04 December 2004

Tim Burke on Academic Groupthink

Tim Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore, weighs in on the groupthink controversy in what I regard as a judiciously balanced manner.
Academics are not motivated to groupthink out of a loyalty to liberal causes, left-wing politics or registration in the Democratic Party, though in many disciplines at the moment, they may end up predominantly having those affiliations in a smug, uninterrogated manner. They're motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

When I was briefly at Emory many years ago, I helped organize a one-day event about "interdisciplinarity". After about six or seven helpings of young snot-nosed punks like myself rattle on about how cool and interdisciplinary we all were, a wise senior scholar named David Hesla finally intervened. "Virtually everybody's interdisciplinary in some way", he said. "You guys are unhappy with departments, not disciplines."

What Hesla was pointing was that most of the constraints, both hidden and obvious, that produce forms of "groupthink" or suppression of innovation and debate within academia are the consequence of the administrative organization of academic institutions. Groupthink isn't enforced by partisan plotters: it happens invisibly, cumulatively, pervasively, in the space in between scholars. It happens in department or faculty meetings, in peer reviews. It lives in what has been called "the invisible college", the pattern of normative judgements that all academics make (including yours truly) about what is cogent, what is original, what is canonical, what is important. Those judgement are formed out all the things you know already, including those you scarcely consciously know that you know, and the heuristics you use to guide yourself to further knowledge.

That is the heart of the problem. It is one thing to talk about breaking down groupthink, to attack the insularity of academic life, and another thing to figure out how to do that without destroying the productivity and usefulness of scholarship and research altogether. The administrative constraints on my life as a scholar are not just noxious restrictions on what I can and cannot do, should or should not say. They're also necessary in both practical and philosophical ways.
via Cliopatria

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