Most of the quotations about cynicism reek with scorn. Oscar Wilde called a cynic “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” The comedian George Carlin reportedly claimed that if you scratch a cynic you’ll “find a disappointed idealist.”
Synonyms of cynicism – distrustful, disparaging, contemptuous, suspicious, sarcastic – are uniformly negative.
In fact, however, cynics are rarely disappointed. If you believe that higher education, like most other institutions, is motivated by narrow self-interest and that its claims to higher values are often shams, the facts, more often than not, will prove you right.
Take one recent higher ed conversion experience: The abrupt turn against standardized admissions tests. There are certainly reasonable arguments against such tests: That the tests replicate the income distribution, measure test-taking ability rather than content knowledge and skills mastery, stigmatize less privileged students, and are of limited value in predicting college success.
But there’s also no doubt that the eliminating the tests increases an institution’s applicant pool and therefore makes that school seem more selective. It also reduces transparency in admissions, making the process even more of a black box, and giving admissions officers greater leeway in shaping an entering class however they wish.
I certainly lean in favor of the cynics.
Or take another example, the proposed University of Austin and its claim that we need a new, “fiercely independent” institution that will resist the ill-liberal culture of political correctness and intellectual uniformity that supposedly prevails at most colleges.
Perhaps this initiative is better understood as the cynical pursuit of a particular market niche: A small, selective liberal arts institution, located in an attractive, rapidly growing city, that can tap into funding from conservative foundations.
From my perspective, another win for the cynics.
The problem with cynicism is not that it’s incorrect, but that it leads, almost inevitably, to passivity and resignation. Homer Simpson gave vivid expression to this attitude when he told Lisa and Bart: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is never try.”
The alternative to cynicism is not credence or trust, but, rather, taking active steps to address the genuine academic challenges that higher education faces – curricular incoherence, narrow over-specialized courses, and academic unintelligibility, among others. We need to do much more, especially in the humanities, to introduce students to the life of the mind and the culture of ideas and arguments that lie at the heart of the academy.
Thirty years ago, Gerald Graff called on professors to teach the conflicts: To integrate major debates inside and outside the academy into the curriculum. Graff’s point, more true today than when he published Beyond the Culture Wars in 1992, is that as society grows more heterogeneous, the possibilities for achieving consensus diminish. This reality makes it more imperative that students learn how to weigh evidence, think critically, formulate arguments, and take part in serious intellectual conversations and debates that will not necessarily result in agreement.
Yet what are the arguments that undergraduates should enter? Even in 1992, some of Graff’s suggestions didn’t seem especially compelling. Should we teach the great books? King Lear or King Kong? Plato or Puzo?
Still, Graff’s insistence that students engage in fundamental intellectual debates strikes me as right on target. More than at any other time in my academic career, big questions are squarely on the table both in the academy and in the popular press, and our challenge is to get students to grapple with conflicting ideas and assumptions.
So what are some of the issues worthy of serious intellectual engagement? Several strike me as obvious.
1. Systemic and structural inequality:
In what specific ways are group inequalities embedded in law, public policy, institutional practices, cultural representations, customs, and language? A sociologist might examine how he distribution of income, wealth, education, health and longevity, autonomy, status, prestige, and political power varies by race or gender and how these disparities are fostered by social institutions and cultural practices. A historian might analyze how systematic or structural inequalities are rooted in past history. A political scientist might analyze why policy initiatives intended to address these inequalities frequently fail.
2. Democracy in theory and practice:
How do we square the ideals of representative self-government with the realities of the modern state – with its reliance on administrative, regulatory, and bureaucratic decision-making and an unelected judiciary – and a polity, heavily influenced by various interest groups, pressure groups, advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, lobbies, media, and other organized interests?
3. Moral revolutions:
From the late 18th century onward, a series of fundamental shifts have taken place in moral perception, evident in a growing sensitivity to various forms of violence, pain, cruelty, and exploitation and the elaboration of various ideas about human, natural, or Constitutional rights. A historian might ask how and why these shifts in perception took place and to what extent these changes in moral values percolated throughout societies. A political scientist might examine the actual impact of shifting values on policy and practice, and the relative importance of reformers, activists, journalists, and politicians and jurists in bringing about change. A political theorist, a political philosopher, or an intellectual historian might examine the development of the language of rights, the arguments that underlie rights claims, the differences between positive and negative rights, and how conflicts among rights are resolved.
4. Moral Accountability:
When can we hold individuals or groups of people or even a nation accountable legally or ethically? What, in turn, is the appropriate response or sanction or recompense for violations of moral standards? An intellectual and cultural historian or a historian of philosophy might examine how ideas about moral responsibility and guilt have evolved. A moral philosopher might explore the appropriate moral responses to unethical and immoral actions.
5. The Ethics of New Technologies:
Key ethical issues raised by new technologies involve surveillance, privacy, the misuse of personal information, hate speech, social media trolling, the dissemination of misinformation, bias in artificial intelligence and facial recognition, genetic testing, genetic engineering, weaponization of technology, and governance and oversight of emerging technologies.
6. Human Migration:
A multidisciplinary approach would certainly include the history of, impetus for, and forms of migration; the sociology of migration; the reception of migrants; migrants’ identities and issues of assimilation, syncretism, cultural persistence, and transnationalism; immigration and citizenship and asylum policies; the social, cultural, and economic integration of migrants; and representations and the discursive construction of migrants and migration.
We live in cynical times. Snark, irreverence, and spitefulness pervade public discourse. Grumblers, faultfinders, contrarians, sourpusses, and cantankerous, petulant, surly grouches are omnipresent. Scoffers, skeptics, and scowlers prevail.
Higher education has been a particular target for cynics, who argue that academic rigor and diversity of opinion are in retreat and that our colleges and universities have become bastions of political posturing and indoctrination.
Humanists, in particular, have a special obligation to resist this kind of cynicism, which has contributed to the view that our disciplines range from the antiquarian to the arcane, and the irrelevant, and that we are little more than pompous, pretentious pedants, posturers, and poseurs.
Even if we can’t defeat the culture of cynicism, we can, we must, make our classes cynicism’s antidote. And the way to do that strikes me as self-evident: Let’s engage our students in tackling the biggest humanistic questions of our time. Isn’t the humanities’ mission to produce graduates who value and take part in the life of the mind?
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.