None the Wiser

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." --J.S. Mill

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Saturday, June 14, 2003
Read This Now, And Weep For Your Own Inadequacy!!

Erin O'Connor has a great post up on the insecurities of grad school life. Erin's observations are so astute and her style so clear and unimpeded by the pomposity that made me run screaming from the English department, that we at NTW hardly feel worthy. But we'll link anyway. A sample:

Getting socialized as academics happens at the same time that we are supposed to learn what we need to know to become academics--so we are imitating long before we are truly doing, trying to pass for something we all know we cannot possibly be yet, and feeling dirty and doubtful about it from day one. In English, for example, there is no real notion of starting slowly and progressing rationally, of first acquiring deep knowledge of language and literature, of then developing a strong understanding of literary criticism (historical, theoretical, methodological), of then beginning to make one's own informed contributions to the field. Instead, one begins by learning grandiose maneuvers: first year graduate students may not know their Shakespeare, they may not be able to read Middle English, they may not be able to tell a ballad from an ode or explain what makes a novel a novel, but instead of spending their time filling in these gaps, they are taught to devote themselves to such woefully banal and impossibly vague activities as deconstructing race and gender, critiquing the concept of subjectivity, and theorizing culture.

It's ridiculous, it's widespread, and it means that for many of us there is no real moment of apprenticeship, no acknowledged period of quiet, patient, guided study. Instead, "learning" becomes synonymous with imitating what we don't understand, imitating in turn gets confused with knowing, and passing becomes a way of life. This is one reason, I think, why there is so much pretension in the academic humanities, and why the pretentiousness so often takes the form of speaking in unintelligible tongues: jargon is a protective shield in a culture where the intellectual not only knows not what he thinks, but does not want to know this about himself.

That's a long excerpt, and the entire thing is that good. Go forth.

Open Minded...Or Just Empty-Headed?

Never let anyone get away with calling you “closed-minded,” for no reason other than the fact that you hold an opinion which differs from their own. This is a debating tactic that hinges upon the accuser’s urge to shame the accused into silence. It is, unsurprisingly, a favorite of the fuzzy-thinking acolytes of the cultural and intellectual left.

There is a popular bumper-sticker that reads, “Minds are like parachutes—they only function when open.” We’ve all seen it. It’s one of thousands of such morsels of cheap sanctimony everywhere in evidence on college campuses such as the one on which I live. It’s an observation at once obvious and shallow.

I say “shallow” because it doesn’t seem to mean what the person displaying it thinks it means. If it did, it wouldn’t be an observation worth making. The fact that one must first understand and consider an idea or a possibility, before either accepting or rejecting it, strikes me as decidedly lacking in profundity. So the bearer of this little slogan must mean something else.

I don’t mean to harp on the sticker. The sticker isn’t the point. The point is the mentality that displaying it tends to reveal. The point is the phrase “open-minded,” as it is used more generally in conversation. Too often, one hears particular people, ideas, and institutions described as “open.” But I’m inclined to ask, “Open to what?” To bigotry? To hatred? This isn’t what’s meant by the word open, surely.

Usually, what is meant is that a particular conclusion is evidence of an open mind. It is sometimes argued that the reason leftists dominate the academy is that they are simply more open-minded than non-leftists, and therefore more intellectually robust. The implication is clear: Anyone who carefully and honestly considers the merits of any proposition will invariably come to a conclusion which is in essence compatible with leftist politics and Continental philosophy.

In one respect, this is true, but in only one respect. That is, one would have to be willing to believe almost anything in order to take Noam Chomsky seriously, or to apologize for Stalin, or to engage in the kind of double-think required to defend speech codes in the name of free inquiry. It’s generally true that only an academic, and the sycophantic teacher’s pets that pass for serious students in today’s humanities departments, can be so gullible as to swoon over such supposed “heroes of the downtrodden” as that narcissistic loser Che Guevara--whatever his record of executing children might have been.

Gullibility, though, isn’t considered a virtue even in the morally inverted world of the academic left—which is to say the academy, practically in toto—or among followers of the pop leftism so repugnantly embodied by such pathetic hypocrites as Michael Moore and Madonna. So again, when people use the words “open-minded” they must mean something very different.

On thinking about it (maybe a little too much), I’ve discovered that without intending to, people actually use this phrase to convey its opposite—which is a familiar trend in our post-modern culture. I know what they think they mean. They really do believe that if a person is really open-minded—if they just consider the issues at hand—they cannot but come to the conclusion that the welfare state can generate wealth, that global warming is a real threat, that affirmative action is a perfectly honest and rational policy, that white people really are racist in all they think, say, and do, that we really do live in a rape culture that celebrates and encourages what practically all of us find repellent, that there is no morally relevant distinction between Hamas and the USMC. All these things are obvious to anyone open-minded enough to consider them seriously. Anyone who doesn’t agree simply isn’t open-minded—they can’t possibly have applied their reason in an honest way to the issues at hand, with a willingness to come to the most sensible conclusion. Had they done so, they would agree with us, after all. Therefore, they must have refused even to consider the issue at hand thoroughly. They must be closed-minded. They must be closet racists. They must be evil. They must be re-educated. They must be stopped.

