Monday, January 6, 2014

My Great Disappointment...

Life is full of disappointments as the Buddha recognised long ago. One of the most disappointing things I have learned during my life is that is that there is little if any intellectual culture in most contemporary American academic institutions. In my youth I imagined that colleges and universities were places where anything and everything was open to critical investigation. And at first that seemed to be the case. At Indiana University in Bloomington I found an intellectual culture amongst some of its undergraduate and graduate students who weren't caught up in the culture of partying, the culture of sports, and the culture of moneygrubbing. But then IU was basically an overgrown liberal arts research university with a large graduate school. At Ohio University I found a small community of intellectuals amidst Athens's very expansive drinking culture. At Brigham Young University I found an intellectual community focused on Mormonism. Since I was interested in Mormonism for what it revealed about social movements and community identity construction BYU and its many educationally motivated students proved to be an oasis for me. Beyond this, however, I have found intellectual life and its heart, critical thinking, almost entirely lacking in the vast majority of universities I have attended or taught. In fact, I have been far more intellectually stimulated by the cinema, by television, by books, by music, and, more recently, by the stimulating atmosphere at the Honest Weight Food Coop than by "intellectual" life in the ivory tower.

At most American colleges and universities faculty members, by and large, treat teaching positions at colleges and universities as little more than a 9 to 5 job. The vast majority of students are either uninterested in the interrogated intellectual life or are incapable of thinking outside the ideological boxes that their minds have been placed in thanks to a constant diet of fetishisations or universalisations from a variety of sources including the media. Most students, for instance, continue to use terms like "weird", "not normal", and boring as if such categorisations were descriptive rather than normative ideological social and cultural constructs, as if the intellectual revolution in cultural anthropology and deviance studies had never occurred, and as if empirical evidence was entirely irrelevant (have you read any of the Amazon reviews of the younger generation?). Needless to say teaching in such an environment despite the presence of a handful of truly excellent students who care about a liberal arts education is excruciatingly painful and, to use an uninterrogated phrase favoured by recent generations, boring.

Over time I have come to realise that a non and even anti-intellectual atmosphere is more typical and more mainstream in at many American colleges and universities than is the ever present critical investigation of life. The reason for this is simple. It is not critical thinking that America's powers that be treasure. It is conformity. Perhaps if I could just stop thinking I might too might be happy and join the ideologically lobotomised ranks of the masses who aren't disappointed, of those who believe that the uninvestigated life is the only one worth living. But I can't...

There are very few places that allow an intellectual to survive and thrive in American life today. There are a few intellectuals in the academia but the academy with its moneygrubbing lowest common denominator undergraduate masses who intellectuals have to teach and its power seeking upper echelon bureaucrats makes for a stultifying and finally deadly environment for real intellectuals. There's sport radio and television but that too is limited as the only way you can stay on the airwaves is to get ratings, to, in other words, appease the lowest common denominator seeking masses. There's PBS but on a good day that network rarely garners more than 2 million viewers for its outstanding factual and fictional shows. There's New York City but the advent of the World Wide Web has dramatically changed, not for the better I might add, and undermined the old media that once supported and provided a living to America's intellectuals. Clearly being an intellectual in contemporary America is the loneliest number.

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