Talking Leadership with Grad Students

Logo for the Graduate Student Congress at the University of Kentucky.Today I had the honor of having been invited to speak at the University of Kentucky’s Graduate Student Leadership Conference. My talk was called “Democracy and Leadership in Higher Education: A Talk for Graduate Students.” I seconded some of the prior speaker’s remarks, which concerned the value of networking, including online and via social media. One student had expressed her aversion to social media. I explained that at least one wants to have a good Web site, as people do want to look you up some when getting to know you. One avenue that can help are social media profiles, but a good Web site can do wonders too. I would encourage some of the same things. He had said that Facebook isn’t a great medium, but that’s because he was thinking of one’s personal Facebook profile. And obviously he hasn’t read my post about why scholars need Facebook author pages (and since I wrote that piece, my author page following has grown from ~2k to ~141k).

Eric Weber delivering a different talk years earlier, not the one mentioned in this post.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'I wasn’t there today to talk about social media, though. Instead, I spoke mainly about my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, and showed what I think we still have to learn from Plato, even if it needs updating for the modern and democratic era. I find a lot of value in reminding myself of what Plato’s Socrates says in the first book of the Republic. There, Socrates says that good people won’t be willing to lead. They’d rather others do it. But, some compulsion weighs on good people, inspiring them to be leaders against their inclinations. That compulsion is the fact, in his way of thinking, that worse people will lead. In the democratic era, the language of good people and bad people generally rings as unpleasant at best. My translation for democracy is to say that the compulsion could be instead that good people care about problems, injustices, that could be ameliorated with effort. Good people don’t want to be at the top for its own sake, but accept positions of responsibility because of what would happen if other people would not stand up to address key problems.

Bust of Socrates.

Socrates.

After that, I explained how and why I think it’s important that we continue to learn about leadership from Plato, even while we disagree with and let go of his authoritarian outlook. In other words, how he characterizes the virtues of leadership is problematic, but there’s no doubt that wisdom is important for leadership, for example, including in the democratic era. It just needs to be understood, pursued, and embodied democratically. So, I talked about what I take that to mean in many contexts of leadership today, but focusing on prime challenges for grad students. After all, good people will need compulsion in grad school too. Leadership is generally thankless, or worse. Plus, it takes a great deal of time and effort, which generally means a distraction from one’s other work. As such, engaging in leadership efforts as a grad student may well mean taking longer to finish one’s program. That’s something serious to accept. To want to lead despite that may well take some compulsion. Even if it does, however, grad student leaders would be wisest if they engage in democratic practices, acknowledging the dangers, challenges, and harms that can come from leading. They should also beware not to carry the world on their shoulders, as time is short, even at its longest, in graduate school (or we generally want it to be), and colleges and universities are slow-moving, relatively conservative institutions. So, at best one can make incremental change and pass on to the next group of leaders their chance to make a further difference.

As such, leadership in the grad school context should stay humble and stoic about what’s possible, want to lead for the right reasons, and be award of the costs, challenges, and reasons not to lead, all while going after it anyway in those cases that truly call for such a sacrifice.

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P.S. Of course there was more detail in the talk, but this is the gist of what I had to say this morning, and the people in attendance seemed to appreciate thinking through these matters with me, raising some very thoughtful and valuable questions. My thanks go out to James William Lincoln and the Graduate Student Congress for the invitation.

What’s New?

Diving into Public Philosophy, or maybe Belly-Flopping Into It

This spring has been BUSY. In Moving to Lexington, KY, I decided that among my key aims would be to dive deeper into the waters of public philosophy, public intellectual engagement. So far, a number of related activities have kept me busier than I could have imagined. They’ve also been hugely rewarding.

Still capture from our Trigger Warnings online symposium. Organizationally, I’ve been working a great deal on projects for and leadership of The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA, on Twitter & Facebook). Last fall, we held an online video symposium on “Trigger Warnings,” which was a lot of fun, and we need to hold more of them. We haven’t gotten back to that yet, but we need to, I think. We should probably think of that kind of work as a program, one with a name, and that should happen with some frequency, as well as an officer leading the charge for how and when we’ll hold the next one. We’ve certainly learned a great deal about the need for and steps for better audio quality in recording such events. The next one will be better and we’ll keep on growing our archive of material and gatherings.

