Legal and political right to hold opinions? Of course. Argumentative right to ignore one’s dialectical obligations? No.
It is really no wonder that, from classrooms to social media pages to newsrooms, strong challenges to individuals’ argumentative positions feel more like personal, existential attacks than anything else. Even if others are responding to your viewpoint with researched facts and deductive reasoning, the idea that they are arguing against your viewpoint in the first place means that they are challenging the very tissue of who you are.
Intellectual and moral courage is needful:
The concept of “learning” revolves around the admission that a person is always incomplete, open, vulnerable. . . . It can be a scary thing to confront the openness of your self, to acknowledge that who you are is suspended always by where you are, where you’ve been, whom you’re with, what you’ll confront. But look around you. The opposite is much scarier.
From a recent British study of student attitudes toward university education:
The analysis revealed that consumer orientation mediated traditional relationships between learner identity, grade goal and academic performance, and found that a higher consumer orientation was associated with lower academic performance. Furthermore, responsibility for paying tuition fees and studying a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subject were associated with a higher consumer orientation and subsequently lower academic performance.
From John Gray’s disquieting set of reflections titled The Silence of Animals:
. . . the world that humans experience is not an imperfect representation of a reality that will someday be more fully known. Reflecting the nature of the animal that constructs it, the human world is a succession of fragments. No perfect perception of things is possible, since things change with each perception of them. (p. 172)
. . . the impressions through which we pass are more real than the selves we think are authors of our lives. (p. 192)
How, then, to respond?
Like that of religious mystics, contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self. But not with the aim of entering any higher self—a figment left behind by an animal mind. . . . Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. (pp. 207-208)
Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed. (p. 208)
From I and Thou (Kaufmann translation):
Fate and freedom are promised to each other. . . . this free human being encounters fate as the counter-image of his freedom. It is not his limit but his completion; freedom and fate embrace each other to form meaning; and given meaning, fate—with its eyes, hitherto severe, suddenly full of light—looks like grace itself. (p. 102)
From Tom Nichols’s recent book The Death of Expertise:
A modern society cannot function without a social division of labor and a reliance on experts, professionals, and intellectuals. . . . We prosper because we specialize, and because we develop both formal and informal mechanisms and practices that allow us to trust each other in those specializations. (p. 14)
However, we face a growing insurrectionary sociocultural attitude:
the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. . . . All things are knowable and every opinion on on any subject is as good as any other. (p. x)
The implications are grave:
It might even be too kind to call this merely ‘anti-rational’; it is almost reverse evolution, away from tested knowledge and wisdom, and backward toward folk wisdom and myths passed by word of mouth—except with all of it now sent along at the speed of electrons. . . . especially when the public appetite for escape is easily fed by any number of leisure industries. (p. 217)
The ultimate danger:
when democracy is understood as an unending demand for unearned respect for unfounded opinions, anything and everything become possible, including the end of democracy and republican government itself. (p. 238)
Jean Twenge, co-author (with W. Keith Campbell) of The Narcissism Epidemic, reports the results of her most recent research on problematic cultural changes:
Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it. . . . The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.
Different does not necessarily mean worse, so what is her concern?
Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.
Twenge’s forthcoming book is titled iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
James Compton, President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, on the entrenched administrative ethos of perennial budget cuts:
In each case the dry calculus of utilitarianism is offered to suggest nothing can be done, except encourage troubled academic units to reimagine themselves in ways that might make themselves more competitive. This is the language of Responsibility Centered Management, a popular form of managerialism, . . . that overlays a utilitarian cost-benefit framework over all problems and discussions.
This attitude, which presupposes and exacerbates forgetfulness, is both a reflection and a cause of cultural decline and self-destruction. What, after all, is the point of academies of higher learning?
Allowing arts and humanities programs to cannibalize themselves is not the answer. Without their wisdom we cease to be a university.
Rollo May in Freedom and Destiny (p. 6):
In this time of the disintegration of concern for public weal and private honor, in this time of the demise of values, our recovery — if we are to achieve it — must be based on our coming to terms with this source of all values: freedom.
The new cultural and moral dark age is, then, ameliorable only through a witting re-appropriation of our basic openness to things. Our heedless and crippling indulgence of satisfyingly narrow interpretations precludes the “higher harmonies” (p. 242) of metaphysical coalescence.
Philosopher Mark Kingwell in Academic Matters:
We are losing when it comes to reason and critical intelligence and civility. We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we [academics] do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.
The university is a public or collective good, not just a good for the (too often careerist) individual “users” of the system. At the extreme, an utterly corrosive consumerism takes hold.
I will say it again: it is despicable to enjoy the fruits of academic success and not feel a profound sense of obligation. People who exist outside our bubble feel this too: hence the anger, the contempt, the disdain—and, maybe worst of all, the indifference. Still, we are all citizens together, and the world of the university is as real as anything else that transpires here in the sublunary realm. There is a call to community audible underneath all the hostility.
As a specialized culture within the larger body politic, the university, whatever its shortcomings, supports the long-term welfare and betterment of the broader society that sustains it.