Chronicle rant, our complaining professor (no point in naming her, there are so many of her out there) rides the usual feminist hobby-horses, too dreary and predictable to enumerate here.

From Professor Discontent’s laughable survey, one cannot conclude, as she invites us to, that women academic advisors are competent and helpful, whereas men advisors are, well, just a bunch of men so what should we expect? But from personal experience I can assure TAS readers that slothful academic advising is hardly a new problem. Perhaps not even a problem at all. At the bachelor’s degree level I managed, not entirely by choice, to dispense with it altogether.

When I filled out an academic course schedule for my first semester at the University of South Florida in Tampa, it was with precious little help from my assigned academic advisor. He was a man with a string of degrees from a certain toney Ivy League University, the annual tariff to attend which now amounts to about what I earned in my first 10 years in journalism. This fellow was cordial enough, and was helpful to the extent that he gave me a sharp pencil to fill in my course schedule with. But it took me mere minutes to determine that on the basis of a quick browse through the USF catalogue, I knew as much about what courses I needed to take as he did, and was far more interested in the matter. (I’m sure other faculty members at USF, and elsewhere, took the advising chore more seriously.)

Keep reading it’s interesting.

I know the feeling, I did much the same thing. My advisor wasn’t from a fancy school, like his, well as far as I know. She was, however head of the department, and apparently had better things to do than advise undergraduates. So I did what he did, figured it out for myself, the information was all published, so it was merely a matter of looking it up, and marking the appropriate tick boxes.

So my experience says that a woman advisor is useless.

What the three of us writing these accounts have really done is demonstrate the weakness of anecdotal data, each of us generated a true set of data points, leading to entirely different conclusions.

That was rather fun, but what he really was talking about in the article (you should read it) is this, and yes, I think the same way.

I’ve no clue about the quality of advice currently handed out to college students, though some of my speculation is truly dreadful. The often daft news out of academe today — about what both professors and students are saying and doing — makes one wonder if perhaps the best advice for a brand new high school graduate today, unless he/she is aiming at medicine, engineering, or the hard sciences, is to not waste four years and a ton of money at one of the most anti-intellectual institutions in the republic. It will just take new degree-holders years in the real world after graduation to de-louse their thinking and to learn something useful. About as long as it will take them to dig out from under the enormous debt they accumulated in order to pay to attend today’s overpriced university.

Shaking up the Universities

This is interesting. I don’t have all that much contact with education anymore, other than college sports on TV occasionally. But I read a lot, and a lot of the nonsense on the internet comes out of various colleges. There is a backlash starting, just ask Mizzou or Evergreen, even Oberlin is starting to feel it. I don’t think that Harvard’s stupidity with its endowment is part of the backlash, but it sounds like that investment officer may well be a product of the left wing academy.

In any case, this is from Steven Hayward of PowerLine who is trapped at Berkeley.

I’ve been predicting, […] that universities would soon begin to divide into two entities—the STEM fields and related practical subjects (i.e., business and economics), and the social sciences and humanities, which would start to shrivel under the weight of the degradations the left has inflicted over the last 40 years. The number of students majoring in the humanities has declined by two-thirds since around 1980.

Here’s part of what I said at Arizona State:

I think we’re already seeing the beginnings of a de facto divorce of universities, in which the STEM fields and other “practical” disciplines essentially split off from the humanities and social sciences, not to mention the more politicized departments.

At this rate eventually many of our leading research universities will bifurcate into marginal fever swamps of radicalism whose majors will be unfit for employment at Starbucks, and a larger campus dedicated to science and technology education.

I added, incidentally, the interesting fact that a new trend is starting to occur in economics. Not only is the discipline subdividing itself into “general economics” and an even more math-centric “quantitative econometrics,” but several economics departments are formally reclassifying themselves as STEM departments for a variety of reasons, but among them surely has to be wishing to disassociate themselves further from other social sciences.

Well, now we have some concrete evidence of this crackup starting to happen. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point campus announced last week that it intends to cut 13 majors from the humanities and social sciences. Inside Higher Ed reports:

Programs pegged for closure are American studies, art (excluding graphic design), English (excluding English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (excluding social science for teacher certification), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish.

The even better news is that some tenured professors are going to be laid off. Naturally, the faculty are not happy. Who’s next?

More at the link, of course.

