Mission Creep

A lot of it just boils down to irrelevance. To changing the subject. To complete, utter, thorough-going abandonment of the work one is supposed to be doing in order to do another kind of work altogether. As if one should hire out as a French chef and spend all one’s time on the job carving ornate soap dishes out of driftwood. As if one should land a lovely job as a cardiologist and devote all one’s job time to training a turtle to recite poetry. As if one were a housing contractor who agreed to build a three bedroom house with a verandah and a library, and once on the site spent all one’s time knitting balaclavas for the troops.

Irrelevance and changing the subject are important categories for nonsense and bad thinking, you know. They’re a huge resource for people who don’t have very good arguments for what they want to believe. Why is ‘because God’ a good argument against allowing euthanasia in certain narrowly-defined circumstances? Oh well let’s change the subject to the sanctity of something or other. (That’s exactly why ‘suppose we change the subject’ is one of the punchlines to the turtles all the way down joke.) And it applies not just in verbal matters, in argument and debate, but also in actions. Like people in what appear to be literature departments giving guest lectures that cover everything from imperialism to identity to race to queerness to numismatics. Where do they get the omniscience, one wonders. Where does all this staggeringly wide-ranging expertise come from? Why don’t people in other, less ambitious departments have it?

So at the University of Oregon. There was this committee, see, and it came up with ever such a good idea to transform the university – the entire university, every bit of it, not just the studies departments, but all of it, math, physics, biology, all of it – from a pesky old educational and research institution into a wonderful caring hand-holding Make Everything Better device. Into a branch of mental health and/or social work. Super idea, no? Only…one wonders why not leave that to mental health and social work and similar organizations, in order to leave time and space for the university to go on doing what the university is (generally) supposed to do? On account of how it’s all tooled up to do that, and knows how, and has the equipment in place, and has the rules written down, and the staff hired, and the beds fitted up with sheets. That’s not to say it couldn’t do it better, that there’s no possible room for improvement, but it is to say that it seems a little wasteful to make it do a completely different job after it’s already gone to all that trouble. Unless of course we think teaching and research are just completely valueless, in which case it does make sense to recycle all those books and microscopes and libraries and lecture rooms into something else as best as people can. But do we think that? Have we decided that? Have we quite, entirely made up our minds that teaching and research are just boring effete pointless elitist preoccupations that should now make way for therapy and massage and bedwetting? Have we? I don’t think we have, quite. We may be stumbling and creeping in that direction, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

The plan proposes incorporating “cultural competency” into funding, hiring and tenure considerations, as well as “cluster hirings” of several professors each year to teach courses on topics of race, gender and sexuality. “Cultural competency” is not defined explicitly, but is understood to mean working with members of different ethnic and racial groups…Faculty members said that many of their colleagues were upset by the draft. Twenty-four professors signed a letter expressing their concerns about the draft. Of highest concern to many faculty members was the draft’s “Orwellian insertion of the undefined political notion ‘cultural competency’ into every aspect of administration, teaching and performance evaluation,” according to the letter.

Yeah, see, that’s the thing. That’s where the carved soap dishes come in. That’s where worries about changing the subject, permanently and from top to bottom, come in.

“‘Cultural competence’ is a vague term. Nobody knows what it means. To me, it’s devoid of content,” said Michael Kellman, a chemistry professor. “Making it the focus of promotion and salary decisions would be a huge distraction from the university’s job of teaching and scholarship.

Distraction. That’s another way of saying changing the subject, and irrelevance. It’s just not a good concept, to try to do one job by doing a different one altogether. Humanity has worked that out over a long long history of experiment and trial and error. If you want to get a piece of fruit that’s on a high branch, it’s not useful to dig a deep hole in the ground half a mile away. If you want to get out of the rain, it’s not useful to start looking for bits of leftover fruit in the grass. If you want to escape from that leopard that’s charging you, it’s not useful to grab the nearest conspecific and start humping. Breadth is good, wide vision is good, creativity and interdisciplinarity can be good, but there is a limit. That limit is called irrelevance.

Faculty members responded forcefully to the draft’s notion that a group be formed to evaluate “cultural competence” with regard to new hires and research funding. “Who do you think you are?” Boris Botvinnik, a math professor, asked. “You would like to tell us what to do in terms of research in mathematics? We’d like to have a nice atmosphere of diversity on campus. We hire the best people available, and this is the only way to keep the level of the department high.”

There it is, you see. ‘Who do you think you are?’ is another way of putting it.

Norm Levitt has an article on the subject at Spiked.

In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed ‘culturally competent’ if they openly profess the approved corpus of received values.

In other words ‘competent’ is (as one somehow sensed – there is something oddly patronizing in the word itself, that signals manipulation) a euphemism for groupthink. ‘Competent’ people are the ones who say what they are expected to say, incompetent people are the ones who unaccountably refuse to do that. It sounds disquietingly like those ed school phrases – life adjustment, attitude adjustment, social skills – that have been such perennially popular substitutes for actually learning anything of substance, in US educational schools. Go to teach in a university and gradually, through the tender ministrations of The Committee, learn to be Competent. What a glorious ambition.

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