From The Financial Times – “Education demands free speech plus inclusion, Chicago university chief says”

I noted with interest this item from Financial Times Associate Editor Brooke Masters that features University of Chicago President, Robert Zimmer, specifically his adamant stance for university as a preserve of independent thought and inquiry.

Zimmer’s “warning,” to quote Brooke Masters, accompanies an announcement for committed undergrad funding, a pairing that may or may not suggest political scrim, depending on who thinks $200 million is a lot of money.

Full disclosure: I’ve always really admired The University of Chicago from afar for its eclecticism and quirky sense of self, like The Onion of the post-secondary realm but with degree-granting superpowers.

Disclosures continued, I also received recognition from the University of Chicago after being nominated for the Outstanding Educator Award by a student I taught who attended in 2010. The letter I received was not quirky so much as plain and congratulatory, but they did invite me for lunch sometime. Someday, Chicago, like maybe when my own doctoral epic is finally and fully told. Someday.

So very rarely am I into self-promotion, but all this seemed like a particular confluence and, anyway, who ever scrolls that far down on LinkedIn?

Of course, my immediate interest in the FT story is its connection to my own series on free speech from earlier this year – and, yes, more shameless vanity – but it felt reaffirming to see such noteworthy agreement from the likes of UChicago including, evidently, President Zimmer. I’ve never met Robert Zimmer, but if he’s ever here in town, sincerely, he’s absolutely more than welcome to join me for lunch.

… in the name of progress

Featured Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

There’s a cultural tone where progress is pretty full of its own value. The connotation of progress often suggests, by the same turn, that whatever is not progress is an obstacle. This sense of progress discounts whatever preceded it as obsolete – whether as something quaint or paltry but, either way, as certainly not worth keeping. To this sense of progress, however ironically, history is invective.

Progress is commonly venerated as something that’s coming next that is better and, obviously, thereby to be preferred, as compared to whatever’s coming next as being simply next. What might have amounted to an organic change is pre-empted by the contrivance of progress. What might have been less characterised than simply observed is superseded by an imperative for progress, the value and desirability of which is clear to any who decide to believe it, and lost on any who decide not to.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Planet Earth is visible as a bright speck within the sunbeam just right of center and appears softly blue, as in the original version published in 1990…. The popular name of this view [the “pale blue dot”] is traced to the title of the 1994 book by Voyager imaging scientist Carl Sagan, who originated the idea of using Voyager’s cameras to image the distant Earth and played a critical role in enabling the family portrait images to be taken.”
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who decided progress gets to play the trump card? When and how was progress excused from easing its way in respectfully, the way I ask students to join us quietly when they arrive late? What makes progress this prevailingly important, as compared to any other approach or way to be that we might choose to try?

Maybe asking these questions is stubborn, but that only makes progress more pushy – and if both are arrogant for saying so, well… I’m pretty sure it takes one to know one.

Progress ought to understand, when it rips the past to shreds, that it’s not the only one who’s expended itself to become what it becomes. Tearing down the past can discount untold gallons of blood sweat and tears. One swing of progress can undo years, decades, centuries of labour, layer upon layer of things learned along the way up til then, things like the forebears of – yeah – progress.

Assuming one and only one stance risks neglecting any other perspective. Careful note here ought to assure that progress, like status quo, doesn’t have to be a nemesis or a victim, not unless it decides to be.

Image Credit: Pixabay from Pexels
“Earthrise”

We Make Claims

“We make claims,” I used to tell students writing essays, “because somehow something prompts us.” In the spirit of the best constructivists, I encouraged my students to build and rebuild not just what they knew, but how and why they knew it.

A common pitfall in essay writing is that claims without evidence just mean you spin and spin. “So,” I suggested to students (… paraphrasing here), “cite the evidence that prompted the claim, then write an explanation. There’s your essay.”

Sample: “I think ‘X’, and it was ‘Y’ that made me think so. Explain, explain, explain.”

*                                  *                                  *

Some years later, and my return to the land of academia… I’m facing the exact opposite prescription: all knowledge is provisional. Lay claim at your peril. Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here. Just deserts! my students might say… well, I have been feeling their pain, if not their well-wishes.

Generally, people won’t doubt themselves without good reason, or else they will as long as they have a lot of faith in the person asking. Yet if (… that’s “if”) we can only note what matters to us from a reference point, then we also bring to bear only what we decide is most relevant to the moment. And since (… that’s “since”) nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail might be informative. So let’s not ask, “In what ways do I already know what I’m looking at?” That kind of certainty yields self-fulfilling prophecy. Academically, I get the admonishment of certainty.

