Morton Schapiro: campuses face their own fundamentalism


It is now widely accepted that political polarization poses major challenges for universities. “People grow up in silos and echo chambers,” said Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University. “This generation of students knows nothing but yell at each other. Those of us on campuses have a hard job getting them to see beyond just outrage at “the enemy.”

It is relatively familiar territory. What is striking about the book Professor Schapiro wrote with Gary Saul Morson – Lawrence B. Dumas professor of arts and humanities at Northwestern – is the extent to which they see universities also as sources of simplistic dividing thought. . Indeed, Minds Wide Shut: How new fundamentalisms are dividing us devotes much less attention to hell preachers and toxic tweeters than has happened in some academic disciplines.

When their book Cents and sensitivity: what economics can learn from the humanities was published in 2018, recalled Professor Schapiro, a prominent economist cited the fact that “people in the allied social sciences cite a lot of economists, but economists are much less likely to cite people in other fields As “proof that the other areas don’t have much to say, not that we are islanders.”

But while deploring the “market fundamentalism” of much of economic thought, Closed minds is also unimpressed by its mirror image: the humanists who refuse to “understand the benefits of the markets”, fall back on “pejoratives to do everything” such as “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”, and are more interested in the “crusades moral “than” well thought out policies “, for example in relation to climate change. He describes a meeting which Professor Morson once attended where a number of heads of humanities departments who had “stressed the importance of improving the salaries of professors ineligible for tenure” were interviewed by the dean. “How the money available for increases” should be distributed between these people and those who were already tenured or in the process of becoming tenured. Uncomfortable with the obvious conflict this raised between their principles and their portfolios, one said: “We reject the false choice based on the idea that resources are limited. “

By studying both religious and literary texts, teachers want to strike a balance between uncritical reverence and judging them solely by present-day standards. Although many academics still taught what he considered to be “real literature courses,” rooted in the idea that we might have something important to learn from Shakespeare or Tolstoy, Professor Morson was appalled at the academics “who truly believe that there is no such thing as ‘great literature’ and that the purpose of discipline is what I would call indoctrination. I know this from students who come to me and ask me, “Can I find a course where I can actually read literature and not just be told what I already know politically?” “

In addition, while supporting the opening of literary canons, Closed minds administers a fleeting slap in the face of “what is often done in the name of ‘post-colonialism’: attributing texts from other traditions showing the evil that Westerners do … There is something unbearably condescending about the implication that he other cultures first had something important to say as a result of their encounter with ours.

These were arguments, admitted Professor Morson, which he would not have dared to publish had he been in an English or comparative literature department.

Although Professor Schapiro did not accept “criticism of the right-wing universities as [left-wing] ‘indoctrination mills’ ”, he admitted that the two had been approached by“ ultra-conservative media ”who saw the book as“ devastating the humanities and academia, political correctness and nullifying culture ”. They refused all these interview requests.

More generally, wasn’t Professor Schapiro worried about the dangers of a university president speaking in a way that might alienate professors, funders and other supporters, or provide ammunition to those who seek to discredit universities?

“Those of us who work in areas that may influence public debate have a moral obligation to speak up,” he replied. Yet he could also understand why far fewer university presidents were now “well-known public voices.” Those who run “flagship public sector institutions reporting to regents often appointed by conservative governors or elected by the public” were understandably suspicious.

And while Northwestern “didn’t really depend on state, local, or federal government for direct funding, which can be removed by alienating them with my next editorial,” there was always a risk of “alienating directors, members. board and donors. I have written about 60 opinion pieces since I became president here, many in the the Wall Street newspaper or other important places, and every time we go out I get emails saying, “I’ll never give Northwestern another dime while you’re president.”

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