Academia in turmoil as New College explores new curricular designs
Faulkner’s Sanctuary was published in 1931, two years after his failed The Sound and the Fury. Sanctuary was, at least, not an experimental novel, but it was about rape and abduction, so the reviews were grudgingly mixed. Many critics concluded that Faulkner was a talented writer, but Sanctuary was deeply inappropriate; one critic suggested that perhaps Faulkner write something pleasant for a change.
If only Bruce Gilley received such a temperate response: talented scholar, but perhaps write something more pleasant. In 2017, Gilley published an article defending European colonialism, which for most scholars is something akin to defending metaphorical and literal rape and abduction. In the cases of both Faulkner and Gilley, the effect is more instructive than the cause.
Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for Colonialism” was published in Third World Quarterly in 2017 and then in Academic Questions of the National Association of Scholars in 2018. The article proved to be some kind of iceberg to the academy’s Titanic. The first problem wasn’t so much the substance of Gilley’s article but rather that he has a Ph.D from Princeton, is a tenured professor at an American university, that the National Association of Scholars is a respected organization, that the article proceeded through double-blind peer review, and that the article was aggressively scholastic. Had “The Case for Colonialism” been scrawled on goatskin by a Afghani cave-dweller, the academy would have noted the irony and then dismissed it. Had “The Case for Colonialism” been presented on YouTube, it would have been reported as “hate speech” and damnatio memoriae’d into oblivion.
Rather, Gilley’s article was scholastically solid, logically coherent, and inexorably unignorable. The immediate result was that half of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board resigned, the editorial staff in London received death threats, Gilley was personally and professionally attacked and received death threats, professor Farhana Sultana of Syracuse University launched a petition calling for the article to be retracted and for Princeton to revoke Gilley’s Ph.D, Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University called for Gilley to be “treated with utter disgust, with unsurpassed revulsion. He must be ostracized, publicly shamed and humiliated,” … ad nauseum.
But most instructive of the episode isn’t academia’s temper tantrum, pounding its fists and demanding the world conform to its infantile fantasies. Rather, it is the ‘scholarly’ response to Gilley’s article that is most instructive. In theory, modern academia is a child of the Enlightenment, an arena that seeks progress through truth, governed by a set of sobering rules. But the Enlightenment’s ‘lived experienced’ is far different.
Gilley published a response of some 13,000 words (and 133 footnotes) five years after the article’s initial publication. He only responds to the “serious scholarly responses” and not the “emotionally-charged attacks … by reputable scholars.” If these are what he describes as the serious responses, then academia has achieved some critical mass of petty arrogance.
Gilley begins with, “I note that a failure to adhere to academic standards … is rife among those who have levelled such charges. The use of their critiques to impose professional penalties and punishments on me as a scholar bespeaks the fundamental problems of ideological monoculture and illiberal censorship in academia today.” The litany of basic problems that Gilley cites is instructive: self-contradiction, reflexive citations (citing sources one either has not read or does not understand), lack of definitions, arguments from emotion.
While Gilley argues from a tradition of empiricism — he invokes the scientific process by name, multiple times — the “serious scholarly responses” are arguing from a corrupted interpretive framework. Importantly, their interpretative framework bends reality to their purpose by disregarding the very mechanisms of discovery and dialog, the tools of scholarship. They bow deceitfully at the scholar’s altar, (Khan’s “The problem is not that the article is offensive”), and then defile the temple.
Scholastic dialog, in theory the very mechanism of modern progress, is dispassionate, objective, and persistent in its determination to reject cognitive witch-hunts and virginal sacrifices. Yet the Gilley kerfuffle makes clear that this sort of dialog is substantially absent in much of today’s academia, which should be shocking because the core of an academic’s training in graduate school is not the content of their field but rather the tools and mechanisms by which scholarship is conducted and produced. Clearly, a significant number of modern academics do not possess these tools or understand these mechanisms.
