Icarus Descends — The Decline and Fall of Academia

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The Fall of Icarus (c.1635–1637) by Jacob Peter Gowy

-Camille Paglia, ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders’ (1990)

Universities have traditionally been institutions of great value, protecting and promoting the ideals of free speech and openness to new concepts. The Liberal Arts, or arts of free people, have been at the core of such institutions for centuries. Heavy emphasis was placed on both the trivium (the core skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Great Books of Civilization. In the decades since the 1960s, however, there has been a sharp decline in the value of a liberal arts education. The university as an institution has, in my opinion, outlived its usefulness. Postmodernism and the rise of radical leftist cults (such as intersectionality) and fake subjects (such as ‘women’s studies) have proliferated. Fields of study have become deeply politicized. Universities were created and maintained to uphold the highest of ideals. Like Icarus, they sought to soar to the greatest of heights. Also like Icarus, the wax holding their wings together has begun to melt. The university as an ideal is increasingly drifting away from the university as a formal institution. For this, one can blame postmodernism, careerism, and bloated bureaucracies. Icarus descends.

Recently, three people performed an academic audit of intersectional academic journals — this is the Grievance Studies Affair, or Sokal Squared. Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian, and James Lindsay studied the language and logic employed in the pseudo-disciplines which have emerged on campuses in recent years and began writing their own spoof articles to see if they could get published. Amazingly, quite a few did. This was not simply a hoax but an academic audit which undermined the validity of these ideological ‘fields.’

Art Historian and cultural commentator Camille Paglia has criticized the ‘poofing into existence’ of these fields since the 1960s. She contrasts this with the organic development of genuine fields, such as English literature (which, alas, has become increasingly corrupt in recent years). Paglia has written and spoken extensively about the decline in quality of academic scholarship since the 1960s. In Provocations (2018), she writes “over the past thirty years, American education at both primary and secondary levels has been deformed by a steady expansion of bureaucracy that not only drains resources and usurps prerogatives that belong to the faculty but that sometimes encourages administrators to be more committed to external public relations than to internal academic quality” (p.408).

Paglia also takes issue with the notion that academics are preserving the legacy of the 1960s with their research. This is a point she returns to again and again in her works. She points to the fact that 1960s radicals rarely went on to graduate school and became professors.

“Today’s jargon-spouting academic postmodernists wth their snidely debunking style are not the heirs of ’60s leftism but retrograde bourgeois elitists”

-Camille Paglia, Provocations (2018)

Camille Paglia has also critiqued the proliferation of Postmodern Francobabble in universities since the 1960s. “The Derrida and Lacan fad was followed by the cult of Michel Foucault, who remains a deity in the humanities but whom I regard as a derivative game-player whose theories make no sense whatever about any period preceding the Enlightenment. The first time I witnessed a continental theorist discoursing with professors at a Yale event, I said in exasperation to a fellow student, “they’re like high priests murmuring to each other.” It is absurd that that elitist theoretical style, with its opaque and contorted jargon, was ever considered leftist, as it still is. Authentic leftism is populist, with a brutal directness of speech” (Provocations, 2018).

Other prominent intellectuals, such as Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, have pointed out the severe and even fatal poison which has infected and proliferated in colleges. Nassim Taleb emphasizes the lack of skin in the game when it comes to theoreticians. Additionally, he draws attention to the circularity of internal support for academic research.

“If you say something crazy you will be deemed crazy. But if you create a collection of, say, twenty people who set up an academy and say crazy things accepted by the collective, you now have “peer-reviewing” and can start a department in a university. Academia has a tendency, when unchecked (from a lack of skin in the game), to evolve into a ritualistic self-referential publishing game…In some areas, such as gender studies or psychology, the ritualistic publishing game gradually maps less and less to real research, by the very nature of the agency problem, to reach Mafia-like divergence of interest: researchers have their own agenda, at variance with what their clients, that is, society and the students, are paying them for. The opacity of the subject to outsiders helps them control the gates.” -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game (2018)

On Intersectionality: The focus on groups and ‘intersections of oppression’ is merely a form of radical tribalism on the left — it is the left-wing equivalent of the Alt-Right in terms of prefabricated ideological backing. Christina Hoff Sommers criticized Intersectionality, noting the Balkanization of various groups in order to better represent increasingly small and ‘marginalized’ members who felt they were not yet properly represented. This goes to the fundamental ideal, discovered in the West long before — that the ultimate end of this process is to fragment down to the level of the individual. Intersectionality,quite simply, is an elaborate conspiracy theory popular among leftist professors and students on college campuses but has little to nothing to do with the experiences of actual working class people of any racial, ethnic, or gender background.