The DJ booth at WRFL Lexington on December 10th, 2016.In work for SOPHIA, we’ve also returned to a project I started in 2015, which was my Philosophy Bakes Bread podcast. Instead of it being solo and only a podcast, we’ve welcomed Dr. Anthony Cashio of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise as a co-host on the show, which is now centered on interviews about how and why philosophy matters in real life and leadership. We’ve been very fortunate to get a spot on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM. The program is now a weekly radio talk show and then a podcast after that, the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast (on Twitter and Facebook too). We started in January of 2017 and have been very busy ever since. The podcast, when I worked on it alone, only came to 4 episodes in 18 months. Since committing to the weekly radio show, we’ve aired 32 episodes, 27 hour-long programs and 5 short “breadcrumb” episodes. It has been considerably more work than I could have imagined, but it’s also been a great deal of fun. More importantly, it’s been some of the most engaging public philosophical work I’ve done to date. We’ve got listeners in 67 countries and the show has been downloaded over 9,000 times to date. We’re excited about approaching the early milestone of 10K downloads, which we hope to see happen in the next 10-14 days, or less, as far as our present trends appear to be going. That’s super exciting.

Logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread, which looks like two conversation bubbles shaped like slices of bread.

We also have a logo for the show now, that isn’t just my lame effort to put a text over an image in Photoshop… We’re finally getting around to putting the word out in efforts beyond social media posts. We’re WAY overdue on a few requests for interviews. To give you a sense of why, for each episode, we need to: 1) think about who’ll be on, 2) invite the person(s) on the show, giving info about what we do, how, etc., 3) schedule the interview, 4) meet to prep to give the interview, 5) meet and record the interview, 6) edit the interview for airing as an episode, 7) go to the station and air the episode, 8) announce the show on social media before and as it’s airing, 9) get the files after airing from the station and perform final mastering on them, 10) prepare language, images, and social media posts to accompany the podcast episode release, 11) post the show and announcements on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus, then 12) secure and make final tweaks to transcripts of the show that the great Drake Boling, UKY Philosophy undegraduate student, has been doing for us, and finally, 13) post the transcript on our site, as a PDF, and on Academia.edu. Ok, now do that 31 more times… to date (no, we’re not up to date yet with all the transcripts). To say it’s been a lot of work is an understatement.

Logo of the Public Philosophy Journal.This means that I’ve not had a chance to do as much of my own (single-author) writing, but the good news is that I’ve been doing considerably more coauthoring. In the academic world of Philosophy, people tend to think of meaningful writing as single-authored work, at least much of the time. That’s a mistake. There have been excellent philosophical works that are coauthored. Among them, I’m thinking of a number of projects by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. But they’re uncommon in the field. I’m glad to have had the chance to do some coauthoring, and one of these opportunities was a very special one. Again related to SOPHIA, I and three scholars put together a project that we pitched for the Public Philosophy Journal. The idea is that some theorizing has been needed for SOPHIA to pursue its mission: to build communities of philosophical conversation. To that end, Andrea Christelle, Sergia Hay, James William Lincoln, and I ventured to Michigan with grant support from the journal and the Mellon Foundation, ultimately, to write together a “Groundwork for Building Communities of Philosophical Conversation.” I’ve experienced coauthoring only a few times, and it’s not always been easy. This case went very smoothly. We’re not done with our project, and getting together remotely to finish the project is taking time, but the pay off has been great. We’re researching needs and methods for building communities of philosophical conversation, because we believe there’s a great need for a more philosophical culture in the United States and elsewhere.

SOPHIA's group at the PPJ's 2017 Collaborative Writing Workshop.

SOPHIA’s group at the PPJ’s 2017 Collaborative Writing Workshop.

Beyond that, I committed to coauthoring a paper for the Summer Seminar on the Future of Philosophy at UNC Ashville this July, which I’ll be driving to this afternoon. I’m also giving my own individual paper there, but have been very happy to coauthor a paper with my Philosophy Bakes Bread co-host Dr. Anthony Cashio as well. We’re looking to finish a longer paper a little later this summer for the journal, Dewey Studies, and this is a step in that direction. The paper is called “Lessons Learned Baking Bread: Taking Philosophy to Radio and Podcast.” We had a blast writing it, and were inspired in relation to that to answer some of our interview questions that we’ve received (and have been way late in answering them) in the last few months. Anthony is not only great to talk to on the show, but also to write with. I’m hoping that my future includes more and more coauthoring, because it’s very rewarding and makes for a superior project, I believe, when we can draw from more minds and from encouraging and sympathetic thinking and dialogue.

