It’s not just right-wing populists who are worried that some academic humanities and social science fields are veering into irrelevance. The latest issue of the left-of-center magazine American Prospect has a depressing report by the leftist Occidental professor Peter Dreier on his experience submitting a bogus paper to a humanities conference and getting it accepted:
Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year—in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper—was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers—both American sociologists—accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.
Read the Prospect piece to see Dreier’s full “proposal.” Here’s one representative sentence: “Self-delusion and self-discipline inhibits the reflective self, the postmodern membrane, the ecclesiastical impulse forbidden by truth-seeking and sun worship, problematizing the inchoate structures of both reason and darkness, allowing knowledge, half-knowledge, and knowledgelessness to undermine and yet simultaneously overcome the self-loathing that overwhelms the Gnostic challenge facing Biblical scribes, folksingers, and hip-hop rappers alike.” He also includes examples of the type of real humanities work that led him to undertake this experiment (he saw sentences elsewhere like: “Given the attitudes generated by our sense of a place, critical perspectives that only target overt structures within city systems are incomplete” and “Theoretical, conceptual and methodological choices must be framed in relation to concrete explanatory and interpretive dilemmas, not ontological foundations.”)
To make matters worse, most of this “postmodern” analysis is taking place within the context of a hermetically sealed political bubble. As our friends at Heterodox Academy have pointed out, just four percent of American academics in the humanities identify as conservative. This total homogeneity may be one reason that so much work in the humanities has become utterly disconnected from what the general public might consider to be valuable scholarly exploration.
There is a good amount of anti-intellectualism and old-fashioned score-settling involved in attacks on the academy by right-wing pundits and populist politicians. But that reaction didn’t come out of nowhere. At a time when tuition and student debt are reaching crisis levels, the public is right to demand that the work it is funding (both directly, at public universities, and indirectly, at private universities, by subsidizing student loans) has some bearing on reality and some benefit to the rest of society. It’s time for academics to stop turning up their noses at reasonable critiques, and actually get their house in order.