That is on the whole good news, I think. You all know that I have a firm belief that the humanities provide the solid foundation for a well-rounded man or woman. But they are no longer, in many cases, teaching the humanities, they are indoctrinating left-wing ideas in the kids.

But departments that think Howard Zinn writes history, or that one can teach English without Shakespeare, have no salvage value. They are totally useless. Time to send them to the landfill, and find something of value to replace them.

This may be the only way to fix it, knock it all down, salvage what little might be usable and start over, and pay attention this time.

This is going to take some time, so one is advised to buy futures in popcorn. Gonna be a lot of leftist shrieking. It’ll sound better than most of what passes for music these days, at least.

Secularism and Religion

Many here are aware that the basis of western civilization is in our Judeo-Christian heritage. Often we merely assert this, since we have known it all our lives, but it can be examined fruitfully.

I admire Melanie Phillips greatly because not only is she a very good writer and speaker, she is fully capable of thinking through things. And she does so here. Yes, this is a long read, but I think you’ll find it valuable to read the whole thing.

It has become the orthodoxy in the West that freedom, human rights and reason all derive from secularism and that the greatest threat to all these good things is religion.

I want to suggest that the opposite is true. In the service of this orthodoxy, the West is undermining and destroying the very values which it holds most dear as the defining characteristics of a civilised society.

In truth, in the United States, we don’t hear it explicitly very often, but in Britain, it is quite common in my experience. Not to mention very strident, not only from the secularists, but from Randians, and other assorted libertine groups.

Some of this hostility is being driven by the perceived threat from Islamic terrorism and the Islamisation of Western culture. However, this animus against religion has far deeper roots and can be traced back to what is considered the birthplace of Western reason, the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Actually, it goes back specifically to the French Enlightenment. In England and Scotland, the Enlightenment developed reason and political liberty within the framework of Biblical belief. In France, by contrast, anti-clericalism morphed into fundamental hostility to Christianity and to religion itself.

“Ecrasez l’infame,” said Voltaire (crush infamy) — the infamy to which he referred being not just the Church but Christianity, which he wanted to replace with the religion of reason, virtue and liberty, “drawn from the bosom of nature”.

[…] Instead of God producing heaven on earth, it would be mankind which would bring that about. Reason would create the perfect society and “progress” was the process by which utopia would be attained.

Far from utopia, however, this thinking resulted in something more akin to hell on earth. For the worship of man through reason led straight to totalitarianism. It was reason that would redeem religious superstition and bring about the kingdom of Man on earth. And just like medieval apocalyptic Christian belief, this secular doctrine would also be unchallengeable and heretics would be punished. This kind of fanaticism infused the three great tyrannical movements that were spun out of Enlightenment thinking: the French Revolution, Communism and Fascism. […]

In the Sixties, the baby-boomer generation bought heavily into the idea propounded by Herbert Marcuse and other Marxist radicals that the way to transform the West lay not through the seizure of political or economic control but through the transformation of the culture. This has been achieved over the past half century through what has been called a “long march through the institutions”, the infiltration into all the institutions of the culture — the universities, media, professions, politics, civil service, churches — of ideas that would then become the orthodoxy.

From multiculturalism to environmentalism, from post-nationalism to “human rights” doctrine, Western progressives have fixated upon universalising ideas which reject values anchored in the particulars of religion or culture. All that matters is a theoretical future in which war, want and prejudice will be abolished: the return of fallen humanity to a lost Eden. And like all utopian projects, which are by definition impossible and unattainable, these dogmas are enforced through coercion: bullying, intimidation, character assassination, professional and social exclusion.

The core doctrine is equality. Not the Biblical doctrine that every human being is owed equal respect because they are formed in the image of God: equality has been redefined as identicality, the insistence that there can be no hierarchy of values of lifestyles or cultures. There can no longer be different outcomes depending on different circumstances or how people behave. To differentiate at all is to be bigoted and on a fast track back to fascism and war.

So the married family was kicked off its perch. Sexual restraint was abolished. The formerly transgressive became normative. Education could no longer transmit a culture down through the generations but had to teach that the Western nation was innately racist and exploitative.

Subjective trumped objective. There was no longer any absolute truth. Everyone could arbitrate their own truth. That way bigotry and prejudice would be excised from the human heart, the oppressed of the developing world would be freed from their Western oppressors and instead of the Western nation there would be the brotherhood of man.