While many on the far left express concern or hostility toward courses which focus largely on ‘dead white men,’ they often have no problem viewing the world through an elitist worldview constructed largely by French intellectuals. “Too much academic writing on multiculutralism, whether about the Americas or the Indian subcontinent or the modern Mideast, has been filtered through post-structuralism — which is ironically just about as Eurocentric and elitist a technique as can be imagined” (Provocations, 2018).

Skepticism toward grand narratives and the rise of a kind of Balkanization in the Humanities have undermined the formal Liberal Arts education in institutions. French postmodern intellectuals often cavalierly dismissed grand narratives in their faddish skeptical ‘philosophies’ while bringing elements of a Neo-Marxist bend into their arguments. The Humanities, unlike the sciences, are holistic — emphasis must be placed on survey courses and dynamic processes in history. Additionally, comparative religion should be the foundation of any liberal arts education. In arguing for a multicultural global curriculum, Camille Paglia writes “the real revolution would have been to smash the departmental structure of the humanities, reunite the fragmented fields of literature and art, and create an authentically multicultural global curriculum.”

The intellectual landscape has altered with the growth of social media and global interconnectedness. Access costs to the Great Books are at their lowest ever. College courses of high quality are available for free online. Lectures by talented public intellectuals, such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson, contain more real value than many college courses. Universities are not at the forefront of dynamic and practical discussions and the role they have played historically is actually quite limited. From the Enlightenment philosophers to the innovators of the Industrial Revolution, a college education had a limited impact. The Enlightenment had the informal, but incredibly powerful Republic of Letters — a network of intellectuals interested in discussing ideas, basically the eighteenth century equivalent of the Intellectual Dark Web. The Industrial Revolution had tinkerers — incremental improvements, a heavy emphasis on experiential learning, and a lowering of access costs to information with the proliferation of the printed word after c.1750. The Enlightenment saw the maturation of the Gutenberg Revolution of three centuries before. We, in the Digital Age, are in the midst of a revolution in the impact and permanence of the spoken word. We have the podcast, the natural and fertile ground for dynamic conversations with the power to change the world. Just as the proliferation of information in the eighteenth century proved fatal to the guilds (which closely guarded trade secrets), the rise of new kinds of intellectual conversations will spell the end of the university system.

Universities, like guilds, have relied on and benefited from limited access to information, confining much to traditional classroom settings. This is changing fast. One can see that Jordan Peterson has made a far greater impact as a public intellectual than as a professor at Harvard and the University of Toronto. As a professor, he could articulate powerful ideas. As an entrepreneur, he can transform the world. The University of Toronto needs him far more than he needs the institution. The power dynamics are shifting.

Icarus is fated to fall into the ocean, his high ideal and inflated view of himself causing his downfall. He should have followed the advice of his father who told him how to travel safely. This story highlights the value of seasoned wisdom and tragedy of ideals of grandeur. Historically, the liberal arts were grounded in the reading and discussing of old books — generally great works from the ancient period up to about a century before the present. This is the seasoned wisdom of the greatest minds of human civilization. Jordan Peterson repeatedly talks about rescuing one’s father from the underworld. What he means by this is consulting the collective wisdom of the past through engagement with the Great Books. Our cultural ‘fathers’ have died long ago but their works has remained influential for decades, centuries, and even millennia. The Great Books have been increasingly marginalized on campus but can be accessed by just about anyone. Their value is infinitely greater than all the theorists of the past five decades combined. I maintain that the value of universities has run its course. It is time to let these outmoded, and increasingly irrelevant, institutions fade into history.

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1558) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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