The Silence of the Academy

The following is an in-progress essay. I have lots more work to do on this but I thought by posting it here I might get some feedback which would help in the never-ending process of revising. So, if anyone has anything to say on this issue, please let me know—either here in comments or by e-mail. Criticisms, clarifications, corrections, extensions, agreements, disagreements, etc. will all be most welcomed.

The Silence of the Academy

Throughout history, the relevance of the Academy has been questioned. Of course, those of us in the Academy dismiss this as simply a misconception based on misinformation. The Academy, we argue, is not only relevant, it is the major hope for the future, a significant force in curing the ills of the world, whether famine, war, or illness. But, even a cursory glance through the daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and news websites seems to argue otherwise. Maybe the Academy is irrelevant to the world at large. And, its irrelevance is largely the result of its silence on the significant issues of the day. Although academics might talk to each other about relevant issues at their conventions or in their journals there seems no real effort to inform the general public; their research and findings have not made USAToday, Time, or Google News, which, today, fortunately or unfortunately, means silence. A few examples may be offered in support of this seeming heresy.

The arguments over the teaching of evolution versus divine design have probably surprised lots of us. The argument that divine design should be taught as one theory in a field of theories, we quickly realize, is lacking in the understanding of what a theory is. Divine design is not a theory of anything; it is a belief and beliefs can be taught legitimately as beliefs—as they are in religious schools—but not as theories. In fact, we know that evolution is not just a theory; it’s an explanation of how life as we know it developed. Yet, and here is where the silence comes in, we hear nothing from, for example, the National Association of Biology Teachers whose mission statement reads: “The National Association of Biology Teachers empowers educators to provide the best possible biology and life science education for all students” (www.nabt.org/sites/S1/index.php?p=5, accessed 8/2/08). Where is the statement from this part of the Academy that addresses this issue?

Actually, this issue goes beyond the failure to publicize what is known about biological processes. In some instances, this issue is distorted in the textbooks so as not to lose large adoptions from communities that want divine design and evolution taught simply as alternative “scientific” theories. Here publishers, authors, and relevant academic associations all share the blame for perpetuating fraud and teaching misinformation.

Research tells us that children of gay parents and children of straight parents develop in the same way. Children of gay parents are not handicapped in any way except from the prejudice of others, admittedly an important concern. Further, there is not one shred of evidence to indicate that the popular argument against gay marriage—that it will lead to a deterioration in family values and minimize heterosexual marriage—has any validity. Likewise, the policy of the military in excluding gay men and lesbians (who do tell), we know, has no merit and in fact, seriously hinders the effectiveness and efficiency of the current military (recall the Arab language experts who were dismissed from the military because they were gay). So, where are the statements from the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association (with its 14,000 members and its 10 professional journals and magazines), and the National Communication Association reporting their research into gay relationships, gay adoption, gay marriage, and gay men and lesbians in the military? Why aren’t statements from these organizations a major part of the news reporting on these issues?

The Geological Society of America claims that “earth science education is at the core of the National Education Standards” and says that it is “dedicated to increasing the appreciation of the Earth’s history, processes, and resources” (www.geosociety.org/educate, accessed 8/2/08)). Similarly, the American Geographical Society claims that it “encourages activities that expand geographical knowledge, and it has a well-earned reputation for presenting and interpreting that knowledge so that it can be understood and used not just by geographers but by others as well—especially policy makers” (www.amergeog.org/organization.htm, accessed 8/2/08). Where is their open letter to the American people and to those who minimize the threat of global warming that societies such as these know is real and potentially catastrophic.

Currently John McCain (born 8/29/1936) is the presumptive Republican nominee for United States President. If he’s elected and serves two terms, he will be in office when he is 80 years old. According to Science Daily “after age 70, educated adults may begin to lose the ability to use their schooling to compensate for normal, age-related memory loss” (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070109141930.htm). WebMD reports on a study that “shows that as many as one in five of us can expect to develop difficulties with various mental abilities—thinking, learning, and memory—by our mid-70s” (www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/news/20031020/losses-in-memory-ability-common-with-age). Another study reports: “About 40% of people aged 65 or older have age associated memory impairment” (www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/324/7352/1502). This is the likely outcome of old age, pure and simple. And yet the American Geriatric Society and similar learned and academic associations have said nothing, at least not to the general voter (www.americangeriatrics.org/policy, accessed 8/2/08). Don’t they have anything of relevance to say? Surely they have statistics, similar to those cited here, on the mental deterioration that many (admittedly not all) people experience as they age. Along with the rest of the Academy, they remain silent on an issue that can have enormous consequences not only for the United States but for the entire world.

And while in the election arena, where are the rhetoricians—from Communication and from English—to point out the misleading and often downright false statements made by political candidates throughout the year? Do we have to rely on the often biased reporting of the daily newspapers with political agendas of their own?

And, in the midst of the US government preventing journalists access to a wide variety of information, where is the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication whose mission statement reads in part: “The purpose of the corporation [that is, AEJMC] shall be the improvement of education in journal and mass communication to the end of achieving better professional practice, a better informed public, and wider human understanding” (www.aejmc.org/_about/constitution.php)? How does AEJMC’s silence contribute to “a better informed public”? And where is the outcry over such censorship from our elite journalism schools? It is inconceivable that such schools can be teaching journalism ethics when they remain silent in the face of such assaults on freedom of information.

Today, animal experimentation (for better cosmetics, for example) is rampant along with inhumane treatment of all animals—from the geese to make foie gras to the calves that are prevented from ever moving during their short lives to make veal to the pit bull and cock fighting—and yet academic ethicists, philosophers, and humanists generally concern themselves with mainly irrelevant issues and let this type of cruelty go unnoticed. And where are the cultural theorists who are willing to put aside their claim to political correctness and call inhumane treatment of animals what it is, regardless of how carefully it is woven into the fabric of the culture.

Advertisers routinely use misleading language and often make downright false claims and yet communication scholars (National Communication Association or the International Communication Association, for example) say nothing, other than perhaps to each other at conventions and in journals.

Historians, especially those writing textbooks for elementary and high schools (though college text writers are not blameless), are silent on the atrocities that this country has committed throughout its history and continues to commit today. The textbook descriptions of our history in settling the west, for example, seem dangerously similar to the Hollywood versions we saw as kids. Many of our founding fathers, who are so revered in our American history texts, were also slave owners but this seems to be omitted or minimized—often allowed to be omitted by both author and publisher at the “request” of a large enough school district. Shouldn’t historians be concerned with the lessons history can teach us? But, perhaps not. The mission statement from the American Historical Association reads, in part: “As the largest historical society in the United States, the AHA provides leadership and advocacy for the profession, fights to ensure academic freedom, monitors professional standards, spearheads essential research in the field, and provides resources and services to help its members succeed” (www.historians.org/info/index.cfm, accessed 8/2/08). Interestingly, there is nothing about conducting research relevant to the issues facing the world today or, to take just one example, about voicing concerns over presidential violations of the constitution.

All this is not to say that the Academy is, by definition, irrelevant. In fact, the examples offered here demonstrate that the Academy can and should be extremely relevant. Nor is this to argue that such academic associations have never gone public with their findings; certainly there have been attempts. But, nothing on the scale that would be necessary to have a real impact on real people.
Its silence is unfortunate, especially in a world that now so desperately needs the insights and direction from our brightest and most informed.

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