journalism, philosophy

Getting professors to write for the outside world

Today, a lot of academic writing looks like this:

To a discussion by political philosophers a mere fact woman like me, an economic historian trained in the 1960s as a transportation economist, has really only one thing to contribute. It is, to slightly modify Cromwell’s imprecation to the Scottish Presbyterians in 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be [factually] mistaken.”

Factually. I realize that Kant laid it down that what humans are factually like, or what their history factually was, is forbidden to play a part in ethical reflection. We are supposed to be looking for principles that any Rational Creature would adhere to, whether a six-headed being in outer space or the man on the Clapham omnibus. As an economist I can see the charm in assuming a character Max U, or Rational R, and then proceeding. And I know that most social psychologists (I except among the younger generation Jonathan Haidt, for example, or, Mike Csíkszentmiháyli of my generation, or Jerome Bruner of an earlier generation) find it charming to believe that ethics starts with their own earliest experiments. Such models and experiments are a lot simpler than reflecting in addition on art and literature and philosophy since the Rig Veda and the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the modern cleverness after Hobbes and then Kant and Bentham and now with the fierce modernists of freakonomics and hedonic measurement seems less relevant to human experience—which is after all why we would want an ethical theory in the first place—than the virtue-talk of the ages.

Sadly, Google Translate has no “Academic-ese to English” function, so I have no idea what she’s saying. I was a philosophy major and read a little bit of Kant, but I spent more of my time studying the ancient Greeks and logic than the post-Hume crowd. Also, I wasn’t very good at it.

That academic background still puts me a few steps ahead of 99.9% of the people who might stumble upon this blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, which sounds like a lively, unique addition to the political blogosphere but instead seems aimed toward people who have spent their academic careers debating Rawls. (Sadly, not Lou.)

So let’s watch Three-Minute Philosophy on Immanuel Kant and see if we can decipher what we just read:

Hmmmmm … no.

The point here isn’t to pick on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, even though picking on libertarians is one of my favorite pastimes. Besides, Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart identifies himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian,” so I have to maintain a bit of sympathy toward the movement even if they’re speaking Greek to me.

The point is that academics have been isolating themselves in the ivory tower for decades. The rare exceptions don’t help — see Michael Eric Dyson’s commencement speech at North Carolina in which he related to the audience by citing Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know and making a complete mess of the lyrics. The problem is so old that I wrote a column about it back in the pre-Internet days in which I attended college. (So, sorry, no link.)

So I’m encouraged by this story of a university and newspaper getting together to put faculty voices out there. Beats the heck out of listening to the same old tired pundits who parachute from topic to topic.

Good luck …

The Elon University Writers Syndicate – Madison Taylor : Burlington Times News.