A well-respected academic turns apostate, and reaps the whirlwind.
Every once in a while…something happens that shakes things up [in academia], and then one sees that things are, in fact, far worse than one ever imagined. Take, for example, the recent furor regarding Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Nagel is a distinguished professor of philosophy with an impeccable pedigree… On the 4th of July 2012, when he reached the ripe old age of 75, he was at the very top of the heap. But, thanks to his new book, he is rapidly becoming a pariah. The title is sufficient to explain why…
…[Nagel] has broken ranks, and he has been relegated to the class of apostates. It is a good thing that he is 75 and not 25. If he were just starting his career, this book would have ended it…
I would like to think that Nagel’s debunking of the scientistic orthodoxy now dominant in the academy would usher in a new age of sharp intellectual debate. But nothing that I see in the contemporary university suggests that such a dream is at all plausible. As long as the university is seen as a political instrument, there really are no grounds for hope.
It is not that professors should agree with Nagel. But instead of merely countering his argument, most (not all) of those who disagree are demonizing him.
Rahe says that it was not always this way in academia. But it has become this way:
When I was an undergraduate at Cornell , then Yale and a graduate student at Oxford, then Yale once again, the American university was an exceedingly lively place in which students were encouraged to explore a diversity of perspectives. The people in charge were, by and large, New Deal liberals — moderate in manner, open to argument, and distinguished first and foremost by their curiosity. They welcomed into the ranks of their colleagues both those to their left and those to their right — for they did not regard the university as an instrument for transforming the world. They supposed, instead, that it was a space within which one could spend one’s time trying to understand that world. Intellectual sparring partners were, in their opinion, a great boon.
That dovetails with what Bloom wrote in his book, too. Born in 1930, Bloom dated the sea-change to the Sixties. Rahe, a professor history at Hillsdale, is considerably younger than Bloom. I can’t find his birthdate, but he appears to be somewhere somewhere in his late 50s, old enough to have (as he writes) been schooled in a very different university in which a liberal and yet open-minded old guard still had respect for differing opinions well-stated. Now such respect has become all too rare.