All this was done in name of freedom, reason and enlightenment and in opposition to religion, the supposed source of oppression, irrationality and obscurantism.

At the heart of it was an onslaught against the moral codes of Christianity. Those moral codes are actually the Mosaic laws of the Hebrew Bible.

[…] What they [Western “progressives” and the Islamists] also have in common is hostility to Judaism, Israel or the Jewish people. The genocidal hatred of Israel and the Jews that drives the Islamic jihad against the West is not acknowledged or countered by the West because its most high-minded citizens share at least some of that prejudice. Both Western liberals and Islamists believe in utopias to which the Jews are an obstacle. The State of Israel is an obstacle to both the rule of Islam over the earth and a world where there are no divisions based on religion or creed. The Jews are an obstacle to the unconstrained individualism of Western libertines and to the onslaught against individual human dignity and freedom by the Islamists. Both the liberal utopias of a world without prejudice, divisions or war and the Islamist utopia of a world without unbelievers are universalist ideologies. The people who are always in the way of universalising utopias are the Jews.

Do read it all, and there is a deal more than I have given you. The full title is: Secularism and religion: the onslaught against the West’s moral codes. It is simply a superb examination of where our basic morality came from, and how it has allowed us to exceed former civilizations by orders of magnitude, and how it has come to be endangered.

Crossposted from All along the Watchtower.

Afraid to Teach the Truth

Yesterday we talked of the some of the heroes of 9/11. We know they are men and women that we need to remember because they epitomize the best of us. The same is true in Britain, who (other than America) lost more people on 9/11 than any other country, and whose Queen had no hesitation in expressing her sympathy for America that day.

Nor was it coincidental that the US Marine Band played God Save the Queen at the British Embassy in the aftermath of 7/7. We are both societies that celebrate brave people, and freedom, mostly anyway.

This is from Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch.

This is what a society that has capitulated looks like. UK teachers should teach about 9/11 forthrightly, and explain to their students about the Islamic teachings that motivated it, and the nature and magnitude of the global jihad threat. Instead, they cower in fear of Muslim parents and students. That’s no way to win a war. And they won’t win it.

“Teachers ‘scared’ to teach lessons on 9/11 terror attack,” by Camilla Turner, Telegraph, September 9, 2017:

Some teachers are too scared to discuss 9/11 with their pupils as they fear a backlash from Muslim parents, a leading expert in counter-extremism education has warned.

Kamal Hanif OBE, who was appointed by the Government to turn around three schools at the heart of the “Trojan Horse” scandal, said that some teachers have a “misplaced” concern that they will cause offence if they raise 9/11 in the classroom.

He said that some teachers – particularly those who work in schools with a high proportion of Muslim students – see it as a contentious topic and shy away from teaching it.

“Teachers sometimes have a fear that this might be controversial,” he said.

“[They think] if we teach about this we might get Muslim parents objecting.”

Mr Hanif, who is executive principal of Waverley Education Foundation and has advised the Department for Education (DfE) on combating counter-extremism in schools, said that such views are misguided.

“There is a fear [among teachers] but it is not really grounded in anything,” he said.

Sadly those teachers may have a point, but still, I think it reflects very poorly on them. If that is all the respect that they have for their (which parallels our) history, well, I am pleased that they are not teaching my children but rather dismayed that they are teaching anyone’s.

If one is not proud of one’s heritage, how is it possible for one to teach it, and make no mistake, British teachers are rarely reticent about inserting their views into what is taught to children. The real problem is what those teachers believe. Do they really believe in British society, or are they part of the oft rumored ‘fifth column’? Well, I don’t know, American experience suggests that many of them may simply be poorly educated themselves. Far too often the adage, “Them that can do, them that can’t teach” has been proved right. If so, the Britain, like America, needs educational reform, not from the educational bureaucracy, or the government, but from some representative grouping of the people. Perhaps the parents, maybe?

That is one of the things that are becoming more and more obvious in our countries. Education has become out of touch and out of control of pretty much any responsible party, and the so-called reforms we have seen from the government have been mostly rearranging the deck chair on the Titanic. I think the Titanic may well prove a most appropriate metaphor for government education, oversized, poorly captained, and flooding uncontrollably, because of faulty navigation.

But the Brits, like Americans, are better than some of what we hear, and perhaps they will find a solution, I know many of them are looking.

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