May 04, 2003

The Evil of Academic Humanism?

If this is true (which I doubt: I've heard lots of unpleasant stories about what goes on inside large hard-science labs), then it is because science is primarily about cool ideas and cool facts while the humanities are much more about "this is my opinion." And as long as the personalities are ancillary, it is much easier to get along.

But I don't see any reason to think this is true. I mean, it's only Leonard Cassuto's opinion. The only reasons he gives to believe him are (i) that "a well-known member of my field...didn't even bother to reply after I introduced myself. I can still see his dismissive glance," and (ii) that Cassuto "confes[es] that I've been guilty of such status consciousness... after one of my presentations, I realized that the person congratulating me wasn't an anonymous admirer (I'd been treating him with unconscious condescension)... the grinding of gears as I lurched into a more generous tone."

Cassuto's second anecdote astonished me. Why would one ever be condescending (unconsciously or consciously) to someone who is so excited by what you had to say that they come up to you afterwards to talk about it? People who are excited by your ideas are your advocates, your emissaries, the way that the ideas that you think are important or interesting are spread about the world. You have already gone to considerable effort--written your presentation notes, prepared your visuals, flown on an airplane, et cetera--to make your presentation. Why not spend an extra five minutes pleasantly talking--about something you are very interested in--to somebody who will amplify the intellectual reach of your ideas? Why sacrifice your long-run intellectual agenda just so that you can get a monkey-dominance ego-boost by being condescending? It's...

Hmmm. I've written myself into a corner. Either I claim that Cassuto's strictures against the humanities are not to be taken seriously because he is a psychologically-unstable unreliable narrator--in which case I then have to face the charge that his psyche has been warped by his disciplinary culture--or I accept the reliability of what he reports, and thus have to take his strictures against the humanities seriously.

I guess I need to stop digging. Any ideas how to get out this hole I have dug myself into?

Arts and Letters Daily: Scientists are largely a happy lot. Humanists, on the other hand, are insecure, unfriendly snots, forever trying to figure the pecking order. Leonard Cassuto looks at some differences... moreĽ

Posted by DeLong at May 4, 2003 08:22 AM | TrackBack


The link doesn't work. But I think his thesis is about as reliable as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Posted by: John Isbell on May 4, 2003 03:03 PM

The link didn't work for me, either, but I've had this problem with the Chronicle before, and once the caffeine works into my bloodstream, I'll probably remember the fix.

I'll note, though, that if the article really claims this sort of thing doesn't happen in the hard sciences, then we should send whatever the author's smoking to a really good laboratory. I've seen exactly the sort of thing described in the first cited anecdote (there are some people in even my especially collegial corner of physics who won't deign to talk to graduate students).

I don't understand the mental process going into the second one, either, but then I went into the liberal-arts-college end of academia, so that's perhaps not a surprise...

Posted by: Chad Orzel on May 5, 2003 05:39 AM

It didn't work for me, either, until I went via A&LD:

Michael Nielsen

Posted by: Michael Nielsen on May 5, 2003 08:27 AM

Awhile ago I went to a presentation made by a visiting candidate for an anthropology position. After the presentation the questions started. A few students asked for clarification on one or another point, but most of them simply left to try and steal the rest of the cookies and tea that was on the table outside.

As the faculty began to ask questions, some of them with prefatory statements several minutes in length, I got a feeling that vultures were beginning to circle. The candidate began to mumble and stammer when answering, confessed to an inferior understanding of Heidigger and Gramsci, and the questions continued.

At that point I left but I swear I could hear screams and crunching bone.

Of course, it happens outside the humanities: See what happens when a non-MD (a PhD or an MBA, say) comes in to try and run a hospital. MD's don't take orders or even suggestions from anyone who isn't an MD. And a friend of mine spent a year at Dana Farber as a visiting lecturer. His comment: "if you told them you'd won a Nobel prize, they'd say 'Just one?'"

And it happens in business. Look at Dilbert to watch the cartoon management try only to eat lunch with people above them in the corporate heirarchy, for example.

In conclusion, some people are mean and manipulative. The article illustrates nothing novel.

What a waste of time. Should I have any opportunity to interact with the author, I would make certain to condescend and insult.

Posted by: verbal on May 5, 2003 12:52 PM

As a humanities Ph.D. candidate, I have to say the article is on to something. Yes, you can boil down the argument ad absurdum to "People are mean." Yes, he is clearly romanticizing the sciences. But in humanities research, too often peer review simply means - to its participants even - trend, fashion or social networking, and the situation translates into an academic culture which is caught up in some C. Wright Mills-worthy status panic. I think it may be a specifically American problem, too, as when I've attended conferences in Britain, it's like the tension has been lifted and people can behave normally.

Posted by: Chris Cagle on May 6, 2003 08:43 AM

Hmmm, or maybe you don't have the background to read the social "cues" the British use - they can be more subtle than ours, particularly among the academic elite.

My sister teaches musicology at the graduate level in England, and has lived there for over a decade. She says she gets different levels of attention and respect from those who only hear her American accent, and those who know of her doctorate from the Sorbonne.

Posted by: J. Random Loser on May 9, 2003 06:20 AM

I've been a business school prof for about 15 years and have observed a similar pattern. The economists (which also includes most finance and some accounting folks) tend to be rather sweet-natured and bumbling. The strategy and organizational behavior profs (or at least the successful ones) tend in my experience to be arrogant, hierarchical, and a lot less fun at parties. While econ is hardly a hard science, no one doubts it is closer to a science than other b-school areas. And there is a neat twist. Economists are often attacked by OB types as having a narrow and unflattering view of human nature. True, but it seems a reasonable portrayal of most of the folks making the attacks!! What's your experience at Cal, Brad? I can think of a few finance folks there who are more than a bit brusque and rude but at least I still have a genuine affection for 'em.

Posted by: gerald garvey on May 9, 2003 02:10 PM
Post a comment