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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Sense of Humor...

It has been said that one should never trust a person without a sense of humor.

Types of humor vary, of course. I can't watch Casablanca, for example, without laughing. Family Guy, however, no longer brings out more than the occasional chuckle. Will Ferrel's work, also, only appeals to me in certain moods.

One of the most time honored forms of humor, of course, is parody. Well done parody is especially effective against those who take themselves too seriously. You may not think the joke is funny, but being outraged and insulted is generally a sign of insecurity. This may be the result of knowing you have a weak argument. Generally, however, it is a result of someone who tales themselves far too seriously.

This condition is especially prevalent in academia. My undergrad work at Canisius in mathematics and history was challenging and fulfilling. In the year I spent at the graduate history department at UB, however, I began to see the rot that academia is going through. The older professors, by and large, had nicely challenging courses. The younger ones, however, were rather aggravating.

They subscribed to a sort of constructivist theory that basically held that there is no objective truth, only what exists in the mind of the historian. I have always had two primary issues with this view. The first is that even if it is impossible to know the truth, or even to know that you know it, it is the height of arrogance to conclude that this means there is no truth. The second, more obvious problem, is that if there is no truth, there can be no purpose behind academic inquiry. You are, therefore, wasting your time as well as taxpayers money and the tuition dollars of your students. The only honest course of action would therefore be to quit.

When you're working in an environment where you have to take these clowns seriously, and have to pretend that those departments with the word "studies" in their title actually represent serious academic work, it tends to drain the humor out of you.

One could also blame self-esteem movement for creating an echo chamber. There has been a rather pernicious theory banded about in the last few decades that self-esteem should be cultivated in children for its own sake. This is not to say that children should be made to feel bad, or their emotions ignored. Rather, however, one could argue that by focusing on self esteem for pedestrian accomplishments, one removes some of the impetus for accomplishing anything.

The results are already beginning to show. Schools have graduation ceremonies for grades that do no merit graduations (i.e. any grade other than 12th, college, or graduate school). Many of my teaching colleagues inform me that among the latest crop of upcoming teachers, many are so accustomed to being given accolades for having a pulse that they are incapable of hard work. People have forgotten that respect is something that needs to be earned.

Perhaps the biggest result, however, is the lack of any intellectual rigor. Many are afraid that challenging children's ideas might make them uncomfortable. Curricula today are designed around students speaking their minds about themselves or what they see around them; they are not focused on actually making sure students have a solid background of knowledge from which to base their analysis.

As veteran teacher Fred Stine says:

Our schools are not producing enough real self-esteem based on genuine achievement measured by a respected, educated adult. Instead, the facilitator system generates phony, Hollywood self-esteem — a cocky, anti-intellectual sense of entitlement that shouts, “Facts and information be damned. My opinion is as valuable as any facilitator’s." *

Years of such intellectual sloth lead to nearly an entire generation of people who have never had their core beliefs challenged, and have never had to defend themselves. They live in an echo chamber in which no one would dare challenge their beliefs. As a result, they become very sensitive.

It is this sort of sensitivity which is at the heart of the parody issue. All this has come to my mind after reading this brilliant, yet scary article by Harvey Silvergate, chairman** of the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE). It lists a number of cases which followers of the free speech wars in academia will find all too familiar.

The gist of the article is that there are many habitually offended people in academia who believe that they have a right to not be offended. Several institutions, including the formerly great Harvard University, have essentially taken the stance that verbal offense is the equivalent of physical violence. The result is that the habitually offended can shut down anyone they disagree with simply by claiming that it offended them.

I will not rehash my arguments about free speech and American exceptionalism. Suffice it to say, I have pretty much lost all patience with the perpetually offended. If you can't bear someone mocking you or your beliefs, then you have no business in any intellectual discourse. Academic or political work both require hard work and endurance. They require you to think about what you believe and why you believe it.

I believe Q, speaking to Picard after their first encounter with the Borg, put it best:

"If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires, both subtle and gross, but it's not for the timid."

Here on Earth, where we have real dangers, there are a significant number of people in academia and elsewhere who get their collective tassels in a twist due to cartoons and pamphlets. And they want us to treat them with respect as intellectuals?

*Hat tip: Core Knowledge Blog. [Back]

**Yes, chairman. A "chair" is a piece of furniture.[Back]


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