Expertise, bureaucrats, and civic commitment: why universities matter more than ever —
Last weekend, while reading something about the anti-science and anti-reason pronouncements and actions of American conservatives, I mused aloud, “remember Allan Bloom?” Thirty years ago, his best-selling and controversial book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), was at the centre of conservative politics and debates on the direction of higher education. Bloom praised the “great books” curriculum that had students study the “outstanding” thinkers of the Western tradition. While those on the right championed the book, those on the left condemned it for its defense of traditions and practices that silenced and rendered invisible women, people of colour, and anyone who was non-male, non-Western, non-heterosexual. It became a target for the efforts then underway across the post-secondary world to criticize and deconstruct the “Canon,” the limited list of “great thinkers” and “great writers” that traditionalists like Bloom valued. These battles over the canon became known as the “canon wars” or the “culture wars.”
Bloom was defending the university as an elitist institution, intentionally isolated from the surrounding world, and dedicated to the study and teaching of the writings of (in the words of his critics) “dead, white, males.” Ironically, while the right initially embraced this defense of the university as a bastion for conservative elites, the culture wars saw conservatives increasingly condemn the university as a bastion for liberal elites. While Bloom saw isolation from society as a necessity for the university’s mission of uncorrupted contemplation of enduring philosophical questions, conservatives increasingly viewed this isolation as proof of the university’s irrelevance to the practical concerns of “ordinary” people. Anti-intellectualism, and not “great books,” was becoming the right-wing rage.
Where are the Allan Blooms now, I wonder, where are the conservatives who argue rationally, draw on science and reasoned argument, venerate intellectuals, and believe in higher education’s role in teaching students to think independently and critically? What has happened to conservatism in a little over three decades to see the representatives of it now trash intellectuals, science, reason, and higher education, championing a politics of not only anti-intellectualism, but deliberate ignorance?
Last summer, I read a book about deliberate ignorance, Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk (2018). It was sobering reading. And very scary. Anyone who has read this book would be unsurprised by the Trump administration’s complete lack of preparedness for this pandemic and the way Trump and his allies have responded to it, for it outlines the deliberate efforts of the Trump administration, as soon as it was elected, to dismantle government, prioritize ignorance about everything but particularly about how to govern, and render government departments and agencies — whose core purpose is to mitigate and respond to risk — leaderless and clueless in the face of real risks like nuclear accidents, threats to food safety, hurricanes, and, yes, pandemics.
Lewis writes about how, the day after the 2016 election, the staff in various government departments waited for representatives of the new administration to descend on them in order to begin weeks of briefings on what each department does and how it does it. But no one showed up. When they eventually did, most not until after the inauguration, they were completely uninterested in how these departments functioned. Some threw their briefing books in the trash. And the people Trump appointed to run these departments and agencies were totally unqualified to do so, with neither the relevant education nor experience.
Worse, perhaps, they were often in a conflict of interest. Thus, the man chosen to oversee the National Weather Service was the CEO of a private forecasting service that charged for weather information. (Such choices — of unqualified people with narrow, commercial vested interests — to lead government departments have life and death implications; imagine, if you will, that instead of Dr. Bonnie Henry as our Provincial Health Officer, we had, say, I don’t know, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company.)
Hundreds of the key positions in government, including its diplomatic missions, went unfilled. The brilliant university-educated scientists who worked in government, including departments responsible for protecting the electrical grid from cyberterrorism or the Columbia River from plutonium waste, were ignored or fired. More than qualified people disappeared. So did funding for data collection and analysis. Even the data itself has disappeared from government websites. Data on climate change and food safety regulations, poverty and animal abuse, and much more.
Why, you ask, would people elected to govern be so committed to ignorance about how to do it? Here is Lewis’ answer:
If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview. (77)
The Fifth Risk is not only an exposé of the dangers of ignorance; it is also a hymn of praise to the faceless bureaucrats populating the offices of government who use their expertise and civic commitment to keep people safe, fed, healthy, and sheltered. Until COVID-19, Dr. Bonnie Henry was one such anonymous bureaucrat, one of the thousands of civil servants who keep governments running.
Perhaps one of the roles of a university in a pandemic is to remind us that expertise and civic commitment — the products of a university education — matter.
The Fifth Risk is obviously and shockingly timely. But The Closing of the American Mind is decidedly not a book for our time. Bloom wanted to protect the university from the pressure to be relevant to the surrounding society. This pandemic is perhaps burying forever the myth of the ivory tower, the university as an isolated site for contemplation by the privileged few, free of the demands of daily life. While universities, and especially UFV, have increasingly embraced the need for engagement with community, the pandemic has left us with no choice but to wrestle with the public and personal changes it has unleashed.
The ability to wrestle with change successfully and ethically is exactly what a university is meant to develop. It is this ability that will enable us to master our current challenges and empower the “learners, leaders, and seekers” of tomorrow to understand and resolve the global crises yet to come.
Dr. Eric Davis
Special Advisor to the President