The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Blaming social media for academia’s ruin misses a larger, darker truth

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It is tempting to postulate technological determinism as the answer to this question: Why are extremism, irrationality, fear and censoriousness especially rampant where they should be next to nonexistent? However, to blame social media for the anti-social behaviors that today characterize academia misses a larger, darker truth.

What is still referred to, reflexively and anachronistically, as higher education is supposedly run by and for persons who are products of, and devoted to, learning. Today, this supposition is false.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, the reading of which is in equal measures fascinating and depressing, recently published Joseph M. Keegin’s bracing essay “The Hysterical Style in the American Humanities: On the ideological posturing and moral nitpicking of the very online.” Keegin, a philosophy student at Tulane University, argues that, confronted with “the slow slide of academe into oblivion,” scholars — especially in humanities departments, which are losing undergraduates, prestige, jobs and funding — “desperately grasp for relevance.” They seek it by becoming “professors of ‘academic Twitter.’”

They have, Keegin says, “by and large subordinated their work as professional intellectuals and historians to the news cycle, yoking their reputations to the delirious churn of outrage media.” Succumbing to “Twitter-induced presentism,” academics are “captured by” and “shackled to” — Keegin’s terms — social media, and they treat the past as “not of interest either for its own sake or as a means of illuminating the complexity of the present. It is, rather, little more than a wellspring of justifications for liking and disliking things in the world today.”

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Keegin cites the cultural critic Katherine Dee’s hypothesis: “What motivates someone to spend 10 hours a day on Twitter” resembles “what motivated people to camp out in front of theatres to see the next installment of Star Wars, or dress up in costume for the release of the latest Harry Potter book.” Dee considers this a species of “fandom.” Keegin says, “Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t the fruit of serious reflection and study.”

It is purely performative, done for the performer’s satisfaction of doing it. Although it is, superficially, all politics all the time, it actually lacks what gives real politics gravity: concern with patiently, incrementally achieved consequences. Extremely online academics embrace a debased intellectual Darwinism: survival of the briefest. So, they lean on status and credentials for authority. They resort, Keegin says, to “prefacing an opinion with ‘as a scholar of’ or ‘as an expert in,’ perhaps putting ‘Dr.’ or ‘PhD’ in one’s Twitter display name.”

Keegin directs his readers’ attention to something worth watching, Mark Sinnett’s 2022 commencement address at St. John’s College in Annapolis, whose splendidly eccentric curriculum emphasizes the great books, not excluding those by dead Europeans. A retired tutor at the school, a mathematician specializing in quantum mechanics and a Presbyterian minister with a theology doctorate from Cambridge University, Sinnett spoke without a text, as someone with a well-stocked mind can do. On YouTube, you can see him unpack St. Paul’s statement that we are perplexed but not despairing.

For many Americans today, Sinnett said, perplexity means despair. So, various public personalities’ pronouncements consist of supposedly “determinant, unrevisable knowledge.” Sinnett told the diploma recipients that after you’ve forgotten the details of your studies here, “I hope you’ll always remember how terribly difficult knowledge is, and how rare.” Knowledge “is a very small part of what any of us have at our disposal.” People inundating us with spurious claims of knowledge feel free to condemn to perdition those who doubt their authority. Dogmatism even infects discourse about what is now suddenly termed “the science,” placed beyond debate by the definite article. But everyone, scientists included, is perplexed. “Perplexity,” Sinnett said, “is what human existence is.” And every person’s perplexity is unique. Society needs “joyous perplexity” because “we are joined in a great community of perplexity.”

Sinnett’s deeply civilized call to rejoice in life’s rich diversity of perplexities is discordant with the tenor of dogmatism in academe. There, diversity is praised in the abstract but suppressed in fact.

In flight from perplexities of their own, and intolerant of those of others, many academics are not “captured by” Twitter; it is their “safe space.” Their febrile shallowness is not “Twitter-induced”; Twitter is a response to it. They are not “shackled to” social media; they cling to those platforms as shipwrecked sailors cling to flotsam. Academe is increasingly populated by people who, having neither an inclination nor an aptitude for scholarship, have no business being there.

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