Reason? Reason? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Reason! Scholarship Today

Editor’s Introduction. Late last month we posted an article forthcoming in Academic Questions, “The Classroom Without Reason” by Professor Douglas G. Campbell. It has occasioned several strongly-worded replies.  One of those, posted last Thursday by a graduate student at Duke University, caught our attention.  It’s an extravagant display of how someone who rejects the rule of reason sees the world of scholarship. We think it is worth more attention than it might get on the list of comments on a month-old article.  

Below we re-post the comment by the Duke grad student and present responses from both Professor Campbell and NAS president Peter Wood. 

Part I. “An Actual Demonstration on My Part Would Send Everything I Have To Say Clearly Over Your Head” 

Dear Mr. Doug Army Guy,

            The other day your piece “The Classroom Without Reason” landed in my email through a chain of forwarded messages. Until this morning I had no idea what the NAS was, but found your essay on its blog site. Because all aspiring writers welcome and indeed crave public feedback for the creative efforts, I have decided to put aside my books here at Duke University to offer my own insights into your piece. As an actual graduate student, studying at a university other Americans have actually heard of, I found much of your piece a little hard to believe based on my own experiences with some pretty left-wing professors and students. As I see it, the point of academia is to take note of the simplified caricatures society produces - whether by the media, a variety of counter-cultural knownothings, or crusty intellectual posers like yourself - and try to complicate them by pealing away their layers of obfuscation. If you haven’t figured it by now I have no intention of sticking to the rules of “reasoned debate” as you and the NAS describe them because I find it nowhere in your self-serving polemic, and I fear that an actual demonstration on my part would send everything I have to say clearly over your head. So here goes.        

Duke University was recently cited by David Horowitz (another nutbag I’m sure you have a shrine dedicated to in the shower), as one of the ten “most dangerous” liberal faculties in America. You might be interested in the fact that many of the grad students here are former military officers. One of our incoming students next year is an Air Force officer himself. There are many specialists here who study military history and military culture. Their aim is to understand the military as a sophisticated social institution, like the university, that presents problems continuous with themes social scientists have long considered important, such as the rise of the modern state, demography, economic trends, the history of the family, and wider social hierarchies. Their interests are not in advertising the military as an isolated bastion of unique values and heroic ideals mere "civilians" could never appreciate, nor are they concerned with waiving peace signs. Both represent boring ideological agendas that inevitably lead to the same conclusions devoid of any sophistication. Any young historian knows that a project simply painting the military as a brainwashing tool for the government would get laughed out of any seminar by all scholars, no matter what their politics are. The consensus in history and the humanities, perhaps the only issue academics actually agree on, is that exceptional research projects generate more questions than conclusions, opening doors for further research and the refinement or disposal of traditional paradigms. Polemical works always gain more attention from the media, and this is precisely why many historians are insufferable snobs when it comes to best-sellers because it often suggests that a scholar has forsaken nuance and complexity for narrowness and stale homogeneity in their research. This is not always the case, and the ideal is to communicate complexity to as broad an audience as possible, but the inclinations of audiences should have no say in how the subject is historically researched and represented.

But let’s quit the bullshit and get at the real concerns motivating rightwing insecurities about the state of universities. It is not difficult to see this as just an updated version of an ancient fear among daddy-worshipping morons concerning the presence of effeminate 'faggots', 'commies', and women in positions of higher learning, and oh God forbid, positions of actual influence upon our youth! This has nothing to do with "rational debate", it is merely an expression of paternalistic insecurities that always come to the surface and assume new forms as the traditional coordinates of public authority in society are renegotiated and debated. It took place during the civil rights era, when minorities sought to expand the boundaries of the public sphere, and it continues today as Americans have fewer children, gay culture is public, an astonishing number of women have acquired positions in public life, including university professorships, and Americans debate their new civic identities in a post-Cold War world lacking a clearly defined evil counterpart.

