That lecture last night

First, let me place a high compliment on SUNY New Paltz President Steven Poskanzer’s effort last night: I stayed for the whole thing.

It’s true that Mr. Patience (my unfriendly doppelganger, who is anything but patient) was not there with me, but he’s not required for shortening my tolerance in academic contexts.

Carefully positioned in the back row near the exit of room 102 in the campus Lecture Center, I was prepared to jump out the door if the need arose. I also brought along some reading material to see me through should things go south, but not south enough to bail out. That way I could have switched to “just listening in” mode while engaged elsewhere. But Poskanzer maintained the minimum, which was to hold my interest. I described the lecture later to Madame Vandam as not particularly good but still thought provoking. “Well, your thoughts are easily provoked, darling,” she answered. Indeed.

This was the first annual Dennis O’Keefe memorial lecture, an occasion dedicated to the late fireman, raconteur, librarian, and New Paltz community stalwart who had a reputation for broad intellectual curiosity. Poskanzer chose as his subject “Shaking the Foundation: Are the Assumptions that Underlie the University Still Valid?”

Poskanzer brought a feisty bantamweight attitude into a heavyweight fight and managed to survive by dancing around the ring and shadow boxing with the subject, as opposed to moving inside and trading punches with it. He survived the bout, but to what effect?

Well, when he was done he did get a generous and sincere round of applause from the sedate crowd, which appeared to consist mostly of a group of nuns of both sexes bussed in from some local convent. I put my own hands lightly together a few times, too, even though Poskanzer neither drew blood nor broke any furniture.

Call me clairvoyant, but I somehow knew that I would need to take notes, something I rarely do. So I brought a pad with me. Poskanzer had packed his rhetoric rather densely, but the structure of his talk was fairly well laid out.

He described four or five assumption that underlie the university and insisted that they were each being challenged in ways that could, one assumes, undermine the meaning and purpose of a university education.

The first of these assumptions is that the university is an assembly of experts who carefully sift knowledge and convey it with all due authority to students. But instead of taking on the postmodernist attack on rationality that is based within the modern university itself, he chose Wikipedia as his target. In essence his complaint was “how can these god-awful amateurs collaboratively pretend to know things when we are the credentialed experts?” Why, they’re stealing the thunder of the PhD, and spreading the risk of misinforming whoever.

He pointed out that Wikipedia is, I think he said, the 19th most visited site on the internet (but still well behind the official Paris Hilton site, I bet), while the Encyclopedia Britannica site, with its hundreds of Nobel Prize winning consultants, languishes down somewhere near 5,000. That of course is a function of price. Wikipedia is free, the Britannica is not.

Let me digress for a moment on Wikipedia. I’m generally suspicious of it, but I use it. I could say that I’ve warmed to it over the years, but it’s not useful for anything heavy-duty in nature. It’s helpful for retrieving basic information, much like the World Almanac or Britannica itself. When using it, it helps to have an eye for bullshit, but then that’s true when attending university classes as well.

I guess what I find odd about this part of Poskanzer’s lecture (aside from the choice of Wikipedia as target in the first place) is that while he has gotten the gist of the problems that come along with the Wikipedia venture, he didn’t seem that interested in the problems of expertism or the cult of the expert. In that regard, he was engaging, I think, in academic self-flattery, a phenomenon that drinks along the edge of the narcissistic pool.

Two quick points in order to make a point about expertism. First, in the hard sciences the New York Times just a few days ago reported about how bad data leading to bad interpretations creates a cascade effect in scientific research, where the original misstep is taken as the basis for further study and creates a false paradigm. And that’s something apart from the politicization of data and such things as the “precautionary principle.”

Second, the “social sciences” are by their very nature a hell-haven of expertism. Those fields are so politicized and simmering with conceptual malfeasance that it would likely take a century just to sift through them for the purpose of throwing out the 90 percent that’s worthless. That, and not Wikipedia, is the most serious threat to the university. It’s like a staph infection in a hospital where the surest way to die is to check in while you’re ill. In other words, you’re as likely, more likely, to be misinformed by the experts at the university than you are by the amateurs at Wikipedia, and much more seriously so. In fact, in the closed-off environment of the modern university, you can be turned into a well-educated idiot.

But that’s not to say that one can get from Wikipedia, or the internet in general, what one can theoretically get at a university. Any student with a clear purpose can get a great deal from a university environment, which is not the same thing as saying that merely being a student in a university environment accomplishes anything at all. This comes down to individuals, and it’s probably true that half or more of students at college don’t need to be there and will, if they are susceptible to the grosser forms of academic blundering, come away substantially injured by the experience.

The years of life during which one generally attends a university are precious years indeed and going through the motions in pursuit of the certificate is often the surest way to lose ground that will be very difficult to recapture. There is now, also, no small degree of political indoctrination that goes on at universities that can reshape a person in detrimental ways. I think the word I’m looking for is “insidious.”

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this up for now. Otherwise I’ll be here all day, and there is already a wolf at the door who requires my attention. I might return to this later.

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