The Surreal Campus

P1000352.jpgThis time of year, fog descends and blankets the buildings in a shroud, lending a surreal atmosphere to the university.

The other day in an administrative meeting, a colleague was about to say something forceful about the truth of some matter, but then stopped and said “Well, I don’t believe in absolute truth, but anyways, this is the actual situation…”

I can’t say I reacted well, and I offered my colleague an apology after involuntarily performing the surrender cobra and blurting “How can you work at a university and not believe in truth?” This was not a good thing to do. People have a right to express their philosophical positions. Not only that, but insofar as one believes in absolute truths, one is not in the majority at a big state school. Realists have no grounds for outrage; this is business as usual.

Denying the existence of truth is an old and esteemed intellectual position, even though some of its more famous adherents don’t have a great reputation for decision-making. By and large, one associates the idea with lives of tolerance and peace.

Peace! When working alongside folks who deny truth, there’s generally less fighting. Especially not about abstract things. Anyone who is “in the club,” which means, has a tenure-track position, is assumed to have wrestled with soul and spirit through the long dark night, and come to daylight with some kind of idea about what’s going on in existence. And that’s good enough; no point in arguing these things, it gets unpleasant and anyways, there’s no truth. Why not be comfortable and let everybody think what they want.

There’s a lot of respect for departmental boundaries. “Well, it’s true in their world, I guess…” You tend to go ahead and give people promotions and salary increases based on how people in their field think of them and whether they are easy to work with. You try to surround yourself with easy-going people, at the very least, and if someone is not necessarily easy-going, you try to make sure their soul and spirit fits in with everybody else’s. It leads to a lot of conformity within disciplines, but again – it’s peaceful, comfortable.

Yet at times things get weird. Take the idea of “arguing in good faith.” That means, trying sincerely to establish a convincing point. What does “sincere argument” mean in a world where no truths exist? At most, it can mean “I am genuinely trying to express my point of view, as well as my desire that you adopt it.” A wonderful sentiment, but it places no bounds on the content of the point of view, other than the tastes of the person talking, and the speaker’s desire to be loved or hated by the listener. And, of course, the power difference between speaker and listener. It’s all about desire and power. The situation is pretty good for people in the club.

I guess that would be fair, if we knew that getting into the club was a fair process. But, at times, the process of PhD education seems like a pretty abstract exercise in saying the right things and jumping through the right hoops. Checking off the boxes. Again, if no one really believes there’s truth and falsehood in a PhD dissertation, then passing the grade comes down to whether you fit with your discipline. Have you learned how to talk the way we do? Same thing for tenure and promotion. People move forward and upward so long as their work fits the mold. We don’t ask whether arguments are correct so much as, are they X, where X is a field of work. Is it X? Is it good, solid X? If so, step forward.

Surreality is the other weird effect, by which I mean, life on the campus sometimes seems to move along while ignoring the pink elephants. For example, professors who don’t believe in truth still give students bad grades for weak answers – and that’s good! But it does lend a rather weird touch to the process. Students wrestle with teachings that their own voice is valid, on the one hand, but somehow wrong, on the other.

Then there’s the idea marketplace. Professors are people with a job to do, and if fewer people, on and off campus, are interested in that work, there has to be a consequence. If the world doesn’t think that a certain line of reasoning is valuable (or true?), it withdraws attention. Fewer students, fewer conferences, fewer books, fewer positions, smaller space, dingier space. That’s how it is when education is sold, as it is here, but it would still be that way if education was paid for by some higher body. If the sponsors who have the money, whoever they are, don’t believe, the professors don’t get the stuff.

It is weird, though, on campuses, to sense the dissatisfaction when this sort of thing hits home. People who spend little time in their office get upset when told they have to move to a smaller office. When the university changes how health care works, the professors wonder why they have to let somebody mess around with their health care. “Why do computer-oriented fields get all the resources?” they ask. You know, it might have something to do with the Information Age. Maybe the PhD actually isn’t a license to do whatever you want and get paid well for it. The world doesn’t have to listen, and it certainly doesn’t have to pay well.

Imagine a group of house builders, some of whom believe in physics and others who don’t. The ones who believe in physics build modest houses that stand the weather. The ones who don’t, come up with different kinds of structures. There’s a group that goes ahead and builds modest houses that stand the weather; they do so because they don’t live according to the creed they espouse. The creed is just a show to them, a joke – not anything to live by. Another group lives by their creed and, having decided that rain is a construct of society that must be overcome, declines to put a roof on the house. They get wet at times, but they get along well. Good neighbors, just the same.

Then’s there’s the odd neighbors, the ones that go all the way. There being no physics, for them, they conclude that wooden beams can and should be expected to float freely in the air. Accordingly, these folks solemnly hold the structural elements of the roof in the air for a time, and, declaring the work done, they walk away. When the wood falls, they say “The wood did not fall. It remains in the air. Don’t you see it?” Decent people, of course, with every good intention, but maybe not the best group to be building houses.

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Is this a university which I see before me?