Cultural Data Point?

On the phone with a friend, who is one of those wonderful converts who know and love the faith much better than us spoiled cradles,  where she told us she is working with the faith formation/RCIA group at her parish in a big midwestern college town. One project she’s on is a series of evening discussion groups designed for the professors at the University. They have been quite successful, with enthusiastic participation by a number of faculty members who, even though pressed for time, were looking forward to doing it again, and doing even more, next year.

So, first, hurray! Thank God for sending the Church enthusiastic and educated converts! As an aside, almost, she mentioned an oddity: that those participating seemed to all come from the math, engineering and science departments.

This may just be an artifact in the Small Sample Size Theatre, but I suspect not. To recap a point made before on this blog, university faculty fall roughly into two groups: those who got their positions at least in part because they had mastered an objective discipline, and those who got their positions because they conformed to the beliefs of those already in the department, despite there being no objective way to determine if those beliefs are true.

Objective disciplines are those where one can judge success or failure by reference to something other than the feelings of others in the field. A good engineer can design buildings that don’t fall down or machines that actually work; a good chemist concocts mixtures that do what his theories say they’ll do. And so on. I or anyone else who is not an engineer or a chemist can still, at least in theory, judge whether a given engineer or chemist is any good simply by looking at the results: The Bay Bridge is still standing; Round Up does kill the weeds.

Then there are those fields which have metastasized in our modern colleges and universities, and successfully invaded  even once honorable fields like English and History, in which success is measured entirely by how well the aspirant conforms to the established orthodoxy. Thus, a sociologist may or may not actually know anything about society, but may still hope for a academic job based on how well he applies critical theory, class dynamics and historicism to the Australian aborigines or Amazonian Yanomami. His knowledge, such  as it is, is largely irrelevant: if he fails to apply the proper Hegelian/Marxist hermeneutic, he has practically no chance at an academic job in any major public or private college or university.

Job qualifications in these cases is completely self-contained and circular. You get the job by demonstrating that you think exactly like other people who have similar jobs. It is not possible that you, the job applicant, are looking at the same *external* evidence as the job holders in your field and have come up with a different theory – that you and they agree on the observed, objective thing, but disagree about how it is to be understood. Nope, historicism teaches that all understanding and all observation are contextual, are informed entirely by their historical context. Of course, the current enlightened historical context, that held by the current bodhisattvas embodied as university professors and their mewling sycophants, is conclusively presumed to be, for lack of a better word, “true”. Thus, your success or failure in getting a university teaching job depends entirely on how well you conform to the beliefs held by those already holding those jobs.

In my experience, you’ll rarely come across more insecure and twitchy folks than college professors in the humanities and soft sciences.* On some level, they know they got their jobs by conforming and so lack that confidence that comes from true competence. Maybe. An even smaller sample size here.

Back to my friend’s discussion class. If you throw a discussion together about Catholicism, are insecure people who are professionally required to think they know everything there is to know about the Church (that it is evil, reactionary and counter-revolutionary) going to come? What if their coworkers were to see them? Or are those who are accustomed to seeing their ideas and works tested out in the real world more likely to be interested? Different ideas, in themselves, threaten one group; different ideas are measured against reality by the other.

* To be fair, this no doubt has something to do with me – I tend to be not very awe-struck by fancy degrees and prestigious jobs, and want to talk about the stuff they are experts on. So, imagine you’re some junior professor and you give a talk on something I know something (however little) about. I’ll tend to walk right up, introduce myself and start right in as if I’m an actual human being just like the prof. So perhaps I’m totally wrong about professorial insecurity, I’m just perceived as rude and their (generally snide) reactions do not express a need to establish pecking order. I don’t think that’s it,. though.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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