Power and Influence in Universities

One Sample Feedback on the Previous Blog

  1. Right on, brother Howard. Where and how did the U lose its soul re such matters as tenure, etc., and plagiarism. It is as if those who secretly do not believe in intellectual integrity have grabbed control on the spurious grounds that making judgments of quality and/or honesty are oppressive. Every plagiarism case I brought — 2 in 40 yrs. of teaching — was thwarted by ad hominem accusations of being “harsh” (sic) and mean to these poor students. It was as if having called out the Emperor for nakedness had been the crime, not the student’s brazen behavior!!

 

Universities are not supposed to be about power. But they are most definitely; primarily one kind of power – creative energy. They are not supposed to be about power as coercion.

Let me approach the issue from a very angular take. As some know, in my youth I was a playwright and drama critic. The play I wrote as an undergraduate, Root Out of Dry Ground, was scheduled for a professional production when the last and only professional theatre in Toronto folded just before my play was to go on stage. Instead, the play was produced and directed by Robert Gill at Hart House, the University of Toronto theatre. It was the first original play put on in that theatre ever. The drama was also put on the English courses in faculties such as medicine, dentistry and engineering. I was an ersatz playwright.

Unknowingly, I had joined the school of angry young male playwrights. I blamed institutions. I blamed bureaucracies. They had failed humanity. As one character puts it in David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross,  “I swear…it’s not a world of men…it’s not a world of men, Machine…it’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders…what it is, it’s a fucked-up world…there’s no adventure to it.”

David Mamet is a real playwright known perhaps best for his plays and movie scripts such as the one above and Speed the Plow. They are written as poetic prose extracted from everyday speech in the best of the Irish dramatic tradition – like Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a booth in a Chinese restaurant with Shelly Levene breathlessly, in defensive stuttering, talking to John Williamson.

LEVENE

John…John…John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:

(pause)

The Glengarry Highland’s leads,

you’re sending Roma out.  Fine.

He’s a good man.  We know what he

  1. He’s fine.  All I’m saying,

you look at the board, he’s

throwing…wait, wait, wait, he’s

throwing them away, he’s throwing

the leads away.  All that I’m

saying, that you’re wasting leads.

I don’t want to tell you your job.

All that I’m saying, things get

set, I know they do, you get a

certain mindset… A guy gets a

reputation.  We know how this…all

I’m saying, put a closer on the job.

There’s more than one man for the…

Put a…wait a second, put a proven

man out…and you watch, now wait a

second–and you watch your dollar

volumes…You start closing them

for fifty ‘stead of twenty-

five…you put a closer on the…

All I am saying is that what Williams had accused him of is true – that he is throwing his leads away and developing a reputation for not living up to his potential as a more contemporary Death of a Salesman. Mamet’s black noir movie scripts, such as Heist, are similarly more cold than cool, cruel to the point that compassion has been pushed over a cliff. In his plays and scripts about distress and disquiet, turmoil and trouble, confrontation and contestation, words are used as weapons to conduct verbal warfare. When words become armaments, we are in the realm of coercion, of corrupting power rather than the creative power that propels words used to influence. When language is used to sell rather than persuade, we are into spin and propaganda rather than education.

The currency then becomes money rather than ideas; material influence supersedes intellectual influence. As Williamson puts it in the play:

Money. A fortune. Money lying on the ground. Murray? When was the last time he went out on a sit? Sales contest? It’s laughable. It’s cold out there now, John. It’s tight. Money is tight.

In 2010, Mamet published an iconoclastic treatise on drama called Theatre precisely because he had come to believe that it is theatricality that counts and not something esoteric like “drama.” A theatre is a marketplace where a play is sold to an audience – nothing less and, more importantly, nothing more. His treatise was decidedly anti-authority and anti-theory – of acting, of directing, of writing. In the following year, he published another volume, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture that was decidedly anti-authentic as well as anti-formal authority. The themes, though not yet given the clear light of day or a searchlight focus, were adumbrated in one of his most famous plays written two decades earlier, Oleanna, about political correctness and a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment in the context of a war of students against faculty, administrators against scholars, and, most of all, the war of the sexes. Then he laid out the sides of the battle.

