[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Professor as Wimp

William Plank
Foreign Language and Literature
Eastern Montana College

"It is the responsibility of the intellectual to speak the truth and expose lies."--Noam Chomsky

Professors know that an ancient metaphysic defined reality 2500 ears ago. They have glimpsed the motors of history, grubbed up the roots of culture in the Neolithic, and peered through the veil of language and symbol which always hangs between them and a fleeting Truth. They have tracked the quark, bent space, stored information in a crystal, deciphered the double helix and Linear B, read the cryptic text of the bristlecone pine and carbon 14, followed the pointer of the iron oxide crystal to the Earth's changing poles, tracked the vagrom continents, and identified the littlest jolt of energy as h. Some of them even claim to understand Mallarmé, Joyce, Gödel, Wittgenstein, and Derrida.

The professor has greater job security than a mortician. It is easier to reduce a third world country to rubble than to fire a tenured professor and the American Association of University Professors would react more promptly to such infringement on our dignity than it would to World War III. How does it happen, then, that the most educated class of people in the world with almost total job security has remained silent while its own most precious coin and the source of its only wealth and dignity have been debased?

Bernard-Henri Lévy (La Barbarie á visage humain) decried the intellectual's involvement in politics and the inevitable humiliation of the noble profession which comes as a result of dabbling in power. But it is not a question of reforming the human soul and building a postmodern utopia! It is a question of affirming the value of our own product, Knowledge, and having the courage to fight the noblest and most dangerous war of all--the crusade against ignorance. At this low point in American education, why have professors not spoken up and taken the lead in the reform of education? Why has the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education been allowed to preside over the mutilation of American teacher education? Why is the professor such a wimp?

Some think it has to do with the kind of people the professoriate attracts--contemplative, introspective people who are unable through temperament and training to make a living in the rude world of paychecks and piecework, of layoffs and time clocks. Others think that professors, more and more dependent on granting agencies, are afraid to alienate conservative sources of funding, especially those in government. Yet others claim that speaking out is too much of a risk to promotion, good recommendations, and salary increases.

It has been suggested that the great cohort of professors approaching retirement in the next five years was born during or shortly after the Great Depression and learned from their working-class fathers that they live through the grace of God and the employer and that employment is a tenuous favor conferred by management. They grew up believing that education would make them free and worthy and they are still not convinced that the cloak of the Ph.D. shrouds the stigma of working only with the mind, feeling that somehow they are still social adolescents, that the boss will discover their guilt and show them the door, even as they secretly reject the values of their wage-earning parents. Yet others believe that Isaac Newton, God's representative to physics, had something to do with the professor's withdrawal from any action more confrontational than fishing or fighting a paunch on the tennis court.

Upon reading Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine's Order Out of Chaos, I am convinced that many of us academics are stuck in the prefect world of Newton, a world which is supported by and has a resonance with the prefect system of theology. My colleague, Jim Ziegler, published an article a few years ago proposing that literary and artistic fantasy is bound to the prevailing theory of physics, whether primitive, Newtonian, or Einsteinian and suggesting that many of us still cling to the wonderful security of the Newtonian. There is more to our willful isolation than meets the eye, more than just the coefficient of wimpdom. The medieval university was an ecclesiastic institution and during commencement we still wear the priest's cassock and reaffirm our connection with the divine mysteries. When we take it off, we replace it with 20th century regalia, the tweed jacket, the sweater with the leather patches, the lab coat and corduroy pants.

The difficulty women have had in entering the academic priesthood on an equal footing with the male is precisely the same difficulty they are having entering the religious priesthood: many of us still live in a medieval and post-medieval world where Newtonianism resonates (Prigogine's term) with the sacred. University organization is still ecclesiastic. Professors, accustomed to years of pleasing their own professors, are conditioned to obey their deans, as a monk defers to the father superior. Contradicting the administration borders on heresy. The professor has antique and antiquated reasons for wimpdom.

Newton showed us intellectuals that the universe ground along according to eternal laws which expressed scientific rationality. And so we fellows who deal in eternal laws occasionally find it difficult to lower ourselves to the mundane. We grew up with classical dynamics and Cartesian and Euclidean geometry and when you get a hand on a perfect world to which you have the key, it's pretty hard to take the bankruptcy of American public education seriously enough to speak out. But LaPlace's demon is a closet theologist and the professor thereby becomes a monk, a curate, or at least a deacon.

We wall ourselves off in the purity of the academic process, protecting ourselves from "outside" influences. Our students come to us for a dose of this purity but we protect ourselves from contamination by the community. Our isolation and our distaste for the outside world are so great that we have institutionalized them as "Public Service," an extraordinary kind of behavior, and we reward adventures into that area with promotion, tenure, and merit pay.