Lumber I milled up in late November and December of 2016. Last but not least, I’m finishing work finally on my edited collection of John Dewey’s public writings. That’s been a long-time coming. I keep thinking it’ll be done soon, and it will be soon now… I’m also working to finish my next book, which I’ve been developing longer than any before, called A Culture of Justice. That’s the other topic I’ll be talking about tomorrow in Asheville. These projects would have been done far sooner if I hadn’t committed to an intensive radio show, but I don’t regret a thing. It’s all been super rewarding. I feel as though I’m constantly working and getting more and more behind, but I think it’s more likely that progress is just advancing slowly on the huge projects, bit by bit, and that I’ll be excited to see them at the end. That’s a lot like a big bed project, which I’ve completed in my new hobby of woodworking. I milled the lumber for it in late November and December of 2016. Big projects sometimes creep along, but eventually, if you keep making little bits of progress, they come together, like this:

The bed I planned and built over the course of 7 months.

I need a nap… Nah, coffee will help. I’m excited to be headed to Ashville, to meet up with some great philosophers. And, while there, to do a number of interviews for Philosophy Bakes Bread! When we can record in person, it’s awesome, like in these two cases from my trip to Michigan (photos below). Thanks to Chris Long for the great photo with typewriter in the foreground, and thanks to Naomi Hodgson and Amanda Fulford (I don’t recall who took the picture, of the two) for the pic of our setup in the less attractive computer room in Michigan. The rooms were quite different, but the conversations were both substantive and fun.

This is a photo of four people sitting around a table and a microphone to record an episode of Philosophy Bakes Bread in May of 2017, in a lovely room near South Gull Lake in Michigan.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Christopher P. Long, 2017.

This is a photo of me setting up to do an interview with Amanda Fulford and Naomi Hodgson in Michigan, 2017.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Hodgson and Amanda Fulford, 2017.

I don’t know how interesting this post is or has been for people, but it felt good to sit down and write it out. It may be of interest to a few people who’ve been kindly following and engaging with me on social media. In fact, I should mention a bit of a celebratory moment: I’ve hit 100,000 “likes” on my Facebook author page! That’s super cool and deeply gratifying. Thanks to everyone who’s been following my work. It’s really rewarding to write about and advocate for things that others care about too, making however small a contribution to dialogue about issues so many of us care about. It’s impossible to measure real impact, but we shouldn’t let difficulty in measuring something meaningful keep us from diving into it, or from belly-flopping into it as the case may be.

Image of a post from my Facebook page about a signed-copy giveaway for my latest books.

Image of a post from my Facebook page about a signed-copy giveaway for my latest books.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your interest! If you’re not yet following me on Twitter or on Facebook, get to it!

Touchstone Terms: The Accursed Share

This is a part of a series on terms and concepts that I find particularly resonant.

We usually say that the fundamental rule of economics is scarcity: there are never enough widgets (food, housing, gadgets) to meet all the demand And even where we seem to be endowed with wealth, we still face opportunity costs for doing one thing rather than another: we have finite time and attention, and at a fundamental level we cannot both have the cake and eat it. Economists study the allocation of that scarcity and costly selection among those opportunities. Thus (in his famous call for the reintroduction of slavery in the Carribean) Thomas Carlyle called economics a dismal science, since it forced such unhappy choices upon us. All the more reason to explore alternative framings, just as George Bataille did in his book The Accursed Share.

Imagine you and your friends are splitting a pizza, and there is an extra piece. Who gets it? And what happens next? Perhaps it becomes the prize in a game of trivia. Perhaps the winner has a little extra energy, perhaps they get fat. Perhaps it goes to one of your friends who is pregnant, because she is “eating for two.” Perhaps the most popular or amusing member of the group gets it. Perhaps you decide to throw it out. If your group always gives the extra piece to the same person, though, patterns of preference emerge.

In George Bataille’s three volume The Accursed Share, he imagines a primitive subsistence society that gathers just a little more food or other basic goods than it needs: who gets the extra share? What do we do with the remainder? Bataille uses this simple concept to construct a remarkably compelling just-so story of the political economy of both inequality and culture. Even recognizing that it is a kind of ahistoric just-so story, I continue to find the “accursed share” deeply intriguing and I return to it often.

