Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Academy’s Failure

African slavery was thriving in the new college towns…. The ubiquity and persistence of servitude on both sides of the college wall was not a mere coincidence of the colonial academy’s location in the greater Atlantic economy. Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas. (Wilder. p. 114)
How should we judge the academy?

Should the number of scholarly papers produced by its members be a factor in our judgment? Should the number of degrees conferred be the measure?

Has the academy made the world a better place? If so, for whom?

As the title of my essay makes clear, I think higher education and the institutions that purport to provide it have largely been failures if success is measured by the state of world affairs, our quality of life, and our relationship with others on the planet.

It’s true that some of our technological marvels are the result of advanced studies, but it is less clear that our lives are actually better because of them. Different than they otherwise would have been, but maybe not better.

There is ample research, thanks to the academy, that shows that people living in pre-industrial societies sometimes lead more leisurely lives with less stress, and even less illness. [Gurven, Michael, and Hillard Kaplan. "Longevity among hunter‐gatherers: a cross‐cultural examination." Population and Development review 33.2 (2007): 321-365. Raichlen, David A., et al. "Physical activity patterns and biomarkers of cardiovascular disease risk in hunter‐gatherers." American Journal of Human Biology 29.2 (2017).]

I’d been thinking about the academy's detrimental effects on society when I happened upon the book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. [Wilder, Craig Steven. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013.]

The briefest summation of the author’s theme is that the wealth of many American universities today is the result of their first 200 years of immense profit from slavery and the confiscation of the Indians’ lands.

Author Craig Wilder makes the case that America’s early wealth was the result of stealing the Indians’ lands, trading in African slaves, and the use of slaves in lucrative, labor-intensive businesses. Colleges and universities got rich by promoting the world view that black people and Indians were much less deserving than whites; some argued that black people were an altogether different species. Graduates became academic, religious and political leaders, invested in the slave trade, owned slaves, took the Indians’ lands, destroyed their cultures, killed them, and reaped enormous financial benefit.
... to the extent that science supplanted theology, it eroded ecclesiastical control over the academy. But if science could be used to displace theology by claiming a superior position for understanding human history and social relations, then it could also be impressed into the service of slavery. In fact, the politics of slavery hastened the ascent of the academy in public affairs. (Wilder. pp 225-226)
It seems to me that much that has gone wrong in the world and our slow social progress is the result of academia defending the status quo. This seems to me to be the opposite of what we should expect from those who have graduated from an institution purporting to deliver higher learning.

Racial integration probably would have occurred much sooner if colleges and universities had been a part of the vanguard of equality rather than acting as guards at the doors. Indian nations would still exist if money had been less important than others’ interests and sovereignty. The academy defended the status quo and promoted the financial interests of its members and its member institutions over the interests of those less powerful, and it continues doing so today.

More of us might be happier, our quality of life better, if education had been more focused on instilling an appreciation for leisure, charity, and a concern for those with whom we share the planet. More of us might be happier, our quality of life better, if higher education instilled a desire to be of direct service to others, to put the interests of others before our own. More of us might be happier, our quality of life better, if kindness to others was more important to us, if we were taught to be kind to others, to take notice of the needs of others, and to care about those who will come after us. This has always been what the academy’s job should have been; it is what it should be.

It is unlikely that someone familiar with the academy’s use of animals -- its promotion of their consumption and use and the riches it accrues by doing so -- would miss the strong parallels in the academy’s past use of humans.

Wilder writes:
The transition to a more focused scientific racism required not a leap but a casual step. The institutionalization of medicine -- the organization of science faculties and medical colleges in the colonies -- happened as slave owners, planters, land speculators, and Atlantic merchants began sponsoring scientific research. The families who paid for the establishment of medical schools and science faculties also oversaw those developments. The founding of medical colleges on American campuses brought science, particularly the human sciences, under the political and financial dominion of slave traders, slave owners and their surrogates. ... As slaveholders and slave traders paid for medical colleges and science faculties, they also imposed subtle and severe controls on science. (p 228)
Today, the largest universities are getting much if not most of their money from the U.S. government in the form of research grants, and a large part of that pays for experiments on animals. And just like scholars in the slave-trade-dependent colonial Americas did, they defend the indefensible with appeals to the superiority of a chosen group and claims that utility and profit justify generations of pain and suffering.

The moral failures of the academy are particularly striking because of its assertion of its authority.
The academy refined and legitimated the social ideas that supported territorial expansion, a process that transformed the people of the new nation from revolutionaries to imperialists. … Colonial students had been crowding the medical and science programs of Europe for two generations… Students from North America crafter a science that justified expansionism and slavery—a science that generated broad clams to expertise over colored people and thrived upon unlimited access to nonwhite bodies. (Wilder. p 182)
We are seemingly genetically programmed to follow a leader, to trust an authority. This seems to be a somewhat common pattern in social mammals. Human society is largely a pyramid of authority, or interlocking chains of command, as our structuring of the military, government, and nearly all large ventures recapitulate.

