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The Academy Encounters the Real World

Sept. 11 brought a major change to academia. Suddenly the outside world was paying attention to what university people were saying — and that world didn't like what it was hearing.

Professors who applauded the attack on the Pentagon, or claimed that U.S. wrongdoing somehow justified the Sept. 11 attacks, found themselves being denounced. These denunciations have found support from within the academic community, including a new group made up of faculty, trustees and alumni of major universities. Even Harvard President Lawrence Summers has joined in, calling for his university to embrace patriotic values and get more in line with mainstream Americans.

In response, some are proclaiming a new era of McCarthyism and censorship. Such proclamations ring hollow: So far, no one has suffered anything worse than public criticism for making anti-American statements, and surely criticism does not count as censorship. If it does, after all, the "critical theorists" of academia, who criticize almost everything about American society, would constitute America's foremost censors.

Of course, in a way, they do. As even The Nation has come to notice, America's campuses are not free-speech zones, but among the most pervasively censored environments in our society. Campus newspapers that displease powerful ethnic student groups may find themselves the targets of theft, vandalism and intimidation. University administrations often adopt and enforce speech codes that are advertised as promoting civility, but that in fact are used to punish those expressing politically incorrect views, however civilly such expression is made. And peer pressure is very strong, both among faculty members and in classrooms, with the undeniable intent of chilling the expression of certain points of view.

Everyone knows this, and only a few bother to dispute it. As a result, complaints about censorship and neo-McCarthyism have fallen flat: Speech without consequences isn't the rule on campuses anymore. So perhaps it's time for the academic community to follow the advice we are always giving the rest of America, and ask what characteristics of ours have caused such a loss of confidence in the academic establishment, and what we can do to get that confidence back. Here are a few observations:

1. Cleverness isn't everything: In the academic world, originality is prized, and cleverness is almost as good as originality. But cleverness is overrated. To argue (as Cornell historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg and women's health advocate Jacquelyn Jackson did in the Boston Globe) that women who wear bikinis to be fashionable are somehow just as "trapped" by "cultural confines" as Afghan women who are forced to wear burqas on pain of lethal beatings may be clever, but it's also wrong — absurdly wrong. Academics may appreciate the cleverness, but non-academics tend to focus on the "absurdly wrong" part. Not surprisingly, they also tend to lose respect for the people, institutions and disciplines that appear incapable of making straightforward, comparative judgements. Clever explanations for hypocrisy (on PC versus free speech, for example) don't help, either.

2. Being contrary isn't the same as being insightful: As I said, academics want to look original. Actually being original, however, is hard work. The second-raters, therefore, tend to look for ways of seeming original without doing the heavy lifting required to actually come up with something new. One way of doing this is to set yourself against whatever the popular view is in the hopes that others will mistake this for incisiveness. (This frequently works, since other people are often not willing to put in the necessary effort to tell the difference). But knee-jerk contrariness isn't original — it's just conformity in the opposite direction. After a while, this becomes obvious even to casual observers.

3. Professors aren't aristocrats: Today's academia is descended from the clerical scholars and courtier intellectuals of the middle ages. Those folks naturally identified with the princes and potentates who provided their funding. Today's academics affect to identify with the working classes, but many of their attitudes — a contempt for popular culture, a low regard for business and commerce and a desire to set themselves apart from the common herd — are leftovers from a bygone era. There's a reason why kings and princes are no longer found in our society; emulating them isn't going to make you popular.

4. Professors aren't saints, either: Academic work is, in my opinion, a noble calling, at least when it is done well. But engaging in a noble calling doesn't necessarily make you noble. Too many professors seem to think otherwise, believing that because their work is good, they must be too, giving them a pass on examining their own actions and positions as critically as they examine those of others. Non-academics, however, aren't buying this, nor should they.

Not surprisingly, people who would rather be clever than right, who confuse oppositionalism with originality, who hold ordinary Americans and their beliefs in faux-aristocratic contempt, and who do all of this with an unshakable degree of self-righteousness, are not likely to be especially popular. (Note the similarity here to the also-unpopular news and entertainment media).

Academics who value their place in society will think about these things, and look for other ways in which they may be alienating Americans through attitudes that have more to do with selfishness than with intellectualism. And academics who want to see things change will speak out on these attitudes and criticize colleagues who display them, just as they would where, say, racist attitudes are concerned. So will people outside the universities, who are now paying attention to what happens there, and even reading campus newspapers via the Web. After years of wanting to make academia "relevant" to the rest of the world, academics are in a poor position to complain.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for the InstaPundit.Com website.

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