Paternalistic discourse offers emotional security to those who view pedagogy as a one way street ultimately ending with the student's awakening to the moral truths already known to their teachers. This of course, is not really teaching, it is an idealized model of paternal authority, of daddy’s fantasized pedagogical relationship to his children; a clean transmission of one's virtuous self to another. Using the family model of pedagogy, i.e. "paternalism", as a source of moral authority to critique university 'brainwashing' and the lack of open rational debate in classrooms carries its own ironies. The phrase "Go to your room" is not an invitation to discuss the meaning of virtue in Plato's Republic. Attending Sunday school is not a choice many kids make freely. The university is where most young adults apply and assess the disciplinary boundaries and values they were trained to recognize while living under a household. Perhaps the real concern underlying conservative diatribes such as yours is that many universities may be working too well in demanding students to ask questions, reflect upon their unexamined assumptions, and consider the troubling possibility that experience and understanding are not always one and the same thing. Experiences are always colored by cultural and personal assumptions that we often wield like swords as natural truths capable of withstanding any assault. The truth is there is no Excalibur, and the point of the university is not to teach students how to forge one. The real aim is to teach students how to examine their own ideological toolkits they carry with them, and unconsciously use on a daily basis to frame problems and engage with the world. How we frame problems shapes how we act in the world, and the last eight years of American politics should effectively illustrate this truism. Our assumptions have consequences.  

Rejecting this as a purely "academic" conclusion has suited an anti-intellectual agenda with a long history in American culture. Now the anti-intellectual critique (of which your piece is a part despite your posturing), takes this agenda seriously enough only to use it as a gold standard universities are not meeting. Universities have apparently turned into breeding grounds for a politically correct "false consciousness" among teachers and their sycophant students. This critique is simply a shift in strategy, a maneuvering for authority that while deploying a new rhetoric, still uses the traditional moral authority of family pedagogy to reinstitute similar hierarchies in public institutions. The aim in practice, beyond the carefully strategized rhetoric, is to restrict the intellectual diversity now present in universities and reestablish old canons of established authority in scholarship. You and the NAS claim to be defending “Western Civilization” in academic institutions. I still have no idea what this means, and what it is that Western Civilization needs to be defended from. My area of specialty is the Italian Renaissance, and in my four years of graduate study on this topic, and as an instructor at the University of South Florida, I have come to appreciate the contested status of this term over the centuries. Though you would prefer to fix the essential meanings of the “West” to pursue your own ideological agenda in the present, no respected historian today would deny that the shifting meanings of the West from Aristotle to Foucault were developed through constant dialogues, encounters, and conflicts with those considered non-Western. What the West stands for has always been a matter of debate both inside and outside of Europe, but to presume that non-Westerners were never involved in those dialogues as active participants would require that we stick our heads in the sand. Placing the “West” within this wider frame of historical interactions does not threaten its values or its relevance in the university rather, it makes it more relevant by revealing its multiple origins, and thus enriching its possibilities as a resource for engaging in political dialogue with the world.     

The accusations of "collectivization" and homogenization are, ironically, impassioned reactions to the reality of university trends moving in the opposite direction towards diversity in both the range of scholarly concerns and the composition of university populations. This has also translated into a more informal classroom and academic culture in contemporary universities where younger scholars from more diverse backgrounds tend to eschew the "sage on the stage" routine of older tweed-jacketed professors, in favor of open class dialogue and debate in which the instructor acts as an experienced moderator. In other words, in both structure and practice, university cultures reflect the diversification of the public sphere in American culture since the Second World War, which has greatly softened the university professor's cultivated veneer of authority, and reduced the distance between students and instructors. Many who attended college in the 1950’s would probably find this atmosphere a bit unsettling, however, the effect has not been to homogenize thought in the university, but to loosen the forms of paternal authority and academic "gatekeeping" that prevented diversification.

Smugness and self-satisfaction will always be a part of university landscapes, but how does this actually separate the domains of higher learning from any other social arena? I witnessed more pretentious social climbing, pathetic pandering to authority, and dismissive arrogance among middle managers in lowly retail jobs than I ever did among accomplished scholars in a university setting. What I appreciated most from my advisors is that they all consistently refused to outline my research for me, or even to help me decide on a topic. This was always my independent task and their input was almost exclusively restricted to advice on writing and presentation. There is little glory in scholarship; the hours are long and the pay not all that great. There are other more lucrative opportunities to satisfy the ego, and winning the slight admiration of a few students is hardly a meaningful endgame for any scholar willing to put up with the lengthy struggle to produce new knowledge. “Brainwashing”, therefore, requires a level of effort and planning that few if any scholars would ever be willing to put into their work. The benefits are just not that interesting for personalities attracted to lonely recesses, personal independence, and the creative challenge of producing new knowledge even if it will only be appreciated by a small number of readers.

