"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Free Market of Ideas"?

From Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation:
Like many winger ideas--anticommunism for example--it sounds good at first. A "free market of ideas" sounds like "free inquiry," or a "free exchange of ideas"; an environment in which hypotheses are tested and bad ones are weeded out while good ones go on to earn the respect of the community of scholars. But this is not what the phrase means at all. Markets do not determine the objective merit of things, only their price, which is to say, their merit in the eyes of capital or consumers. To cast intellectual life as a "market" is to set up a standard for measuring ideas quite different from the standard of truthfulness. Here ideas are bid up or down depending on how well they please those with the funds to underwrite inquiry--which effectively means, how well they please large corporations and the very wealthy.
 I've been a fan of Frank's since I first discovered his work in The Baffler years ago. I like his style. He's both engaging and inflammatory. In this statement, for example, he's talking about organized conservatism on college campuses as well as in Washington, and, on the one hand, there's a ring of truth to what he's saying (don't deny it, Think Tankers!: The value of research in an academic environment isn't best determined by how much someone is willing to pay for it. Some fields are better funded because they offer more opportunities to apply their research outside academe, but that doesn't make business or engineering better than history in terms of what they contribute to human knowledge or the future of society -- our species evolves, in part, because we have the capacity to apprehend and analyze what happened in the past. But because that relationship is indirect and long-term rather than direct and in the nearest present, people whose primary interest is making money in the here-and-now are less likely to fund grants for history professors than engineering professors.

And then there's the issue of what research reveals, too. Sometimes it reveals unpleasant things, things that challenge core beliefs, things that threaten to undermine power (and the moneyed interests that support it). And no, I'm not referring to history or English professors or other left-wing, liberal "elites" today. I'm talking about Galileo, who was, according to Stephen Hawking, "perhaps more than any other single person, responsible for the birth of modern science." Thanks to the inquisition, Galileo spent the later years of his life under house arrest. And yet it is undeniable that his discoveries, over time, have led to the generation of a great deal of wealth -- both material and intellectual. But there was no way to know that at the time, just as there is no way to know whose intellectual contributions today will have the greatest impact on human society centuries from now. That's why, at universities, we need "free inquiry," not a "free market of ideas." You can't ever wholly get rid of egos or other "special interests" that affect how academic research is produced and disseminated, but you can strive for "free inquiry" rather than succumbing to a "free market."

On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to say that Frank isn't exaggerating the conspiracy element just a bit. A lot of conservatives -- many who work in think tanks -- really do believe in what they believe in and are more than willing to have a rational conversation about why. They may be making money promoting their ideas, but they're not just here, as Frank argues, purely for the sake of what he calls "political entrepreneurship" (that's a great phrase, though, isn't it?).The most tiresome thing about politics today -- about the stalemate we're dealing with -- is that neither side is willing to examine carefully why the opposing side believes what it does and does what it does.

I haven't finished the book yet, so the jury is out on my overall review...

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