Academia and the Spirit of Fear

Academia and the Spirit of Fear

Suffering from want of courage.

Jack Kerwick

As this new academic year kicks off, just the most casual perusal of any of the most recent editions of any of the campus watchdog publications readily confirms that which, sadly, needs no confirmation:

Academia, perhaps second only to Hollywood, remains the largest bastion of mental conformity in the Western world.

Although I’ve spent most of my adult life in academia, and the last two decades as a teacher of philosophy, I never cease to be struck by the glaring contrast between, on the one hand, the academic ideal and, on the other, academia in practice.

In theory, the university should be a vibrant marketplace of diverse ideas that are articulated, critiqued, and defended with the freedom, considerateness, and even intimateness that one would expect from a conversation between friends. 

Yet because the terms of the interlocutors’ association compose the liberal arts education upon which they are embarked, their “friendship” is more in the nature of an intellectual adventure that, as such, requires no small extent of daring on their part:

Students of a liberal arts education must possess the courage to think for themselves.

However, even this statement of the matter is an understatement, for not only must liberal arts students (particularly academics) assert their own individuality by daring to challenge orthodoxies and consensuses; a true student of the liberal arts should relish in his individuality. 

A true student of the liberal arts should love ideas enough to attend to them with meticulous care, passionately and powerfully advocating on behalf of those that he embraces while just as passionately and patiently exposing the errors of those that he rejects.  But to do any of this, to be faithful to his vocation, the student of the liberal arts must, as noted, go beyond “tolerance” and exercise genuine considerateness toward those with differing views.

And, as it should go without saying, the ideal of academic life categorically precludes violence, whether of the overt physical variety or in the forms of subtle threats and ad hominem attacks.

This, at any rate, is academia in theory.

Lamentably, matters are far otherwise in practice.

The College Fix, a student-led publication devoted to unveiling the politicization of higher education, recently relayed a report from Viking News, the student newspaper of Long Beach City College.  According to the report, almost 97% of political donations made by LBCC employees are made to Democrats.   “Currently,” according to Viking News, “96.5% of political donors who have listed LBCC as their employer, have donated to Democratic candidates/causes [.]”

During the 2016 Presidential election season, LBCC employees donated $5,185.00 to the nonprofit organization, ActBlue, which exists to enable Democrats to raise donations via the internet.

That same year, Donald Trump For President Inc. received but $288.84 and Marco Rubio for President a meager $250.00. 

The Federal Election Commission listed a business professor, a mathematics professor, and a full-time classified employee as the only three LBCC employees to have donated to Republicans.

As of this year, ActBlue has so far received $4,437.57, with other Democratic causes eliciting $8,216.52.  This means that with two months of 2019 remaining, LBCC employees have contributed a combined total of $12, 454.84 to Democratic politicians and causes.

Exactly zero cents have been donated by LBCC employees to any Republican politicians and/or causes.  

This state of affairs at LBCC is hardly peculiar to this one institution.  Quite the contrary: It is representative of academia today. 

This, though, is an extraordinarily dangerous state of affairs.

Inasmuch as the faculties at most universities and colleges are comprised of almost exclusively like-minded peers, academics constitute what the Polish-Jewish philosopher of science Ludwig Fleck called a “thought-collective.”

A thought-collective is a thought-bubble. 

Fleck argued that since thinking “is a collective activity” its “product is a certain picture, which is visible only to anybody who takes part in this social activity, or a thought which is also clear to the members of the collective only” (italics added).

What this means, in short, is that what we “think and how we do see depends on the thought-collective to which we belong.”

This is a dangerous state of affairs, for, in effect if not (necessarily) in design, it boils down to nothing more or less than a situation within which academics betray their vocation while undermining the historical mission of the university. 

Nor should one mistake this verdict for hyperbole.  To paraphrase the 20th century philosopher Michael Oakeshott, to know only one’s own side of an issue is to know not even that. 

By partaking of and reinforcing the thought-collective to which they belong, academics essentially render themselves ignorant.  They deprive themselves of the education—not just familiarity with the substance of their respective fields of expertise, but the analytical prowess, sensitivity to nuanced distinctions, mental fortitude, awareness of heterodox views, and, critically, the eagerness to understand and appreciate the arguments made on behalf of those views—that is their calling to pursue.

And in denying themselves this education, they deny their students it as well.

Although it is rarely stated, the truth is that it takes courage to pursue a classical liberal arts education.  It really does.  Thinking, insofar as it is always on the go, has a way of leading those who delight in it—and a classical liberal arts education is supposed to instill in students a love for thinking—to places, to arguments, considerations, thoughts, and beliefs that they did not expect to entertain. 

Given the nature of reality, specifically, the character of the human condition, particularly as it manifests itself in the United States of today, there isn’t a snowball’s shot in Hell that this most complex, this most exquisite of all rollercoaster rides, this breathtakingly adventuresome activity of thinking could lead the students of a liberal arts education to one and the same worldview.

There’s no chance that this could happen among the regulars at a neighborhood bar.  Much less could it occur in the one institution that was designed to prize learning for learning’s sake above all else.

Yet academia is among the most homogenous of all environments: academics tend to share the same politics, the same religion (or, more accurately, irreligion), and the same ideological and pedagogical fads and trends.

What accounts for the tragic but undeniable fact that the average academic is a herd animal, I contend, is that he suffers from want of courage, the daring to think.  Academics are possessed by what my martial arts instructor, retired USMC Lieutenant-Colonel and founder of Warrior Flow, Al Ridenhour, refers to as a “Spirit of Fear.” 

This painfully conspicuous lack of fortitude, this Spirit of Fear, I further submit, deprives the academic of knowing the joys of thinking and learning and, thus, the motive to cultivate the courage to think in the first place. Because the average academic has chosen to seal himself within a thought-bubble, he views thinking, if he views it at all, as a form of labor—which he equates with drudgery.

He fails, however, to discern that while thinking is indeed laborious, it is a labor of love.

The biggest problem with all of this is that because academics have chosen to cultivate within themselves the Spirit of Fear, they are guilty of transmitting this same toxic spirit to those whom they are obligated to educate.   

Yet as this Spirit of Fear takes hold of the minds and hearts of the students who have been entrusted to their care, the thought-bubble that is academia grows still larger.