Saturday, May 05, 2007

Obscurantism in academia

In an earlier post called History is knowable, teachable and testable, I called attention to the controversy surrounding the Florida legislature's view that history has a factual basis that can be taught. This seems like an odd controversy. Of course there are verifiable facts. Settlers did come to this country. The Founding Fathers did write certain documents. There was slavery and a Civil War. Lincoln was president and was assassinated and so on. It seems ridiculous to be making this argument.

What seems like a ridiculous argument turns out to be a necessary argument when one immerses oneself in the febrile, lunatic and obscurantist world of postmodernism that holds sway in the academy. In this hallucinatory postmodern world in academia, facts no longer have an independent, objective existence and don't count. Instead, they are produced at will. According to one professor, what counts as an argument is not that it be supported by verifiable facts but that it "coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes."

One can get a sense of this abandonment of reason by reading an article on the perversions of Middle East archaeology that appeared in All this seems esoteric and one has to be something of a masochist to expose oneself to the dreadful postmodern cant, but I think it is relevant because eventually this lunacy will trickle down to pre-collegiate education:

“Postmodernizing” Archaeology at Barnard
By Candace de Russy May 4, 2007
Nadia Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor at Barnard College who deserves more scrutiny from everyone interested in the degenerate methods by which great universities are destroyed.
The greatness of modern, western-style universities – the thing that separates them from all the academies that went before them – is that facts and theories asserted in universities must be supported by verifiable evidence. At the old academies, an appeal to Aristotle, Confucius, or the Bible was enough to support an idea. In the modern university, theories are judged by Occam’s razor, explanatory value, and verifiability of the supporting facts.
El-Haj is a young cultural anthropologist of the purely theoretical school. She has written a book entitled Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which was sent to me by a group of scholars calling themselves the Va’ad ha-Emet (Hebrew for Truth Committee). These scholars, wary of speaking out publicly against the shoddy and slanderous scholarship in El-Haj’s book for fear of retribution on their respective campuses – which they describe as “vituperative” – appealed to me for assistance in publishing a statement from them (more about which to follow).

In her introduction, El-Haj explains that she works by “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method,” writing, instead, within a scholarly tradition of “post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory and … in response to specific postcolonial political movements.” And the particular theory that El-Haj puts forward is that the “ancient Israelite origins” of the Jews is a “pure political fabrication” – a machination she proceeds to blame on “Israeli archaeologists” who were called upon to “produce … evidence of ancient Israelite and Jewish presence in the land of Israel, thereby supplying the very foundation, embodied in empirical form, of the modern nation’s origin myth.”

Deplorably, in the rarified air of Morningside Heights, some Columbia faculty appear to celebrate this sort of “liberation” of scholarship from any necessity to encounter verifiable facts. For example, Keith Moxey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor Professor of Art History at Barnard College and one of five members of the committee that will vote on El-Haj’s tenure bid, lauds “The abandonment of an epistemological foundation for … history and the acknowledgment that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes collapses the traditional distinction between history and theory.” (See Moxey’s The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History.) In other words, evidence, verifiability, probability and explanatory power become irrelevant, for what counts is that an argument “coincide with our political convictions.”


JohnL said...

Not only do the po-mo folks often eschew the notion of facts, but some also raise questions about reason. In reasoned discussion, an argument may be evaluated on two bases: (a) the veracity of the premises and (b) the fallibility of the logic. If there are no facts, of course, all arguments are then in dispute. But what is equally troubling is when one establishes that there are at least a few facts and, reasoning from them, shows the faults in a po-mo argument; at this point, one ought to be prepared to suffer the accusation that one is simply promoting a Euro-centric, left-brained, positivistic, colonialistic, and male-dominant perspective.


Chet said...

As a not very wise white male once said...too...many...jokes. Don't know if I can link from here, but here is a funny comentary by Gary Kamiya on the Sokal hoax, just dropped my finger down on something at random. If it is pretentious blather ye seek to deflate, pomo is a target rich environment. Sigh indeed.