Column on Academic Conundrums

Academic Conundrums
Tibor R. Machan
After I entered college, somewhat late in my life, I searched for a
discipline I would be able to be devoted to. Took me a couple of years but
my very first inclination had proved to be right–I became smitten by
philosophy. One reason was that I didn’t detect any orthodoxy in the
field, not at least as taught where I first took courses in it. Not that I
liked the idea that no philosophy could be correct, not by a long shot.
But I liked that none was officially embraced, like Marxism was in my
native country at the time. I have never regretted entering this
discipline despite the many frustrations that I have encountered there.
My eventual choice was to defend something fairly ordinary, namely, that
the world exists independently of how we feel about, perceive it, wish for
it to be, etc. Even in ethics and politics I concluded there are right
answers, though this is not as simple an idea as it may appear at first.
To this day I enjoy taking part in various Socratic discussions–nearly
free-for-all exchanges–inside or outside the halls of Ivy. But I admit
that sometimes it is frustrating to take seriously what fellow
academicians defend, or give voice to. Yet that is just what those who
sign up for an academic career must accept, a lot of frustrating, even
bizarre ideas being aired by one’s colleagues.
At a couple of recent gatherings, for example, there were several notions
circulated that just didn’t seem to me to make any sense. For example,
some of my colleagues from the natural sciences argued that time is unreal
or, perhaps more accurately, that times is something different for those
belonging to different cultures. (No wonder, I suppose, that many
participants came "late" to the event and we started about 20 minutes
"later" than scheduled!) In the course of the discussion it was even
proposed that "everyone is right," meaning, I take it, that no right and
wrong can be found about anything at all–which I take to imply that this
idea, too, is neither right nor wrong. And that is quite difficult to make
sense of for me.
Another notion that got aired, quite seriously, is that what counts as
bona fide, genuine art is entirely flexible and certainly changes from one
era to another. So standards of art would, for some of my colleagues,
amount to something very temporary. (Does this invalidate the idea of
timelessly worthy works? Or works that are artistically excellent in any
period of human history, like the classics?) The only problem with this
idea, as some even admitted, is that there would be no way to distinguish
genuine art from trash. Ah, but I guess this is philosophically appealing
to some, even while in matters of politics diversity is mostly frowned
upon. (Many academics love diversity on the surface but when it comes to
substantive diversity they disapprove–is liberalism a sound political
idea, socialism, capitalism, or affirmative action or the minimum wage
law?) Yet if everyone is right, then surely nothing can be politically
correct, either.
When I teach undergraduate courses I sometimes imagine what my frosh
students must go through as they try to explain to their relatives what is
happening in college while visiting home on their Thanksgiving holiday. Of
course, teachers don’t often wholly convey their own ideas in their class
rooms, especially if these ideas can only be fully appreciated by those
who have a good sense of the history of a discipline. But students do not
encounter their professors only in the classroom and if they come to some
of faculty seminars and report back home what they hear there, this could
land them in some emotional difficulties. Unless their relatives
understand that university education is a kind of smorgasbord where many
ideas are explored and none is required to be believed, only mastered.
Yet this idea, what is probably the meaning of a liberal education, is
not all that widely understood by parents and relatives who have been away
from college and university classrooms for decades. One can only hope that
however perplexing the ideas of some professors may be, students have
enough confidence in their own minds that they will think things over
before they accept the more incredible ones. Yes, there are some serious
issues to be explored about time but, yes, time is real–so show up for
class when it begins!

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