By definition, “evidence” is only useful because it’s meaningful; something is chosen to be evidence for a reason: we’ll know it when we see it. In other words, we can make shit up. So, to be more responsible, let’s ask, “In what ways do I not know what I am looking at?” Asking this, I feel I’m more academically willing to abandon “certainty” because I can fill the vacuum with a different kind of certainty, what I’ve called a kind of faith.

I don’t define what I’m looking at, yet I also don’t abandon myself – it’s more like I study the overlap between the two. Where do I end, and this other thing begin? Somewhere in between is a claim waiting to be made.

If certainty makes evidence possible in support of a claim – which is induction – then faith makes claims possible that require supporting evidence – which is deduction. In either case, however, I suppose you can see what you wish to see.

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Where it comes to knowledge, we all land somewhere: we all believe something, no matter what the most die-hard postmodernist might *ahem* claim. In fact, our claims to know [something particular] are rampant. And I suppose that’s the problem (… if all this is a problem). It seems to me there’s no learning without prior certainty, some departure point, “Here’s what I know,” even if that simply means, “I’m certain I don’t know.” That said, it’s the rare Socrates in this day and age, even on campus – some might say especially on campus.

To start with certainty is induction, and starting this way is the pitfall of induction because, unless claims come first, i.e. deduction, any evidence might seem self-serving. To lay claims first instead, then support them with evidence, i.e. to deduce, is helpful if only because, then, we have a measure for where to go next. But, as I caution above, there is a chicken-egg conundrum to all this.

I’m pretty– well, er, certain that there’s no problematizing without prior learning, by which I mean certainty. We all land somewhere. (As I gather, problematizing is identifying and questioning these taken-for-granted landed assumptions, a step toward assessing whether we ought to renovate what we know, i.e. whether we ought to learn.) As I say, I think I get why the academic embrace of uncertainty is worthwhile. By all means, let the academy embrace uncertainty: societal dynamics are varied and vast, as complementary and collaborative as confrontational and competitive. In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of others, we’d be forever fated to know just one sole perspective, and it’s the very, very few – not the many – whose lives are that alone. You can ask Alcibiades: Socrates was no strict loner.

Let me be as Hegelian as I can, and it isn’t much. I believe our world is holistic, by which I mean all the pushing and pulling from its cultural edges, all the polarisation and extremism… as I see it, what all this outer pressure does is help everyone to steer a steadier moderate middle course. To think we don’t need these outer fringes, to wish them begone, it may be more accurate to say we simply don’t want them: how many dwell in The Land of Should, where the way things are is certain in deed. How many, indeed, if not every single one of us?

For my part, I wonder, albeit somewhat perversely, whether we do need those outer pressures because they help to impel us someplace, by showing us where to avoid – that is, as long as they’re not popular so much as just noisy. One squeaky wheel, annoying yet tolerable; all four wheels is a call for repair. Luckily, a car only has four wheels although, not so luckily, two each are found on only one side. Luckily, there’s a steering column.

Of course, our world has more than two sides, and the more crowded it gets on the outer edges, well… at least may our course corrections steer us with most predictable stability rather than surprise. As such, again in the best spirit of Socratic humility, let the academy or anyone else ponder to their heart’s content, as uncertain as they want to be, just as more certain folks shall also cast due influence – it takes all kinds, as the saying goes, although even in those Student Driver cars, really only one person at a time can be the driver. So let’s beware any (… that’s “any”) dominance, if we claim to be making room for all, because something else available to all is hypocrisy. And yes, the whole car-thing has kind of broken down here, hasn’t it?

I’m unable to say just now who’s less likely to heed this post: those who are certain they know and will tell you why they’re right, or those who are certain they don’t know and will tell you why you’re wrong. And if that’s not perverse or hypocritical, let’s still say it’s ironic, and a little comical.

Just as likely, I’ll luck out as no one at all will care. Or it could be some will care just enough to send this viral: be it an essay, a blog post or, God help us, a Tweet, some claims we stake pay off beyond all expectation while some go unpardonably bust – and believe me, for all I’ve laboured to get this post written just-so, I’m still unsatisfied. So why even publish it? Why claim anything at all, including uncertainty?

For complementarity, for a certain worldview, for those loudest who know best… I wonder whether the one who makes the claim is nearly so key as the one for whom the claim is made – which leaves out to whom, but that’s fine. And I wonder how insidiously our ends and our means grow conflated and confused.

Featured Image in the public domain