Moreover, and this perhaps irritates me the most, is your incredibly arrogant disregard for the capacity of students to weigh the value of their instructor’s opinions against their own, and to maintain a healthy dose of critical distance in the classroom. There is much that goes on in the minds of students that you are not aware of, and it is your hubris that encourages you to believe that any student who expresses values different from your own must be a victim of some other pedagogical sorcery, rather than a critical and judicious thinker in his/her own right. Why, General Doug, do we never hear any of the details of your presentations that supposedly elicited these irrational reactions from academics and students? My impression is that you are someone who takes pleasure in inciting audiences, but then gets defensive and tries to paint himself afterwards as a victim of a witch hunt. I was sixteen once myself General Doug, I know how insecurity can generate some of the most ingenious tactics of manipulation when you lack the emotional resources of an adult.  

My point, Mr. Doug Army Guy, is that there are other more meaningful targets to attack if you insist upon exposing society’s many ills. You might want to consider, however, that the most logical reason for the proliferation of liberal attitudes on university campuses lies in the fact that books of a higher quality than those you cited are hardly in short supply there. I think we found your real culprit General Doug, get the bonfires blazing if you really want to do something about it. I look forward to hearing the responses of your pissant cronies as they derail my lack of professional decorum, obvious indoctrination, or failure “to understand your thesis”. Your supposed thesis was not all that interesting, the passions that motivated it and what it aims to conceal, however, are quite interesting indeed.

Sean Parrish

Duke University History Department                       

Part II.  The Reactive Mind: Douglas Campbell Replies

Seldom are writers presented with a perfect specimen of their thesis. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Parrish, who presents himself as a “graduate student” at Duke University and “instructor at the University of South Florida,” for successfully displaying the emotional outbursts, the rejection of reasoned debate, the fear of accountability, the reliance on childish name-calling and the tendency for self-indulgent elitism that I attempted to describe in my article. Since Mr. Parrish fortunately chose to post his comments at, I urge you to read my article “The Classroom Without Reason” and Mr. Parrish’s reply as supporting evidence of my thesis.

Without question, a healthy and educated mind, unencumbered by immediate threats, anger, avarice or intoxicating agents, should respond to rational argument in some rational way. I suspect that most people would agree that rational people may come to different conclusions based on differences in basic assumptions and values. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said “there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other.”

In Mr. Parrish’s outburst we see not a rational mind, but a reactive mind driven by a set of destructive emotions. From his first words, a childish humorless gibe, his hate and prejudice are revealed. From Mr. Parrish’s own description of himself as an “actual graduate student, studying at a university other Americans have actually heard of” we see the phenomenon of self-doubt being self-medicated by claims of elitism and superiority. In dismissing any discussion of the actual content of my article and claiming that reason is over my head, he excuses himself to indulge in assigning a hateful stereotype to me. He assigns to me and anyone agreeing with me the following motive and traits, “an ancient fear among daddy-worshipping morons concerning the presence of effeminate 'faggots', 'commies', and women in positions of higher learning.” This is not exactly the intellectual argument that one might expect from a graduate student at “a university other Americans have actually heard of.”

After Mr. Parrish has given himself freedom to ramble, he indulges in attacking academia in general until he fixes upon a conspiracy theory. He states that the real agenda of those desiring rational discussion and reasoned positions is to “restrict the intellectual diversity.” Perhaps in this Mr. Parrish displays his true fear that he would be held to a standard that he is not prepared to meet?

From Mr. Parrish’s derogatory tone and references to “paternal authority,” “academic gatekeeping that prevented diversification,” “older tweed-jacketed professors,” and “smugness and self-satisfaction” among mature faculty, we have the impression that he has encountered some faculty that have not been impressed by his antics. Finally, Mr. Parrish’s attempted coup-de-grace fizzles as it is nothing more than a climaxing vent of ad hominem insults.

