Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Words of...

So Kennesaw State won't hire a strong candidate for provost because he once quoted Marx.

Where do I start?

I, too, have quoted Marx. And Nietzsche. And Will Ferrell. And Roseanne Rosannadanna. And Aristotle. And Sarah Palin. And Muttley. Also Paul Westerberg, Chris Rock, Homer Simpson, Max Weber, Tina Fey, Bill Cosby, Kristin Hersh, Roy Scheider, Monty Python, Fozzie Bear, Liz Phair, Jon Stewart, Ernest Hemingway, The Gospel According to Matthew, Sting, Steve Martin, Annie Dillard, Spinal Tap, Bob Uecker, George W. Bush, Lily Tomlin, Bill Murray, Miss Piggy, Stephen Colbert, Beavis and Butthead, Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Beatles, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen, William James, SpongeBob Squarepants, Samuel Gompers, Richard Nixon, KC and the Sunshine Band, Bill Clinton, Joan Didion, Hegel, Duke Ellington, Thomas Jefferson, Arnold Horshack, Sarah Silverman, Howard Beale, and any number of students, colleagues, and family members.

Quoting someone does not necessarily imply agreement with everything they ever said or did. In fact, in some cases people use quotations ironically, or to show how deeply they disagree with someone. Sometimes it’s just a nice turn of phrase, or a sly bit of humor.

Hell, I’d be worried about anyone who only quoted people with whom he agreed. Too much inbreeding, whether physical or intellectual, leads to weakness. Sometimes, playing the devil’s advocate can be a valuable intellectual exercise. But that’s only possible when we aren’t playing “gotcha.”

The “gotcha” attacks do far more damage than the original quotes. They function to keep out people with lively minds. They restrict the range of acceptable discourse. They narrow fields to people who don’t have original or challenging thoughts. Then we wonder why some administrators don’t understand academic freedom.

It’s because we don’t have it.

I have far more respect for people who have come to a point of view having grappled with alternatives than I have for purebreds. Not only have the well-educated ones actually bothered to do some intellectual work, as welcome and necessary as that is, but they’re also had to develop the ability to see more than one perspective. That’s absolutely essential in any high-level role. Because the frustrating reality of these positions is that most of the time, you’re dealing with partial information and conflicts in which both sides are about sixty percent right. The ability to juggle multiple arguments, each of which is grounded in its own worldview, is crucial to reaching solutions that show respect for all sides. My own politics are basically social democratic, but I’d much rather deal with a sophisticated conservative than an idiotic liberal. At least with a sophisticated conservative, I’d have some confidence that the issue was understood, even if it got interpreted differently than I would have. With one-dimensional purebreds, I’m never sure they heard much more than a keyword.

Policing papers for quotes from suspicious characters is the rigor of small minds. It shows a basic inability to distinguish part from whole, or awareness from approval. I don’t want purists in power; they’re naive, and a little scary. Let me have people whose minds have some city miles on them. They might sound radical from time to time, but as Lenin put it, sometimes we have to be as radical as reality itself.