By John von Heyking, March 15, 2011 in What is Education?
Joseph Epstein has some sensible comments on the case of psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey, who had a woman demonstrate the use of a sex toy before his undergraduate class. Epstein uses this “teachable moment” to reflect upon how little academic freedom means these days on account of the confusion in higher education as to the nature of education. Instead of being intellectual authorities, universities, and their professors, have now become pimps, and university presidents their enablers.
Readers of this blog are well aware of the deterioration of the academy over the past several decades, but two observations are in order.
First, Epstein identifies the dead-end into which educators have put themselves, which has implications for how society understands the activity of science. Bailey of course accuses his critics of being anti-scientific troglodytes. He is doing research, after all! But his pseudo-apologia amounts to little more than claiming that his critics have bad taste, which is the claim made by the avante-garde. Thus, he defends science not on the basis of its contribution to knowledge or even wisdom, but because it conduces to taste. But taste for what? Something greater evidently than the base tastes of the bourgeois, but what that “greater” consists of seems to be literally nothing, in the deep sense of nihilism. As Epstein observes, “Does Professor Bailey, one has to wonder, thrill to his own acts of épater les bourgeois? Does he, so to say, get off in his combined role as Pied Piper, Krafft-Ebing, and the Diaghilev of the kinky?” Science, like avant-garde art, can only justify itself by tweaking the tastes of those it purports to serve. Not a long-term strategy for success.
Second, Epstein’s observation about the educator as pimp reminds me of a comment that Seth Benardete makes about Socrates, in the Lysis, Plato’s dialogue about friendship. In that dialogue, Socrates seems keen to draw the pathetic Hypothales away from the young Lysis – for himself, it seems. Benardete suggests there is something pimp-like about Socrates’ behavior. This is a longstanding claim made of Socrates.
One of the keys to thinking clearly about the meaning of education, using the model of Socrates perhaps, is to distinguish clearly between genuine knowledge and sophistry. The need to do this is presented with great urgency in Plato’s Republic; Glaucon and Adeimantus urgently request Socrates to teach them the difference. Failure to make this distinction breeds currently prevailing confusion over whether educators are pimps, and our students are voyeurs. But, as the Republic forces us to ask, can such a distinction be taught to people who have not experienced that distinction?