Sam and Universities

Peter Boghossian. Credit: Bari Weiss.

You may have heard that a philosophy prof at Portland State University in Oregon resigned September 8, and gave his reasons in an articulate and scathing open letter to the university’s provost. The letter addresses some pretty serious issues — and some pretty lacklustre responses by the university. The main issue is freedom of thought and expression, an issue that is important never to get tired of responding to, but it also reminded me a bit of Sam.

Sam Johnson. White male writer who has been dead for almost 237 years. Many instances of opinions and writing which would be considered offensively incorrect to some people (a growing mob of them, it seems) these days. Wrote poetry that rhymed. Wrote essays that can be hard to understand for many reasons, but partly his style and partly the fact that a few centuries are a long enough time for the English language to have changed so that some words don’t mean now what they meant then. Compiled a dictionary that was innovative for his time, but which, in itself, is not really useable today because we have modern, up-to-date alternatives, and because — surprisingly to me given all the scholarly work done on Sam — there still does not exist a full, online, database-backed version of his dictionary, though there are efforts underway.

During all of the three times that I have had a Twitter presence* in order to keep up with the 18th century and to try to promote my book-in-progress, the professors whom I followed and interacted with often commented about the huge discrepancy that exists in (as they call it) “the academy.” There are tenured professors who make very high salaries and also have the protection of tenure itself in order to say what they think. That, in fact, is one of the main purposes of tenure: to enable those below to speak the truth without fear for the loss of their livelihood.

Then there are the untenured who are no longer just starting out in their academic careers. These are people in their 30s and 40s (and probably older) who have never gotten a tenure-track position and, given the academic job market, likely never will. Many of them were either at a semi-comfortable place in their lives where they had more or less accepted that fact — perhap like that philosophy prof who was only an assistant professor without tenure, but still getting the chance to research and teach. Others, though, were at a very uncomfortable place in their lives where they basically worked on contracts (they’re often called adjunct or sessional teachers) and they generally have no job security nor benefits such as pensions. On top of that, the pay for these highly educated folks was low, to the extent that many had to take on two or three courses in order to contribute to their household incomes (say, about $8,000 to $10,000 per term for each course).

The other thing that many of the profs I followed (mostly scholars of 18th-century English literature) was the fate of their faculties or departments. English departments closing down or being downsized. Faculties of arts and social sciences not being supported by some universities to the same extent that they supported business, science, engineering, and other faculties. So I sometimes wonder about the possible demise of the study of Sam in all of this. He was by most accounts the premier literary figure in 18th-century England (like Shakespeare to the 16th, say, or Jane Austen or the Brontës to the 19th), but if there is no one to teach him, or no will by the faculty or university to replace a Johnson scholar with another one when they retired, then, well, it will have been a fun time while it lasted, but anything can come to an end. (That reminds me: I have a book to finish!)

*****

The letter from assistant professor Peter Boghossian (full text here) is worth reading if you are interested in some of the reasons other than money and budgets for which faculty members become disenchanted with their employers. This, again, is a story of woke culture, or as one of the commenters puts it, “a post-modern secular religion/cult.” What can I say except that is a narrow-minded and dangerous belief system and movement which has no tolerance for dissent. Some telling quotations from Mr. Boghossian in case you don’t want to go through the whole thing:

The university … has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.

I noticed signs of the illiberalism that has now fully swallowed the academy quite early during my time at Portland State. I witnessed students refusing to engage with different points of view. Questions from faculty at diversity trainings that challenged approved narratives were instantly dismissed. Those who asked for evidence to justify new institutional policies were accused of microaggressions. And professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.

Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.

There’s lots more in the letter, and it’s actually not that long (and is articulately written). I liked also some of the actions he took to prove his points during his time at the university. In order to illustrate the slackness of the peer-review process in academic journal publishing, he co-wrote an article in 2017 called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” and got it published. The article argued “that penises were products of the human mind and responsible for climate change.” It illustrates his point, and is funny, but the issues which led him to write such an article, and ultimately to resign from a good position at a university, are dead serious.


* These have all been over the last three or four years. I dropped out partly because I could feel it becoming a time sink (all that scrolling through irrelevant tweets and comments), and because of the sometimes toxic ethos of Twitter — frankly, having to do with some of the issues which the philosophy prof deals with in his letter. I’ve been the subject (object!) of one pile-on by commenters who disagreed with me and whose comments deteriorated to, among other things, calling me a “random pensioner” (funny but not so funny). And I’ve been characterized as a stereotypical male (and we all know how bad those guys are) by two persons based on no evidence other than a complete distortion of another comment I made. My first exit from Twitter was kind of fun and felt like a nice purge. I made a comment (that I wouldn’t want to repeat in the polite, august company that reads this blog) about Donald Trump, and “journalist” Lou Dobbs complained and got me suspended from Twitter until I removed the comment. I thought about it for a while, but instead just shut down my entire account. It was satisfying.

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