10 December 2004

Three Degrees Below Zero

The Perfesser expressed some distress with an LAT column that tries to explain why Republicans allegedly don't want to be academics. Frankly, I think the whole argument is a pretty damned silly one. Anyone who tries to pretend that politics never makes its way into the classroom—even in the hard sciences—is pretty oblivious to just how far "politics" can go. I recall an exam question in physical chemistry that basically demonstrated why a "ray-gun"-based antimissile defense system could not be deployed inside the Earth's atmosphere. Yeah, that had no political content. Riiiiiight. (OK, it didn't help that the instructor couldn't communicate his way out of a paper bag and got flustered whenever he saw the AFROTC cadet in the class in uniform; that he didn't even try to understand my politics just made the irony more delicious. Thank you for that trip down amnesia lane!)

In any event, one thing that the Perfesser said did get my hackles up. They're very personal hackles; but I think they illustrate a serious problem with both sides of the argument.

"Second, professors don't particularly want to be Republicans. In recent years, and especially under George W. Bush, Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism." In other words, conservatives are stupid. Wrong again. As I also pointed out in my TCS column, Data from the widely used General Social Survey (GSS) consistently show that Republicans are better educated than Democrats (on average, they have more than half a year more education and hold a higher final degree). In addition, Republicans score better than Democrats on two tests included in the GSS.

Jonathan Chair [sic] Peddles Shopworn Lies (10 Dec 04) (emphasis in original). To which my response is Wrong yet again.

I'm afraid that the Perfesser's argument conflates "intellectualism" with "educational achievement." My own experience in the Air Force illustrates the difference. Military officers must have at least a bachelor's degree; I had earned two by the time I entered active duty, and was working on a graduate degree a few years later. Getting a graduate degree of some kind is sort of a careerist hurdle on the way to promotion to field grade (Major or Lieutenant Commander). The problem is the "some kind." Despite the fact that two of my three degree programs were directly related to the kind of duties I then performed, and to the kind of knowledge expected of those in my career-field classification, the majority of the officer corps considered them worthless, or at least less worthy than a night-school, mostly correspondence-course-based MBA from Troy State University. (If you haven't heard of Troy State, you're neither from Alabama nor familiar with military off-duty education.)

Unfortunately, this extends into law, too; the disdain for lawyers who seek to study outside of the law, and/or bring to practice their education outside of law and perhaps accounting/business/economics (or certain sciences for patent attorneys), is downright poisonous. Occasionally, one finds a little relief, usually in the judge. As a first-year associate, I was able to get my point across about the probative value of an opposing counsel's loud and obnoxious oral argument on a motion to dismiss by referring to "the lady's sound and fury"; I know the point got across because the judge suppressed a smile on the bench and quoted the entire relevant passage from MacBeth in his minute order later that day. Such moments are strikingly rare in practice; and they tend to show more about who is an "intellectual" than does counting college and graduate credits.

So is this the chicken, or the egg? I do not know; I only eat the omelettes.