One might be quick to dismiss Mr. Parrish as unimportant, but I urge you not to do so. Instead I ask you to consider how Mr. Parrish or someone similar to him would conduct himself as a faculty member? Perhaps Mr. Parrish is truly gifted in his specialty area of the Italian Renaissance, but what will be his classroom demeanor? Based on his diatribe, do we have some insight into whether he is likely to encourage rational thinking and debate? Will he tolerate, respect and share arguments and conclusions other than his own? Will he teach the subject or will he simply use the classroom to advocate for personal agendas beyond the scope of the classes? Will he conduct himself will dignity and with respect toward others and their opinions? Will he speak respectfully and truthfully? Will he be the type of rational and reasonable role model that students paying for their education have a right to expect? I leave you to decide.

I suggest that Mr. Parrish is a product of some faculty members and administrators who have encouraged his hostility toward rational thought and reasoned debate. I suggest that from the evidence documented by the contributors to Academic Questions, and our own observations, we know with certainty that such faculty members and administrators exist in significant numbers in some disciplines and are discouraging and in many cases punishing those who wish to express ideas and opinions that diverge from the politics or propaganda of political correctness. Rational thinking is opposed by these activists because it would allow students to challenge the foundations of the specific cultural, social, and political paradigms which with they are bombarded.

These things are being done by elitists such as Mr. Parrish who think that they are superior. I restate my thesis: such faculty and administrators endanger and undermine the quintessentially American acceptance of the right of individuals to come to their own educated conclusions, and then to speak and act according to these conclusions and their own conscience. This situation is a challenge to individual rights and the foundations of responsible self-government. A populace that is not comfortable with rational discussion, reasoned debate and with freely forming and speaking their own opinions, is at risk of manipulation by those who appeal to their emotions and their baser instincts, specifically fear, hate, anger, avarice and insecurity. Such manipulators are most comfortable with these tools, as Mr. Parrish has so amply demonstrated.

We must do our best to teach and encourage rational thinking and debate. We must strive to enable teachers to teach and students to learn in an environment free from coercion and deceit. We must strive to return civility, rationality, the open exchange of ideas, and the virtues of tolerance to their rightful place of honor throughout our universities.

Part III. At War with Reason. Peter Wood

Goya titled one of his disturbing etchings, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”  A man, head down at his writing desk, his pen and papers under his folded arms, is beset by a flock of owls and bats as a strangely enlarged housecat looks on.  We don’t get the sense that the fellow welcomed this visitation.  He is suffering in the contortions of madness.

The involuntary loss of reason, as Goya knew, is a terrible misfortune, but there is misfortune as well when people become entranced with the idea that reason is an enemy that should be vanquished or at least kept outside the castle gates.  Who would think such a thing?  The idea, rather surprisingly, has a following in higher education, principally in parts of the humanities.  For an illustration, we have an extremely odd 2,000-word statement posted to the NAS website by a graduate student in the History Department at Duke University.  His name is not especially important here, but as he identifies himself, we will too.  Mr. Sean Parrish wrote to us in response to an article we posted, “The Classroom Without Reason,” by Douglas G. Campbell.

Mr. Parrish’s letter speaks for itself, though perhaps not entirely in the way he intended.  He repeats some of the familiar Foucaultian clichés to the effect that “reason” is a mask of power, or, more precisely, only a mask of power.  Those who, like Professor Campbell, express concern that ideology is increasingly crowding out reasoned discourse on campus are, in Parrish’s view, hypocrites.  Their aim, he says:

in practice, beyond the carefully strategized rhetoric, is to restrict the intellectual diversity now present in universities and reestablish old canons of established authority in scholarship.

He also gives us his version of the received faith among members of the Church of the Left that the only legitimate purpose of higher education is liberation from stultifying ideas.  In his words:

As I see it, the point of academia is to take note of the simplified caricatures society produces - whether by the media, a variety of counter-cultural knownothings, or crusty intellectual posers like yourself - and try to complicate them by pealing away their layers of obfuscation.

The letter wouldn’t be worth more attention if it was just another uncritical recitation of these claims.  Once you ask yourself how Mr. Parrish knows that any part of his fairy-tale pseudo-history of scholarship is accurate or true, you are left with a cipher.  He appears to be an arch-traditionalist of the school that race-class-gender explain everything everywhere with satisfying completeness, and that anyone who might venture to disagree is suffering from grim frustrated desire for power.  But Mr. Parrish does go a step further.  He provides an example of what a mind looks like when proudly loosed from the trammels of reason. 