Prigogine sees science as developing through an "ascesis" of reason:

But this in turn leads to the conclusion that science should be practiced only by communities living apart, uninvolved in mundane matters. In this view, the ideal scientific community should be protected from the pressures, needs, and the requirements of society. (20)

Our ideals of abstraction and our familiarity with the eternal encourage us to believe that "true" scholars must escape "worldly vicissitudes." Prigogine quotes Einstein's description of the scientist who would "find favor with the Angel of the Lord" if he had been given the task of driving the impure out of the "Temple of Science." They are generally

...rather odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, who despite these common characteristics resemble one another really less than the host of the banished.

What really led them into the Temple?...[O]ne of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is flight from everyday life with its painful harshness and wretched dreariness, and from the fetters of one's own shifting desires. A person with a finer sensibility is driven to escape from personal existence and the world of objective observing (Schauen) and understanding. This motive can be compared with the longing that irresistibly pulls the town-dweller toward the silent, high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and traces the calm contours that seem to be made for eternity.

With this negative motive there goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world (Bild der Welt), so as to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. (quoted by Prigogine 20)

Einstein has pretty well described a number of my colleagues in the Montana University System who have fled from Hobbes's "nasty, brutish, and short" life to the joys of huntin' and fishin' and skiin' while the Republican lawyers and farmers on the Board of Regents fiddle with higher education. This "aesthetic beauty" that we wimpy intellectuals seek when confronted with "the petty swirl of worldly experience" tends to be reinforced by another incompatibility, "this one openly Manichean, between science and society, or, more precisely, between free human creativity and political power" (21). As a result, the academy becomes a fortress. We intellectuals who are magicians with eternal knowledge are ironically Manichean wimps who will retire, when we can, to a cabin in the mountains.

Prigogine cites Needam's study of social structures at the close of the Middle Ages to the effect that craftsmen, technical innovators, and intellectuals were, in the main, independent of the authorities. They tended to exploit what they knew, no matter how dangerous it was to the social order. "Chinese men of science were officials, bound to observe the rules of the bureaucracy" (45). As such, Chinese men of science were bound to support law and order, and science failed to develop. University administrators have become politicians and professors have become officials in the 20th century...and officials become wimps who will sell out their constituents to keep their jobs. American education has suffered because of this bureaucratization and our acquiescence in it, while politicians squeal about the failure of technology and Montana politicians and regents talk about the wonders of classes offered by telecommunications, as if fiber optics bore some moral and ethical power.

When monarchs such as Louis XIV, Frederick II, and Catherine the Great founded academies for the support of science, they did the same thing to the development of science that the Department of Defense does to the independence of the physicist and chemist. Much of modern academic science is still Classical Science, "a science of engineers and astronomers, a science of action and prediction" (63). Modern academic sociology and psychology become the handmaidens of politics and industry and the physicists and chemists are domesticated by the aerospace industry, the petroleum industry, and the DoD. The prof is a wimp for the same reason Newton was as much interested in alchemy as in physics. Because, By Golly! it pays off. God's perfect universe resonates with the perfect world of academic scholarship and the natural "law" of classical science as the intellectual naively transfers a theological posture to academia.

Trapped in a Newtonianism which he never bothered to question, the modern American professor is "unwittingly repeating the ritual of the ancient faith" (76).

Science is still the prophetic announcement of a description of the world seen from a divine or demonic point of view. It is the science of Newton, the new Moses to whom the truth of the world was unveiled; it is a revealed science that seems alien to any social and historical context identifying it as the result of the activity of human society. (76)

I am pessimistic enough to believe that (A) even most academics who understand quantum mechanics and Einstein's geometricization of the universe do not realize what a mess relativity has made out of the whole Newtonian Weltanschauung. Just as I do not believe (B) that professors who measure their success by the coefficient of wimpdom will even be upset that Governor Stephens has just appointed three new regents who made some pretty unimpressive contributions to his campaign. [Cordell Johnson, $100; Kermit Schwanke, $390; Thomas Topel, $200. See the Billings Gazette, 20 March 1991.] There is an intimate relation between statement A and statement B.

My dissatisfaction is nothing new. Julien Benda wrote Le Trahison des clercs in 1927, an indictment against the prostitution of intelligence in the service of political passions. And in Zarathustra's mouth Nietzsche put "Beware of the scholars! They hate you, for they are sterile. They have cold, dried-up eyes; before them every bird lies unplumed."

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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