Twenty years later, he overtly took sides – with Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, with those who use power to reduce rather than seduce women and, perhaps, even worse, portray them as willing accomplices in a male unilateral exertion of power. In Mamet’s eyes, the real victims are not the men of power nor those who play along in the game of sexual warfare. The victims are the once prominent authentic and formal authority figures, now hapless and careworn, a scholar with an international reputation and a chair of his department or even a dean, now reduced to a piece of flotsam tossed around by the competing powers of the zeitgeist – a populist uprising in the name of either self-rule or rule by a figure of ostensible coercive power.

Both institutional formal authority and authentic scholarly authority are discarded into the garbage heap of history as the Donald Trumps and the Vladimir Putins, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğans and the Xi Jinpings, the Viktor Orbáns and Mateusz Morawieckis, purge mandarins and verbally assault civil society opponents (some do much more) in the battle to re-assert male authority in a threatening egalitarian world. The scepticism at the heart of academia has been turned against itself to deny the value of climate change or democracy, the rule of law or the rule of wisdom. In this larger story of the competition to grasp the brass ring of power, the university is shunted aside as irrelevant to the course of history. Instead of doctors of philosophy advising political leaders, their place is taken by spin doctors. Instead of a search for peace and prosperity, both are easily sacrificed to the need for either a circus to preoccupy the mind or a war as the ultimate technique of distraction to avert one’s attention from domestic scandals.

How did we enter this age of male paranoia? How did the university contribute to its own increasing irrelevance? How did the values of a steady hand and wise foresight become displaced by vacillation and volatility, self-evident contradiction and chaos, malaise and unrest? How did emotion displace reason, impulse displace reflection and consideration, and ego displace the responsibility o government for the sake of welfare and wellbeing of society?

The seeds were sewn when the university was at its zenith as a Sanctuary of Method, as an institution dedicated to providing disciplined professionals in a number of fields that could serve as social leaders – whether developing an expertise and mastery of a body of English literature and the techniques for dissecting and understanding that body of creative work, or in professions such as medicine and law. The university was no longer a place for amateurs, a place to cultivate and instill the values and norms of a ruling class, but an elite of expertise that could serve to guide the world. The university as a Sanctuary of Truth in defence of a faith had been displaced by the university as a Sanctuary of Method.

The process began when philosophers, beginning with René Descartes in the context of the emergence of the modern nation-state as a revival of the ancient Hebrew nation during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, sought to ground knowledge in certainty rather than faith. The beginning of the end came three hundred years later with the publication of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof and Alfred Tarski’s indefinability theory in the 1930s during the zenith of the Sanctuary of Method. What began to end with Gödel and Tarski initially started with Descartes.

Descartes, the father of a coordinate system so critical to statistical analysis, of analytic geometry and infinitesimal calculus, all incidentally developed from his original interest in advancing his early profession as a military engineer, of the first principle of philosophy that doubt itself established the certainty of existence and thought since if one doubted, there had to be an individual doing the doubting and the doubting was itself an act of thinking. Instead of placing Aristotelian final causes on a pedestal, he smashed the quest as idolatrous and adopted the conviction of absolute freedom to allow reason to draw its own conclusions.

The history of that quest with its many manifestations came to a full stop with Kurt Gödel. No system of thought with its axioms and proofs could demonstrate its own consistency. This was the first half of his incompleteness theorem. From a system of axioms one can develop theorems expressed as effective procedures or algorithms so crucial to the modern information age (which I will deal with in a separate blog). However, no system could be complete in itself. Many academics became convinced that the only value of a theoretical system was its use value since the goal of establishing a solid theoretical foundation for certainty that was both complete and consistent was impossible. Nor, as Alfred Tarski subsequently determined, could any system be based on any effort to define truth since truth was proven to be undefinable. Lacking any fundamental foundation in consistency, coherence, completeness and clarity, the walls around the elite leadership in society eroded and, by the 1960s, virtually everywhere the university as a Sanctuary of Method was displaced by a university as a Social Service Station dedicated to a social problem-solving agenda rather than a self-contained collective of systems dedicated to setting standards for society.

But how did we get from a Sanctuary of Method and a Social Service Station view of the university to our current model? And what is that model? And what happened to authority, power and influence in the process?

 

To be continued.

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