But let’s pause for a moment.  The National Association of Scholars has summarized its basic stance since its founding in the 1980s as support for “reasoned scholarship in a free society.”  That doesn’t sound like a terribly provocative thesis.  A free society has room for many things besides “reasoned scholarship”—room for love, artistic creativity, sports, grieving at funerals, friendship, partisan bickering, wild nights at the saloon, hangovers, religious exaltation, family picnics, dark nights of the soul, days spent filling out tax returns, and all the rest of life.  The “reason” in reasoned scholarship is not a claim that we should be ruled by reason alone, divorced from humanity.  But it is a claim that, within the world of scholarship, reason should be preeminent. Claims need to be argued and evidence adduced and cross-examined.  Premises do not win their way by mere assertion; they too must be examined skeptically, and subject to disciplined comparison to alternative premises.

Reason, we know, has its limits.  It cannot, by itself, supply the facts that may be needed to judge among competing hypotheses.  And some urgencies demand answers now that reason may only hope to give later.  Reason is a tool, not a god, as some in the French Revolution misconceived it.  But it is the characteristic and we think indispensable tool of scholars.  Without it…well, without it, we may get a variety of things, but none that are likely to sustain a claim to serious intellectual attention and respect.

Mr. Parrish evidently disagrees.  So what does he teach us about the graduate student mind liberated from “paternalistic” reason?  The reader might wish to compile his own list, but here’s mine:

(1)     Snobbery.  Mr. Parrish gets started with the modest declaration that, “As an actual graduate student, studying at a university other Americans have actually heard of…”   Mr. Parrish is at Duke; Professor Campbell teaches at California State University at Chico. Once we dismiss reason, snobbery is as good an argument as anything else.  ‘I attend a better known institution, therefore heed me.’

(2)     Ad Hominem invective.  This starts with Parrish’s salutation, “Dear Mr. Doug Army Guy,” and gets progressively worse throughout the letter.  Who does Mr. Parrish think he is?  He thinks he is someone entitled to treat with contempt people he disagrees with.

(3)     Uncivil language and abusive assertions.  One of the rules of reasoned discussion is that we avoid gratuitous characterizations.  Mr. Parrish knows virtually nothing about Professor Campbell, but freed from the restrictions of reason, he invents his own elaborate 
psycho-sexual fantasy and projects it on to Professor Campbell as:

…an ancient fear among daddy-worshipping morons concerning the presence of effeminate 'faggots', 'commies', and women in positions of higher learning. 

If we ask, “How does Mr. Parrish come by this privileged knowledge?” we can find the answer in his first paragraph.  These are, he tells us, “insights.”

(4)      Just plain nastiness.  Reason demands that we try to persuade people.  Absent reason, the passions take over, and in this case, irritability seems to be in charge.  I don’t have any idea what Mr. Parrish is like in person, but I would have advised him not to post this.  If he intends, as he implies, to seek an academic career, search committees will, in exercising their due diligence, search the web and find his post.  Perhaps some such committee will be deeply impressed with his dissertation, approve of his ideological stance, and otherwise think he is a strong candidate.  But the committee will also have to evaluate him as a potential colleague.  Reason isn’t blind.  Is it really wise to present yourself as someone with this much disdain for those you consider to be your inferiors?
Goya gave us an image of the sleep of reason; Mr. Parrish gives us instead an image of reason cast aside, reason as an enemy or a spy for unfathomably evil forces. In his article, Professor Campbell tried to draw attention to this phenomenon in American higher education, and it is also something that NAS has taken note of as increasingly common.  The first generation of post-modernists seemed to be in on their own joke:  reason could be turned on its head to show the unreasonableness of some supposedly reasonable views.  But the second generation of postmodernists seems to have lost the sense of irony that animated the best of their teachers.  Many of this second generation act as though reason is truly an enemy.  Mr. Parrish has handed us a specimen of this ethos, for which we should be grateful.

Although he hasn’t done much in this letter to draw my sympathy, I do sincerely regret the position he puts himself in.  For better or worse, he represents a part of the coming generation of scholars.  I fear he does neither himself nor scholarship any good by indulging his antipathy for reason.

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