academic integrity

The other day, I was asked what it means to hold a PhD. I said the regular thing about having knowledge of and respect for the genesis of ideas, mastery of critical thinking and the contribution of something new to the field. By new, I do not necessarily mean never before expressed, but rather the restoration of a more faithful understanding of a specific context, or mentioning an aspect of a subject that a particular field may have lost sight of, and so on.
I also mentioned the importance of working on useful ideas. I learned from Plato to measure ideas in terms of whether or not they lead to the good life. This involves aspects of learning that have been extracted from many curricula: self knowledge, and humility, to name but two.
My challenge, when I was questioned about why one would pursue a PhD today, was to come up with a convincing argument as to how education prepares students to make ethical choices about the ideas they pursue. I also had the problem of explaining why some students think their degrees are only self serving. To explain the latter, I unsuccessfully used that reductionist argument that criticizes the development of thought in the West as having become too mechanical and material as a result of a combination of factors connected to religion, politics and production.
It is hard to build a convincing argument based on history, because there are too many exceptions to any rules one wants to make. For example, in the 19th century, one could find scientists who were atomists, some who were pantheists, and others who were deeply devout, seeing no conflict between religion and science. How is one to generalise that period? How can one say of that period that all major thinkers were pure materialists? It just isn't true.
I generally explain to my students that it is desirable to learn an academic approach to a subject in order to see the world around us better - to notice things, which can make life more beautiful. I explain that we learn to ask questions so that we can get to know something better, and with this comes craft, but we know that the word craft has two connotations, one positive and one negative, etc. So, with this knowledge, we are to learn not just how to criticise what is wrong, but to suggest positive ways to move forward. We learn to think so that we do not have to run away from the problems we encounter in life. I also tell them that these skills can also be learned outside of the academy: in other words, just because they are taught these things in class will not necessarily make them smarter than those who only finished high school.

I don't know how convincing I am. But I see a need for such arguments.
For example, the reason I was asked to defend the PhD in the first place is because it seems to many these days that just about anyone can get a degree. There is a joke going around about a doctoral thesis entitled, "Rabbit: King of the Forest". What?! Yes. So the story goes as follows: a professor who couldn't understand the absurdity of the dissertation title found the adviser who had approved of the topic, and this adviser happened to be a bear. The bear mangled the professor until the latter, scratched and torn, admitted, albeit in a feeble voice: Yes, the rabbit is the king of the forest.
Unfortunately, such tropes exist beyond the academy in the world of publishing and the internet. What makes a good book, or a serious work? This morning, I read this review of The Swerve, which is a popular book claiming that Lucretius' On The Nature of Things is a "modern" book that barely made it unscathed to the modern age due to the religious extremism of the middle ages (I have not read the book myself). The scholarship of that book has been questioned in several reviews - and yet the book continues to do well, and was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
I find this situation most ironic for several reasons. Just because certain ancient thought matches up with aspects of contemporary thought does not make it "modern". We could just as well say that this proves there is no such thing as "modern" thought - though that would be going to the other extreme. Secondly, it shows that even when one possesses quite a bit of good solid book learning, one can come to questionable conclusions. Being learned is not the same as being right.
Thirdly, Gadamer makes a great point in The Beginning of Philosophy: namely, that we have a tendency to read history as something that finishes in "modern" thought (19thC and beyond), as opposed to seeing it as an ongoing process - the end of which we cannot see. Such a tendency made it possible for the end of history to be declared. But Gadamer argues that history, as an ongoing process, is to be participated with - which opens up many possible, alternative paths.
If I have unsuccessfully rounded up any ideas here, I would just like to stress that I am arguing in favour of greater epistemological awareness. It seems that many universities are happy to let go of very simple questions which are at the root of all knowledge, like: How is knowledge acquired? How much can we know something? It seems to me that these questions lost part of their authority in the 20th century, when natural science was replaced by individual sciences.
The question about how knowledge is acquired can be applied to many aspects of learning: such as whether or not to study biology on cadavers (remember those debates? and the story that Ruskin left Oxford because he objected to vivisection). It can also be applied to how, today, some parents suffer financial and individual ruin in order to send their children to school.
If such sacrifices are to be made for education, then we should expect to see some of the fruits of such labour. I would expect to see the large number of PhD holders contributing to a better society. But, as Edward Said once said, liberal thought flourishes in academia, where it is at a safe distance from society. What good is a good idea if it is imprisoned in a tower, like Goldilocks? Who is the Prince who could set it free? But I think what more people are worried about is this: if enough good ideas aren't being produced by academia, what right do the educated have to toot their horn?

Elements: Animus.

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