As a framework, it strikes me as particularly important for those who work on political economy, like an artist using a camera obscura to see a scene differently for more accurate drawing or painting. The “accursed share” allows us to rethink economic problems in terms of the distribution of the excess rather than scarcity. It takes the economist’s tool of limited resources and flips it on its head. As Bataille puts it: “it is not necessity but its contrary, ‘luxury,’ that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.” (pg. 12)

As he spins out the concept to apply it to historical and traditional societies like the Aztecs and Tibetans, or to 20th century questions of political economy, societies that find themselves with growing productivity and wealth become increasingly stressed by the excess. They often develop techniques for expending their growth, like potlatch gift ceremonies, monastic non-working sects, or invasion of other countries. Yet these are, fundamentally, coping strategies for a problem: there is more than enough to go around. And he claims that the modern industrial capitalism has broken all of these coping strategies by creating not just an excess but a growing one, a continual disruption that gets reinvested and accelerates the next crisis of extravagant, opulent luxury.

Luxury and Culture

On Bataille’s account, culture just is the by-product of the accursed share. As patterns of “who gets the surplus?” develop, societies produce not just subsistence but hierarchy, not just inequality but cultural justifications for that inequality.

In other times and places, societies cultivate a class of religious or scholarly ascetics to whom the “accursed share” is owed. Perhaps, as in Tibet, monks adopt ritualistic poverty alongside disciplined unproductivity: they beg for their meals and yet do nothing to participate in the agricultural labor that makes their meals possible. In this sense, the remaining share is “accursed,” but also blessed and sanctified.

On Bataille’s view, then, variations in culture are the product of the patterns in our distribution of the excess. In that sense, Bataille has a version of Tolstoy’s dictum: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All subsistence societies are equal; richer societies develop patterns of inequality that make them distinct.

In a deeper sense, the allocation of the surplus is closely tied to meaning-making, as well as to status. Sometimes it is easier to simply burn the excess. But someone must do the burning, and esteem and status are be left over as a residue of that role (along with, perhaps, a few items or treats snatched from the fire before they are consumed.) Or the excess can be expended on a class of artists, who make art, music, or literature that aspires to be uselessly beautiful. (Some part of the excess might even be devoted to philosophers….)

Still, the remainder is a kind of live grenade in an egalitarian culture. It (and its recipient) is cursed unless it can be invested in increased productive capacities or expended harmlessly. Industrial innovations have historically been quite difficult, so instead the extra is given over to some class whose “true” purpose is to expend the remainder harmlessly in mere luxury, in the creation of beautiful things, in the telling of stories that bind the community together, or in the maintenance of norms of sexual abstention and productive authority.

The problem is that most of these “useless” projects find their way to a kind of usefulness: authority guides and directs labor efficiency; communities bound by solidarity better weather crisis and better plan for the future; beauty can motivate and inspire. The useless has a dangerous tendency to become useful, and even necessary.

The General Economy as Economic Existentialism

Bataille’s general economy is like a kind of metaphysical macroeconomics: it includes not just the financial economy but tries to be an economics of energy, time, attention, and lives itself. It’s supposed to capture the way that economic thinking can be applied to ecology and physics and art and pornography.

Perhaps this goes beyond mere accuracy, but there’s something temptingly provocative about his great insight that there is a convincing way to turn our protestations and anxieties of finitude and lack into realizable superabundance and excess. For Bataille himself, this was a reason to reject the instrumental attitude almost completely. He sees human reason and culture as servile to a base pragmatism that fails to take seriously the teleological issues with our efforts to perpetuate endless growth.

By focusing his “general economy” account on excesses instead of limits, Bataille flips the script of ordinary economics. The focus on “scarce resources” and “opportunity costs” tends to emphasize the idea that economics is about not having enough to go around: surpluses and profits then become a fortunate break from the unfortunate status quo. And yet a moment’s reflection shows that any stable economy has “enough” to sustain its current distribution. Certainly some people have better or worse lives, some people die later and others earlier. Infant mortality has been 50% in some places or 2% in others, but everyone dies eventually. It’s the patterns that matter, that mean something: it’s the patterns that make meanings. (And economics itself has tried to capture this insight with its work on signaling theory.)

Absent supply shocks an economy can plod along doing what it does in equilibrium, but the negative shocks (famine, plague, war, revolution) aren’t the only sort of shocks that should concern us. In fact, the positive shocks of population growth, the industrial revolution, the green agricultural revolution, and the digital revolution have shown themselves to be even more disruptive. When fewer workers can produce more stuff–but not yet enough to distribute it equally–what are we to do with the extra?