Of course, what’s actually going on here is a special kind of closedness. What’s actually being expressed is a commitment to an ideal that is so total and all-encompassing and desperate, that any disagreement must be considered evidence of something broken or malignant in the mind of the dissenter. It is the refusal to accept the possibility of honest disagreement between reasonable people. It is, therefore, a rejection of rationality per se. It is occasioned, I often find, by a refusal to debate the actual merits of a position, since it is considered by the person who holds it to be the only one to which a truly open mind can arrive.

The problem here, of course, is that open-mindedness, like philosophy, describes an activity but not a set of beliefs [hat tip to Dr. Timothy Lyons in Indianapolis]. There are no open-minded opinions, only open-minded ways of reaching them, and there are in fact open-minded ways of reaching diametrically opposed opinions. To favor gay marriage is not itself evidence of an open mind, particularly if the person holding that belief has never seriously considered the flaws in their own position—or even the possibility that it has any flaws at all.

Must we be open to everything? Well, if by “open” you mean “willing to believe,” then I’d say no—since that’s just a formula for credulity rather than thought. Rather, we ought be open to worthwhile ideas, and that entails a willingness to rigorously apply our own reason to determine which ideas those are. Peter Kreeft, a theologian and moral philosopher, compares our minds to our homes. Ought our homes be open to all? Well yes, but this must exclude burglars, rapists, and others who may pose a threat to our safety and integrity. We must invest a certain amount of energy in defending our homes from those who would threaten it—and the chambers of our minds must also be so ordered as to keep out faulty or dangerous ideas. Reason is the gift that tells us which is which.

Interestingly, what is really at stake here is more than mere semantics. In fact, “mere” semantics rests at the heart of very little, for the words we use and what we mean by them are fundamental to our understanding of the world and our capacity to convey that understanding to others. The newfangled conception of “openness” is a great example.

By misapplying the principle of the open mind, we can actually find that it leads us straight into a contradiction, one that is rampant in the social sciences. Sometimes, openness is understood to mean that we must give equal weight to all ideas and, in the context of multiculturalism, to the cultures that birthed them. There are a lot of problems with this, but sticking to the issue at hand I’ll just point out that the most pernicious (and entirely unintended) result of this mindset is that the entire study of differing ideas about the things that matter most becomes a pointless enterprise.

Why? Because all the ideas pretty much add up to the same thing. If openness is the end-state we’re after, rather than the mechanism we’re using to make some exclusionary judgment, then one is left to wonder: what place for curiosity? What is really gained by the study of contrasting ideas about good and evil, truth or falsity, and so on? The end result is a real indifference to the fault lines of clashing belief systems. If after all, what I think is no better than what someone else thinks, then the reverse must also be true. What benefit is there, then, in learning about what others think? By what process do we revise or our opinions and seek out truth? In point of fact, the study of various conflicting belief systems reveals no such equivalence at all, and the ideology which says it does is rather a self-defeating one.

If openness is king for its own sweet sake, then one must be open to the idea that blind dogmatism is also valid. It is, therefore, an incoherent mental posture to value openness above all the intellectual virtues, as the very end of human reason.

Naturally, this isn’t what is meant when someone claims a halo for their open-mindedness. What they mean to convey is that in fact their willingness to consider the issue with an unprejudiced mind has kept them on the path of wisdom. All this amounts to is the claim that no other conclusion than their own is rationally possible. And if this is the case, why consider the possibility that one has fallen into error?

This is why the most closed-minded people on earth are to be found in the college faculty lounge. Students, thinking that someone else has already done all the hard work of being open to all possibilities, simply parrot their professors’ views and congratulate themselves for their openness. So the most arrogant, self-congratulatory people around wind up sounding like broken records, chanting platitudes they consider to be true only by virtue of their being widely held by their peers. Real nonconformists, they.

And that’s my long-promised rant on open-minded dolts.

Friday, June 13, 2003
New Blog

Oh, dear. The New Criterion now has a blog, called Arma Virumque. Splendid.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Citrus Cries Uncle

Citrus College, one of many institutions of "higher" learning targeted by the Foundation for Indidvidual Rights in Education in their nationwide litigation campaign against speech codes, has thrown in the towel. In the face of an impending lawsuit from FIRE, Citrus has agreed to revise or strike much of what got the ire of Halvorssen and company.

This is good news, but the fight promises to be long and bitter.

Monday, June 09, 2003
Home Again, Home Again

Just in from a nice ten-hour car ride. A real treat, let me tell you.

I'm catching up on news and views. Evidently, Hillary's book is still a topic of conversation. How pointless is this? Most people who read the book will either blindly accept it and vote for Hillary in '08, or burn it in disgust screaming "Lies, all lies!!"

Frankly, I'm tired of the subject. She'll never be president, end of story.

Commander-in-Chief Hillary. Think about it. There's hardly a person in uniform who would pull the lever for her, and when she runs turnout among Republicans will never have been higher. She isn't even popular enough to prevent serious defections to third parties among Democrats. Forget it. It's never going to happen. I stand by this prediction, and will deserve no congratulations when I am proved right.

So, I'll blog about something worthwhile tomorrow. Now to bed...