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(DV) Greenwell: Academia Nuts







Academia Nuts
by Michael Greenwell 
March 3, 2006

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“That's true, I agree with him. The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn't betray it, I'd be ashamed of myself.”

-- Noam Chomsky [1] 

If we wish to see serious changes in the way society works we have to stop rehashing misconceptions that have led us to where we are now. Academics are generally trusted as sources of information. Unfortunately many take money producing junk science for major corporations. Although the attempt to turn as all into good little corporate citizens is bad enough in itself the problem runs much deeper.


One might hope that in universities the finest minds come together to work out new ideas and solutions. Sadly, this is not often the case. The most closed minds I come across tend to be in the academic world. As an undergrad I spent years being dismissed as a fringe conspiracy nut because I kept bringing up the Project for the New American Century. [2] I was saying that this very sinister group of people were planning some extremely serious and nasty business. Given that they now hold the positions of US Vice-President, President of the World Bank, US Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of State and many more and have begun a series of illegal wars, I feel I have been somewhat vindicated. 

I am not the first person to wonder whether this disdain for new information, unconventional sources and controversial information is a deliberate attempt to “train” minds in the way most suited to those in power, or at least keep people away from uncomfortable subjects.  A term often used in the American labor press was "the bought priesthood." This referred to "the media and the universities and the intellectual class, that is, the apologists who sought to justify the absolute despotism that was the new spirit of the age and to instill its sordid and demeaning values.” [3] Now that I have worked on the teaching side of academia, I have came to a few conclusions of my own about whether this sort of behavior can be considered as collusion. 


Firstly though, some history… 


In a 1778 sermon Phillips Payson commented on “circumstances favorable for a free government and public liberty.” He states that "A wicked rich man soon corrupts a whole neighbourhood, and a few of them will poison the morals of a whole community." To counteract this he suggests the "general diffusion of knowledge" as a remedy. The idea is for the “general diffusion of knowledge” to bring about social good and counteract the machinations of the moneyed and the powerful. 

One hundred years on we see such ideals were losing ground. Charles Francis Adams (son of President John Quincy Adams) stated in 1880: "The future is in the hands of our universities, our schools, our specialists our scientific men and our writers and those who do the actual work of management in the ideological and economic institutions," [4] which is a group of people now often referred to as the “technocratic elite.” Adams saw this as a potentially a way to concentrate power rather than “diffuse” it and as a good development, though many would question whether it is (including me).


Some academics in the U.S. certainly formed part of a “bought priesthood” by working in covert operations with the U.S. government and intelligence communities in military operations. Project Troy was conducted in the 1950s in America. The US government sought to recruit top academics in both the natural and the social sciences in order to help with psychological warfare and propaganda during the cold war. Furthermore, 

“[I]t provided a model and many personnel for a series of large-scale, classified consultancies between leading social scientists and U.S. military, intelligence and propaganda agencies which have persisted in one form or another ever since.” 

One of the members of the Project Troy team, Elting Morison (an historian), showed his conception of the social sciences as being within the realm of current political constructs rather than as attempting to improve, change or do away with them. He asked how values “created by our relatively free society in a past that was, for the most part serene” [How anyone, social scientist or otherwise, could describe a past that included the annexation of part of Mexico, wars with Britain, Spain, France, nuking Japan and the genocide of almost an entire race as “for the most part serene” is beyond me] could be “perpetuated within a relatively controlled society during an ominous present? Or, more simply, how can we maintain democracy in a garrison?” 

This suggests that Morison saw one of the functions of social science as preserving rather than critiquing what already existed. This is not something that the Greeks would have approved of. 

After Project Troy Morison got almost contrite:

In the long run [secrecy] might prove to be more dangerous to free communication than any other single thing. [An award for stating the obvious perhaps?] At the moment, to be sure, the influence of the classified idea has not been much felt [he obviously means outside of the hard and engineering sciences]; it has been extended only with great caution and ... to the few universities that have secret projects for the government. There is pause in the thought, however, that universities are, in this society, one of the great wellsprings of ideas and that the source and supply for these things is the unobstructed flow of information and ideas. 

Control over academic output is not usually so conspicuous as Project Troy. I believe that there must have been similar events in the UK but the UK is generally a more secretive society and the declassified record is not as complete as in the U.S. 

In the UK there are other methods of control. The universities were originally filled for the most part by the “higher” levels of society in terms of both staff and students (and it still is so to a lesser extent). Like any institution they began to develop their own conceptions of what was permissible behavior and good practice. The privileged elites who populated the universities pre-20th century became self-perpetuating. As more specialization was called for in an increasingly industrial society then those best placed to exploit the educational resources were put at an advantage-so another form of “intellectual elite” grew up. The best off were also the best educated. This does not encourage a fair or equal "diffusion of knowledge".


This historical aspect explains much of the situation we are in now.


Another reason for the aversion to new sources is generational. A large majority of the academics working now studied from books and journals -- not the web. This can lead to a sort of snobbery regarding web sources. You often hear that "there is a lot of rubbish on the web." Well of course there is, but there is a lot of rubbish written in textbooks as well. Academics happen to be very quick to point this out if someone they don't like has written a book.


Post-modern conceptions about the nature of truth that are espoused by philosophy departments have also created a barrier between the public and the academic world. It is often seen as a form of arrogance to claim that one knows “the truth” definitively and in response to this much academic literature is worded in less forthright language. As Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language”: "It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think." 


Education could serve the function that Payson hoped it would, but it certainly doesn't at the moment. I think that many social scientists are far more concerned with the reactions of their peers in the academic world to their work than (i) the Aristotelian, Socratic and Platonic ideas of the “Intellectual Tradition” (that is, in short, the duty to reflect on the truth then report it back to as many people as possible), (ii) the reaction of the public at large, or (iii) any impact the work may have on societal structures. There is also a large element of not wanting to upset the status quo.  

Even for those academics who decide to attack authority, the rules are slightly different. Tom Lehrer is a case in point, an American satirist who mocked US institutions but was also part of them; Lehrer was a Harvard math professor. Though he pointedly attacked many of the pillars of US society he was not treated in the scandalous way that people like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were. In short, the establishment finds it easier to forgive one of its own (Jeffrey Archer anyone?).


There are many university staff members who genuinely want to help people find the best methods of finding things out for themselves. This is by far the most useful sort of education. Unfortunately, there are also many who use their position to reinforce dogma whilst claiming objectivity. 

The “objectivity” lie is the first lie forced on you.


Michael Greenwell is a university tutor and a member of www.spinwatch.org. He can be reached at: amichaelgreenwell@gmail.com.



[1] On being accused of betraying the intellectual tradition.. 


[2] www.newamericancentury.org.


[3] “Democracy and Education” Noam Chomsky, Mellon Lecture, Loyola University, Chicago October 19, 1994, ZNET  


[4] www.virtualology.com/charlesfrancisadams/