Often there’s something vaguely eroticized or pointedly orgiastic about efforts to expend the accursed share, Bataille argues, because the natural “primitive” response to plenitude is to have more babies. But societies usually learn that this kind of response to excess is not a good idea: when the accursed share is gone, there will be more people to feed and not enough to do it. Thus, eroticism–and indeed fetishes and perversions–are a “safer” alternative, culturally. Yet for cultures that are built on sexual propriety, this safety is also unsettling.

The Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution are supposed to have led to our downfall: the combination of normative thrift, sexual repression, and massively increased productivity created a massive and growing accursed share. In Bataille’s time it seemed that the most likely outcome of all that postponed saving and investment would be a final, self-destructive nuclear war! Bataille thus prescribed perversion and indolence as an alternative, which is why he was able to write provocative and gripping political economic theory as well as surreal fetishistic pornography. (Or perhaps because he felt driven to write both he found ways to meld them.)

I don’t see Bataille’s main value in his role as a romantic defender of uselessness, though he does help illustrate some of the consequences of that view. Instead, I find the concept of the accursed share most apt when we talk about wealthy societies that somehow, still, face budget crises or allocation problems. It’s never that there’s not enough: we’re well past “enough,” nor is “more” often the solution. We’re usually fighting over the particular patterns of excess and deficiency we’d like our society to embrace, and the fight itself is always one of those luxuries. So when we talk about wealth and inequality, I think it behooves us to keep the “accursed share” in the back of our minds.

Exciting Growth for Philosophy Bakes Bread

Some of you may recall that I started a podcast in 2015 called Philosophy Bakes Bread. Now that it’s a production of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA), which airs on WRFL Lexington, and with my co-host from afar Dr. Anthony Cashio, the show is picking up steam.

Logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread.

As a stand alone podcast in 2015 and 2016, each episode was scripted and recorded by yours truly. It took a lot of time and it was hard back then to commit to putting out episodes as regularly as I had wanted to. Now that the show has a cohost and is primarily an interview-format and discussion-style show, and now that it’s on the radio each week, it’s been much easier to commit to regular work on it and to put out a steady stream of episodes. The latter is so crucial for developing and growing an audience.

One bit of good news is that we’ve just received our first iTunes reviews for the show, which are both 5 star reviews! We’re thrilled that people are enjoying the show.

Photo of a microphone and a soundboard.It helps for the show to be on the radio, which already has a listening audience base. Plus, the team at the station has been a big help. They’re looking into ways for us to transcribe the episodes, perhaps with grant support. Then, we’ve seen good early numbers for podcast episode downloads. We’ve only been putting them out since the last week of January, with minimal social media distribution efforts and so far we’ve had over 2,000 downloads. We’re looking to start sending out PSA’s and to get with TV news and newspapers about the program. Who knows. It would certainly be awesome eventually to syndicate the program, if interest grows.

The cool thing about a program like Philosophy Bakes Bread is that we can cover so many topics that matter. We can at the same time simply present matters that scholars are researching, that audiences care about, and we can also be advocates about things that matter. We can have people on whom we think ought to be heard more. Soon, we’ll be airing an interview with conference panelists who wrote and spoke about disability and American philosophy. That’s just one of many exciting examples.

Sliced loaf of French bread.I’ll keep you posted from time to time on what we’re up to with the show. For now, if you’ve not already subscribed, what are you waiting for? Go check us out at PhilosophyBakesBread.com. We’re on iTunes and have a regular RSS feed, which you can learn about on our site. We’ve just now submitted our feed to Google Play, which should likely be listing the show soon. And, of course, we’re on Facebook and Twitter. Check us out!

Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

Great Review of ‘Democracy and Leadership’

Dr. Tadd Ruetenik.Dr. Tadd Ruetenik of St. Ambrose University published a review of my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, in the second 2016 issue of The Pluralist. I subscribe to the journal, but since I moved last June, I have not yet received the issue. I still have some address information to update for a number of subscriptions and such, it seems. I was delighted to get my hands on the review through other means, therefore, when Tadd was kind enough to share a digital copy of it with me.

Image of Ruetenik's review of 'Democracy and Leadership.' The link opens a PDF version of the review.

Click on the image for a text-searchable Adobe PDF version of the review.

A good review explains a book’s main point and approach, showcases some strengths, and offers some points of potential disagreement. In many reviews, that formula is often undertaken in all too formulaic a way. Ruetenik’s review has a depth of thoughtfulness and a sharp discernment about differences in our points of view that is deeply refreshing. Plus, where he inclines in different directions, he nevertheless exhibits the philosopher’s humility in understanding why others incline in other ways. In the popular press in Mississippi, my more recent book was dismissed as excessive optimism by one older, jaded progressive and rejected as far too moderate and modest by a young, not yet jaded man on a mission. It was like the old economist’s joke. With your hair on fire and your feet in ice, on average, you’re quite comfortable.

