Because the Stakes are So Small: Enlightenment Beyond the Ivory Tower?

February 18, 2015


It’s been a pretty bad year for the image of academia. In my own profession of Philosophy, news about its “gatekeepers” behaving badly, inherent and damaging sexismthreats of lawsuits, and the standard form of infighting that underlie Kissinger’s famous quote (of which the title of this piece is an extract), have undermined philosophy’s public image. In other fields, ongoing concerns over conflicts of interest, the rise (and fall) of for-profit colleges, and threats by politicians to defund state educational systems, have all cast a pall over academia in general. Universities have stood for a many centuries as the bastions of the Enlightenment, providing research and tutelage into the methods of scientific naturalism, uncovering great new truths about the nature of the universe and humankind, and paving the way for our modern, scientific, technical world of plenty. Universities grew and prospered first as private institutions, shielded in many ways from the world of politics, but insular and elitist until state university systems began to open up their halls more affordably to their citizens. When I was an undergraduate, I benefitted from the State University of New York, where my tuition was a mere $1000 per semester. The integrity and affordability of public universities have suffered, however, in the wake of Reaganism, and now the academy is tearing itself apart, in my opinion.

I teach Research Ethics, and increasingly examples for failures of scientific integrity are emerging due to the convergence of commercial and research interests. As state governments began suffering increasing deficits and as federal investment fell, calls for cutbacks hit university systems, increasing tuitions and impelling the creation of “private-public partnerships.” The model for the new research university no longer could afford or encourage basic research alone without the promise of some return on investment. Private universities too have followed this model, and the general idea is that research in conjunction with commercialization of its products, can help to earn money for universities that tuition alone would not earn. In theory, tuitions should remain stable as a result, and everyone should benefit as profits reduce the strains of taxpayer’s purse-strings. In reality, this model encourages research in a narrow range of fields, mostly in the sciences, and there mostly in those whose potential for commercialization is highest. Basic, blue-sky research becomes a more risky investment if profit, rather than simply the expansion of human knowledge, is the measure. The humanities have suffered greatly, and a glut of humanities majors competing for diminishing roles may be part of the reason academics seem to be behaving so badly these days. In the sciences, the conflicts of interest raised by the potential for profit from research have led also to significant lapses of ethics. In sum, the academy is under siege by itself, not at all the meritocracy it ought to be, and seemingly threatened by societal forces that now seem uncontrollable.

As bastions for the Enlightenment, universities are weakening their potential by these and other forces. There are numerous books worth reading on the crisis in our university system. I am hopeful that somehow the system will be saved, but I want to suggest that the “academy” as it currently exists is not the only option. We are witnessing a radical change in societal arrangements as more people discover new modes of living and working together. The project of the Enlightenment too may yet thrive through innovative new manners of research and dissemination of knowledge. Truthfully, I have no idea what these forms may look like. While at one time, MOOCS and other forms of online education seemed promising, they are not achieving the success many dreamed they would. But education is only part of the Enlightenment we seek, and truthfully there are many ways that those who are motivated can find resources (many free) to study what they wish. The other part is basic research, the intercourse of scientists and researchers among each other — the ongoing project of science and philosophy to uncover truths about the universe through empirical research, dialogue, testing, and debate. These can yet thrive once divorced from the idea of profit, careerism, and bigotry that plague the modern academy. Places like CFI should be part of that solution, providing through their educational offerings access to means for learning, as well as fora for discussing ideas among researchers — ideas that matter to science, naturalism, and of course the understanding and betterment of humanistic values. How we do that is up in the air, but we are eager to discuss, experiment, and provide a means to work outside the academy to help save the Enlightenment values we hold dear.