As a consequence, prejudices, biases, mistaken notions get amplified and reinforced when they are endorsed at multiple levels of the authority pyramid. Broadcast and print media routinely call attention to and accept the claims of those in academia. When authoritative news outlets point to the opinions of scholars, mistakes and prejudices can become normative facts.

This was clearly the case in the broadly held belief that white Europeans were destined and ordained to subjugate black people and take the Indians’ lands. Our destiny was manifest.
In the decades before the Civil War, American scholars claimed a new republic role as the racial guardians of the United States. They interpreted race science into national social policy to construct the biological basis of citizenship and to assert that the very presence of nonwhite and non-Christian peoples threatened the republic. They laid the intellectual foundations for a century of exclusion and removal campaigns. The intellectual roots of the cyclical political and social assaults on Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Irish, and Asians can be traced back to this scholarly obsession with race. (Wilder. pp 272-273)
One, maybe the main reason prejudices, biases, and mistaken notions endure and are accepted as plain fact by those in academia is money. We, no matter our titles, are easily swayed and convinced by authority and money; they blind us. When it comes to the use of animals on university farms and in their labs, cash-caused blindness is a universal affliction.

Just as the antebellum colleges and universities embraced slavery and taking the Indians’ lands, today’s colleges and universities embrace all manner of torture and cruelty because of the money and subsequent power and prestige that flow from it.

Scholars supported by these riches are unable to see or unwilling to acknowledge what is in front of them; and because these riches have become the lifeblood of the academy, even scholars in non-animal areas of study and senior administrators are wedded to it and find ways to convince themselves that they are in some meaningful way unlike their bigoted predecessors.

Maybe those from within the academy can’t, or refuse to see, who they are hurting or who is being hurt by their silence or arguments. One standard moral defense for hurting, killing, or eating other animals is that they are so different from us that their suffering is so different that it doesn’t matter very much. Or, even if they suffer, the benefit to us -- what we might learn, the taste of their flesh, the spectacle of their fights -- are more important than the detriment to them.

There are other possible reasons for so many highly educated people not caring about hurting and killing others. One likely dark explanation is that they like it.

The idea that many people, a significant proportion of us at any rate, like to see others hurt and killed is unsettling, but it explains a lot. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, wrote in The New Yorker, “The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worse conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there is reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.”

I think Bloom is correct that we don’t first or need to de-humanize people before abusing them, but he did not stop to ponder the fact that to a large degree people like to see animals hurt and killed because they attribute human emotional and mental characteristics to them. They gain enjoyment by “humanizing” them, or by acknowledging their mental or emotional similarity to us. Dogs in staged fights are called smart or stupid; bulls are noble; rabbits enjoy life.

Some in the academy have made it clear that it is the strong similarities between us and other animals that motivates them to hurt and kill them.
“Animals do a lot of things instinctively…. But people--and probably monkeys--have the ability to think 20 steps into the future: `In the end I'm going to feel great, because I worked hard to get there,' or `I'm going to get a lot of credit for this.' It's the prefrontal cortex that brings those emotions into play and guides us in our behavior. If we didn't have a sense of what would be wonderful or awful in the future, we would behave very haphazardly.” -- Ned Kalin (UW primate vivisector) in Wired For Sadness. Discover. April, 2000.
The academy was corrupted centuries ago by money; it has never recovered. I don’t think it can be fixed without a revolution. But that revolution will not occur as long as people within the academy are afraid to speak out. I’ve known senior researchers who are opposed to the terrible things done to animals at their institutions but who are afraid to voice their concerns openly for fear of the risk to their own research. Similarly, I’ve known students and employees at all levels of study and authority who also are afraid to voice their concerns publicly because they fear the repercussions. These people are the small minority. They recognize the unlikelihood of being able to change the culture; a culture rooted in exploiting animals.

The needed revolution will not occur for as long as the authority of the academy lends its influence to the corrupt notion that animals are here for our eating and any uses we might imagine.

As long as the good life and success are measured by wealth and power, we will continue down the road we are on -- blundering head-long into an overheated world devoid of clean water, clean air, most wild animals and overflowing with hungry self-centered humans. We could change course, and many people are trying to nudge the runaway train onto a different track. The academy could help, it could take the lead. But that would require many people in the less economically productive schools in the academy usurping power, and it is hard to see how that could happen very easily, especially since they were taught to believe that the good life and success are measured by wealth and power and that authority is determined by the degrees conferred upon a member.

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