And if these scholars did not learn these tools in graduate school, it follows that they did not learn them as undergraduates or in high school. Gilley objects that his critics fall prey to the “appeal to authority” fallacy, and they almost certainly did as graduate students, and as undergraduate students, and … we can work our way back to these scholars as children in the schoolyard appealing to authority in the most idiotic ways (“My dad knows what you do online because he works at Microsoft”). If only those five-years-olds knew the magic incantation of citation to conjure credibility from the ether. But at some point in one’s progress from teething to tenure, these fallacies should be replaced by academic skills, and yet they often aren’t.
These problems can be traced back generations. In the mid-1990s, the College Board — a reactive organization — introduced a scored essay on the SAT. The essay had no factual criteria — and actually permitted non-facts of any sort — as long as the essay was internally coherent. So, an internally consistent nonsense argument received a high score. Gilley cited this exact problem in one of his primary critics: “The same self-contradiction is embraced by Taylor … While Taylor is correct that there is no necessary contradiction in these claims, there is certainly a practical one.” Taylor made an internally consistent argument that lacks external coherence and is untethered from reality.
The “New College Plan,” published in 1958, bemoaned the university penchant for educating students in quickly-forgotten facts but not in the tools and mechanisms for processing and valuing information and arguments. As such, they proposed a primacy of teaching ‘research tools’ over, for example, information-laden survey courses. As colleges continued to offer freshmen a bewildering miasma of “underwater basket weaving” courses, the common response was to implement a stronger core (classical or otherwise). And yet, as scholastic mechanisms have become repugnant to interpretive frameworks that value power over truth, the concern stated in The New College Plan and the evidence from the Gilley case suggests that a primacy of ‘research tools’ is greatly needed.
And yet, the grim reality of Gilley’s situation festers not in his critics’ scholastically defiant interpretive frameworks but rather in the fact that those critics are the ones teaching ‘research tools’ to undergraduates. We have evidence that scholars are unacquainted with those tools, and thus we have evidence that our children are not learning them. Practically, this is a question of the feasibility of new curriculum construction; philosophically, this is a question of preserving civilization.
The practical objective of any freshman curriculum attempting to ameliorate this problem would be to introduce the tools and mechanisms that have served the West well for centuries. The outcome of any such curriculum should be students who are able to engage in debate through reasoning rather than through opinion. The gesture of criticism must not become more important than the substance of criticism. Such an objective is nearly impossible now, as students weave in and out of facts and opinions as if they were wholly interchangeable, reject data that disprove their hypotheses with no mechanism for how to incorporate incongruent data, and readily engage fallacies — from ad hominem to appeal to authority and everything in between — to respond to criticism.
The Gilley example is further evidence that a college’s administration and trustees do not have the luxury to “stay out of the classroom,” as one failed university president advised. If the professoriate has devolved such that it does not possess the basic tools of scholarship, then permitting professors to self-govern only produces self-reinforcing scholastic rot and recidivism of incompetence. The fundamental curricular and pedagogical changes required cannot come from within.
Faulkner’s Sanctuary was a sales success; only then did the public notice The Sound and the Fury. Critics had taken the title, from MacBeth, to allude to “a tale told by an idiot,” as The Sound and the Fury opens with the idiot Benjy. But Faulkner’s Nobel speech provided a corrective. He said that the point of emphasis in MacBeth’s speech is not “a tale told by an idiot” but rather “signifying nothing,” for that is what those who do not pursue “universal truths” — Faulkner’s words — are achieving. The academy is at an inflection point wherein it must decide between “sound and fury, Signifying nothing” and truth.
If anyone doubts Gilley’s scholarship and the scholastic corruption of his critics, I cordially invite you to read his paper and his response.
Bruce Gilley, “The Case for Colonialism,” Academic Questions, 31, no. 2 (2018): pp. 167–185. (https://www.nas.org/academic-questions/31/2/the_case_for_colonialism)
Bruce Gilley, “The Case for Colonialism: A Response to My Critics,” Academic Questions (2022) 35.1. pp. 89–126. (https://www.nas.org/academic-questions/35/1/the-case-for-colonialism-a-response-to-my-critics)