Dear American Academia:
Except for a few years in between schools, you have been my home for my whole life. After age eighteen, I spent thirteen years in college and graduate school. Since receiving my PhD in 1988, I’ve given thirty-two years to teaching in colleges and universities. I’ve been through the tenure process, published several books, participated in national and international professional academic societies, and achieved the rank of full professor at a prestigious university. I think I know you pretty well. And it is from my experience that I write.
A Sense of Self-Importance
I get it, you think you are an important social institution. You present yourself to the larger society as the champion of science, the engine of technological innovation, and the guardian of civilization. You market yourself to potential students as a four-year rite of passage into the professional class. I do not deny that much of what you say is true. My life testifies to that. Becoming a professor was my dream from age eighteen onward, and I am still amazed that the dream came true. I would not accept anything in exchange for what I learned from my teachers and students. I could not have written the books I have authored were I not a professor paid to teach and research. But I am not writing to praise you. Nor do I write to bury you. I write to admonish you and warn those who accept uncritically your rhetoric of self-importance.
The inviting narrative created by your public relations offices and published on your websites and in glossy brochures does not tell the whole story. Whatever your value to the common good, you are but one sector within a larger society encompassed by concentric circles of government power. Well hidden among your noble motives lie the most primitive of all drives: instinct for survival, desire for autonomy, and yearning for honor, security, and economic well-being. I could write an essay on each of these motives. But I want to focus on your quest for autonomy.
I believe your desire to become and remain self-determining is the driving force, the systemic ethos, of your behavior. Autonomy allows you to pursue your self-interest without interference from external factors. It is your most cherished possession, and losing it is your greatest fear. The story is too long to tell here, but you write the history of American higher education as the struggle to free academia from the oppression of what you perceive as its two greatest enemies: right-wing politics and orthodox Christianity. And you tend to combine the two, although they are not natural allies.
You are driven by fear and hatred of these two enemies. You see them as sinister forces ever conspiring to bring you back under their control. You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it. Your reaction is a perfect illustration of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You consider any enemy of Christianity your ally. In your narrative, orthodox Christianity is anti-scientific, superstitious, imperialistic, historically unfounded, metaphysically absurd, morally oppressive, and, well, just plain evil.
Right-wing politics plays the second villainous role in your narrative. You interpret every voice on the right as an echo of the National Socialist (NAZI) takeover of the German universities, or of Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to root out communists from the entertainment industry and academia, or of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. You fear a right-wing takeover to the point of paranoia. And your fear is compounded by the fact that you have no power of your own with which to resist such a takeover. Hence you seek powerful friends to protect you. To fight the Right you made friends with the Left. To escape the eagle’s nest you fled to the bear’s cave. You are like ancient Israel in the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC, a weak vassal state set between two giant empires. In fear of Assyria and Babylon, you seek the protection of Egypt. For you must serve one devil or the other. Over a hundred years ago, when the Right and Christian orthodoxy were much stronger than they are today, you decided that the left-wing empire would give you more autonomy that a right-wing master would allow. And you have kept to that policy right up to the present time.
You have adopted another famous saying as your guiding light: “There are no enemies on the left.” To resist the Right, you embrace any and every cause that weakens it. It has been said in jest that the only thing that unites the modern university is the electrical and heating systems. No ideal, no mission, no philosophy, or moral imperative commands the loyalty of all the factions that congregate on your campuses. But I make no joke when I assert that the unity of the modern university is forged by one thing only: hatred of your common enemies, orthodox Christianity and right-wing politics.
Why do you, the modern university, put such emphasis on ethnic, racial, and gender identity and embrace anarchic, disruptive, and violent movements? Why target white privilege and systemic racism so vociferously? Why celebrate transgression of all traditional moral distinctions? It is not because of your love of humanity. It has little to do with a coherent philosophy of human dignity. Are you a champion of the oppressed? Not really. Are you motivated by your commitment to tolerance? I don’t think that is plausible. Do you love justice? No. That’s not it. I know you too well. These causes and movements weaken the Right and Christian orthodoxy. That is the reason you embrace them so fanatically. No enemies on the left! Your autonomy is all that matters to you. And your autonomy is a means to your selfish ends.
The Magic Mirror
Your fear drives you into hatred, suppression, and violence toward your enemies, whom you hate because you think they are bent on your destruction. You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion. If your enemy praises it as a virtue, you condemn it as a vice. And if your enemy condemns it as a vice, you defend it as praiseworthy. You are as closeminded and dogmatic as any “fundamentalist” who ever “thumped a Bible.”
Look in the mirror! The magic mirror of your conscience! There you will see everything you hate in your enemies, down to the last eyelash. Everyone who loves brightens the world in their own distinct way. But all who hate look alike in the shadows they cast.
Let Me Count the Ways
Do I write these harsh things because I hate you? No. You were a second mother to me! I write them because I love you. Or to be precise, I love you for what you could be: a place where friends meet to sharpen each other’s understanding. A symposium in which we explore the meaning of our humanity. A laboratory in which we implore nature to reveal her secrets. A cathedral where everyone worships at the altar of truth and reality. A hall where hypotheses are tested in the furnace of respectful debate. A town square where no one who speaks in the voice of reason is silenced because of what they say. Do not fear that reason is too impotent a power to defend goodness, truth, and beauty against the crude designs of the eagle and the bear. Eventually, reason’s clear, sonorous voice will distinguish itself from the cacophonous babel of party interests.
With much affection and not a little grief,