Photo of MLK, Jr. I’m definitely an advocate for moderation and believe that, like MLK, one can be militant yet moderate. Ruetenik appears to disagree, but naturally, I think. The concepts certainly seem to be in conflict, on the surface anyway. A moderate person in an immoderate, unjust society, may be called radical, as King was. But when Aristotle referred to the mean between extremes, he did not mean a simple matter of the average of others’ extremes. The moderate is what is right, and one’s society can be far from the mean. Calling for justice courageously can seem immoderate, but, I believe, that one’s means for calling for change can demonstrate moderation while pushing heroically for change.

These remarks are initial thoughts I have about the great feedback I have received from Tadd. The best thing about Tadd’s review is that, unlike so much other feedback one can receive, his makes me want to return to the project. In fact, I’ve been meaning for years to write a paper about how I believe my theory of democratic leadership can help us to explain and theorize elements of King’s democratic leadership efforts, which I see as a confirmation of the value of my theory. Of course, there are important contributions at work in the Malcolm X’s out there, yet even he, when you look at what he said, often was far more reasonable and democratically respectful of people and inquiry than he was painted in his day. He accepted the label of extremism, but in his own way showed how moderate the values he represented were, such as in the values of liberty, self-respect, self-defense, and more.

I don’t want to get too far afield here today, but my excitement over thinking about this topic again is not something I commonly experience when I encounter a review of my work. It is a testament to Ruetenik’s probity, his sincere and interesting engagement with the ideas of the book, and his reasonable differences of opinion that inspire me to think and write more on the subject.

Benjamin Franklin.

Beloved deist, Benjamin Franklin.

To his speculation about public office, I’m with Plato in thinking that in general, one probably ought to feel called to leadership. You need the right environment and to believe genuinely that you are the person who might really have what the public needs. That takes a balance of circumstances related to the mandate-independence matter. Thus, you’ve got to be a part of a community in which you will represent people, not merely in terms of what the public calls for, but as someone whom you believe the relevant public would choose for his or her own values. That takes the alignment of quite a few stars. If one day the stars do align in such a way, then I might pursue service to my community outside the academy, beyond public writing and speaking. I don’t think it would be such a problem to learn from Kurtz, whom Tadd mentions. The many deists who contributed to the U.S. Constitution are lauded despite their divergences from some Americans’ beliefs. The important thing is whether or not a person seriously embraces the right values and has the wisdom, courage, and humility to listen and serve others in the deepest, most democratically respectful manner that he or she can.

All these are initial thoughts, hence posted here on my site only. Still, I can feel renewed energy for thinking about democratic leadership and am thus profoundly grateful to Tadd for his review and challenges in The Pluralist. If you all are interested in reading what he had to say, check it out here.

Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Fire and Frost: The Virtues of Treating Museums, Libraries and Archives as Commons

This piece by Michael Peter Edson, is part of our celebration of the online release of Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of essays about notable commons from around the world. Edson's essay was originally published in the book, edited by me and Silke Helfrich and now freely accessible at patternsofcommoning.org. All chapters are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

 

Edson is a strategist and thought leader at the forefront of digital transformation in the cultural sector. Formerly with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Edson is now Associate Director/Head of Digital at United Nations Live Museum for Humanity, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The opinions in this essay are his own.

By Michael Peter Edson

 

It was usually a note in the newspaper, a few pages back. Or, if the blaze was big enough and a camera crew arrived quickly, a feature on the evening news. It seems like house fires were more common when I was young, and the story was often the same: “As they escaped their burning home,” the newscaster would say, “they paused to save a single prized possession…” And it was always something sentimental – not jewelry or cash but a family photograph, a child’s drawing, a letter, a lock of hair. Ephemera by any measure, and yet as dear as life itself. Museums are simple places. Libraries and archives too. Collect, preserve, elucidate. Repeat forever. We don’t think about them until the smoke rises, but by then it’s usually too late.

When Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, the army tried to set the national library – the Biblioteka Narodawa – on fire, but the flames smoldered.[1] It turns out that the collected memory of a civilization is surprisingly dense and hard to burn, so a special engineering team was brought in to cut chimneys in the roof and holes in the walls so the fire could get more air. Problem solved. Museums, libraries and archives are simple places, but once the flames take hold they burn like hell.

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Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.