In the spheres and circles in which Planet Janet moves, it’s “defend the Enlightenment” week. At first, I thought this was just the latest volley in the denialist wars, but now that we know that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is in town, and her usual fanbois are overcome with their customary posture of uncritical worship, I suppose that explains part of it, even if “We are at war with terrorism!” no longer packs so much political punch as a slogan. Indeed, there might be a bit of an exercise in parsing exactly why – in “an enlightened spirit of inquiry” – Planet’s proclamation that –
There is no doubt the West is suffering from a dangerous moral disorientation. It is not clear that we value the very idea of the West any more.
– is such an incoherent notion. In part that would be because the bricks she’s used to construct her discourse (her word, not mine) now no longer fit together anywhere so neatly as they once did, because the mortar of her political obsessions has grown old and cracked. But I’m not particularly interested in doing that, so I’ll use her as a segue to a consideration of the latest shot in the “higher education wars” – an article today by Gavin Kitching entitled “Paralysed by Postmodernism”.
I’d have thought that Australian universities might be more accurately characterised as paralysed by cloying bureaucracy and crippled by underfunding, but anyway. Kitching is a Professor of Politics at UNSW. In a decade of teaching politics at tertiary level – on and off – I haven’t come across any of the scholarly work which underpins his professorial chair. No doubt that’s my problem, not his. But I do know the work of Professor John Frow, whose acerbic reply to Kitching in today’s ALR hasn’t been published on the web. I don’t actually care much for Kitching’s argument. You know as soon as he starts going on about Alan Sokal exactly what’s coming, and Frow is quite right to suggest that the notion of “postmodernism” in the context of academia lacks all, well, rigour. If there was ever a postmodern tide that washed through the academy, it well and truly receded about a decade or so ago. But I dare say that the culture warriors – like the largely imaginary object of their critique – never bother much with empirical evidence or that self-same truth they claim to hold in such high regard. Suffice it to say that you wouldn’t want to run across Frow as a thesis examiner if you had any weak points in your argument or methodological meanderings. His critique of Kitching’s lack of rigour and offences against logic is withering, and justified.
But what concerns me is something we had a foretaste of last year – with the unprincipled attacks on QUT PhD student Michael Noonan and his film project on disability and comedy – which sought to use him and his works as political footballs in the service of several agendas, some of which had a lot more to do with very mundane matters internal to QUT than the grandiloquent claims made about the defence of scholarly values in which they were clothed. Kitching attempts to prove his thesis, as Frow observes, not by engaging with the works of any of the philosophers he criticises (and he doesn’t handle Wittgenstein very adroitly either), but by examining – as evidence – a sample of honours theses from his own School.
Kitching claims that the students who choose to write on theoretical topics are “the best and the brightest”. That may or may not be so – we have no way of veryifying the assertion, and perhaps some of those who pursued theses in empirical political science at UNSW may differ. As Frow points out, to show that there is a lack of precision in student work on Foucauldian concepts shows nothing whatever relevant about the rigour of Michel Foucault’s thought itself, and given that one would not expect work of the same standard as a doctoral thesis from an honours student, is totally meaningless unless there’s some way of assessing whether there’s more “rigour” in the work of those students who might write from a perspective informed by, say, John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas. In other words, Kitching’s own essay lacks even a basic standard of methodological rigour, and his conclusions are therefore worthless except as petitio principi assertions.
But, since the golden thread that runs through a thousand and one attacks on “postmodernism”, and a thread that is woven tightly into Albrechtsen and Ali’s webs, is the political claim that the consequences of such scholarship is ethical relativism, a Professor of Politics might wish to consider ethics in this context. It’s here that I find it astonishing that Kitching can blithely hold up work by students in his own School as objects of ridicule in his polemic. In some, but not all, universities, honours theses are publicly available. Doctoral theses are universally so, because they are public contributions to knowledge.
But many universities do not make honours dissertations available for public dissemination, because they haven’t been examined in the same way as higher degrees (a process more rigorous, if you like, than normal peer review) and because their point is to train a student for higher level research rather than produce knowledge from research practice. What Kitching is actually doing, of course, is not using the insights of these student authors but rather using them as data for the point he (so sloppily) makes. Had Kitching made a proposal to his own university for ethics clearance (though perhaps articles in the papers and books for Allen and Unwin don’t actually constitute research), I very much doubt that it would be granted. And it should not have been. The idea that students’ work should be appropriated to make polemical and political points is an ethically reprehensible one. These theses were not written to form part of some sort of public political intervention, and Kitching very plainly has a duty of care to students who study in his own university and discipline.
I suspect this trap – which incredibly the anti-relativist Kitching fails to see he’s fallen into – arose because he’s trying to take the “dumbing down” narrative beloved of Kevin Donnelly and his epigones and the “postmodernism is evil” one employed in a different if overlapping culture wars context, and to conflate them. But if he’s actually concerned with standards in his own School, and here obviously the examiners and supervisors of student dissertations have input into quality just as much if not more than the students themselves, surely a Professor is well placed to raise such concerns internally? And surely that would be the way an ethical scholar concerned for rigour and truth would behave?