I still read the Earlham Word occasionally not so much as a source of shadenfreunde as I did in the past but because Earlham remains a fascinatingly weird place for me. (I’m also utterly fascinated by North Korea BTW. The DPRK has a “heart” too, but it has a 60 foot statue in the middle that you’re strongly encouraged to give flowers to.). In the most recent Word, Doug Bennett, I believe, made the most candid admission yet that all is not well in Earlham’s intellectual ecosystem.

Bennett also warned against two particular threats to the search for truth. The first threat, he said, is the threat posed by fundamentalist religions. There are elements of fundamentalist religions that believe simple readings of their holy texts can reveal all truth and tolerate no compromise. For these elements, Bennett said, "reason leads to dangerous conclusions." Bennett insisted that free inquiry is essential to a genuine search for truth. Echoing Cardinal Newman, Bennett declared, "Our truth seeking should be fearless and unfettered."

According to Bennett, the second danger to the free exercise of reason comes from reason itself. In searching for truth, we may end up seeing only what we want to see. Our search may be distorted by relationships of power and diverted by our passions and interests. "Our commitment to truth seeking must be thoroughgoing, even if it leads to unpleasant conclusions."

Unless you consider “Fair Trade” a fundamentalist religion, I think the possibility of being influenced by the former at Earlham is remote. The latter posited by Bennett is clearly the greater threat to Earlham’s (and academia in general) intellectual integrity (knee jerk pseudo-intellectual criticism from predictable sources adds credence).

While my Kremlinology may be a little a little excitable in this case, in the past year or so from the many EC mailings I somehow still receive I’ve detected increasing notes of perestroika from Bennett; more or less acknowledging that the long campaign to unencumber the academic establishment from tradition may have gone too far; that instead of intellectual discovery being hindered by ridged social and religious tradition, it is now being compromised by those unwilling to let their newest thought experiment be constrained, much less respect the inherent value of convention/tradition. This environment helped bring about the civil rights movements, but also gave us new math and crippling political correctness. In short I think Doug was very reasonably trying to say that in order for institutions of higher learning to regain their once lofty place in the marketplace of ideas (outside of stuff you can patent) balance needs to be restored between absolute and relativistic perspectives.


Joe said...

I think that, as a Quaker, Doug has to be somewhat uncomfortable with the culture of antagonism toward faith and religion. I came to Earlham as a fairly devout (in my own way) Christian, and I definitely got pretty frustrated by a culture that tended to oversimplify the very rich history of Christian tradition. But I was also frustrated by people in the religion department who refused to ask or entertain the questions that I really wanted to ask, namely, Is this true? Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Andrew said...

I think you’re right that Doug’s spiritual beliefs probably do conflict with prevailing attitudes at Earlham but I don’t think you necessarily need to be a believer in an Abrahamic faith in order to appreciate the value of tradition. Capitalism was conceived by no one and has simply been the natural order (tradition) ever since reasonably complex societies developed. Socialism was designed (and later defended) by academics and implemented through authoritarian means. While far from perfect, capitalism has been vastly more successful at meeting humanity’s needs than anything forged in the foundries of academy. While its academy’s natural role to question everything, it must do so in good faith; as Bennett said academia’s pursuit of truth “must be thoroughgoing, even if it leads to unpleasant conclusions”. This lack of good faith, which I believe Doug to be addressing, is the principle reason why the quality and influence of academic work continues to suffer.

Andrew said...

Good Sullivan post relevant to the subject:

"The pope has used the term 'relativism' to describe not only non-absolute standards, but also uncertain ones. The alternative to certainty, however, is not nihilism but the recognition of fallibility, the idea that even a very reasonable belief is not beyond question. If that's all relativism means, then it is hardly the enemy of truth or morality," - Austin Dacey, New York Times today.

The argument, made by atheist liberals and born-again conservatives alike, that our only choice is fundamentalism or relativism is one of the great lies of our age.