The Whole Is Less Than the Sum of the Parts

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© 2014 Robert Osburn

I am often stumped by a paradox of academic life: Individually, most academics are very pleasant, engaging, thoughtful people that I’d want for neighbors. 

However, when academics act institutionally, that is, on behalf of some academic entity—say a whole school, department, or faculty committee—then something, or someone else, seems to emerge from some ideological, disciplinary, or personality-driven underworld.

For some reason, many academics are better individually than when they aggregate: The academic whole is less than the sum of its individual parts.

A recent academic symposium tells the story well.  The topic was academic freedom, and the impetus was the sudden “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois.  A 12-person panel launched the event. Some feared that the action against Salaita was an indication of incipient McCarthyism, while others pled for civility.  Some faculty recalled their radical days of the 60s , a kind of stroll down radical memory lanes that seemed anachronistic at best, a distracting waste of time at worst. 

Notably absent, so it seemed to me, were any representatives of science and engineering faculty who probably felt they had no skin in this game, and, besides, they have research to conduct. Was this an exercise in mere window-dressing, giving agitants their day in the sun before they crawled back in their academic warrens?

After the panel, earnest small-group discussions ensued.   At one table, an African-American faculty member elaborated on the search for truth, while another academic worried that he didn’t realize our perspectives condition the search. Several administrators shifted uneasily in their chairs, as if discussions of epistemology were hardly relevant when academic freedom needs to be managed in pursuit of civility.

We earnestly and reasonably shared our perspectives, disagreements, and points of convergence. At one table, the participants seemed completely unaware of (and uninterested in) the fact that evangelicals suffer more than any other group from academic bias.  Apart from this, there was a sense of bonhomie amongst the participants in the small groups, but  when re-assembled, the institutional whole sprang into action with less than satisfying results. 

It was no surprise to those who spend their lives behind ivy-covered walls.  Academics can fight over words, and we most certainly did.  The phrase du jour over which we spent 40 torturous minutes of debate was the word civility.  As if in a time warp, one aging radical struggled to frame the discussion in terms of radical campus politics of 50 years ago.  The panelist tasked with fostering civil conversation played defense while many radical members of our symposium wanted to defend those “who lack social power and skills to express themselves civilly.”  Was this apologetics for shouting down unwelcome speakers, especially those from the Right (as several openly admitted)?  

In true Minnesota form, however, tempers were tamed, and the provost called an early end to the meeting. The symposia audience had behaved very civilly while coming to very dissonant conclusions about the meaning and place of civility in academia.  We got nowhere—but maybe that was the idea after all.

As individuals, academics know how to act civilly, but have little idea of what we mean by it.  As institutional actors, we fall short of creating human-shaped, experientially and epistemologically satisfying outcomes.

Why is this the case? Is the academy’s failure to live up to the maxim—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—either significant or surprising?  Does it matter, by contrast, that the 12 Apostles following Jesus were pretty mediocre, but that their church launch in Jerusalem 2000 years ago still generates plenty of fruit?  Can the church offer anything to academics whose institutional efforts are less than satisfying?

If it is true that academics under-perform when acting institutionally, this may be due to disciplinary specialization.  We cultivate unique disciplinary languages, and thus exacerbate linguistic gaps and misunderstandings. 

It may also reflect a character flaw: Academics often develop pride in their capacities to know, and thus fail to cultivate the epistemic humility necessary to listen to and appreciate eithers. (I was interested to observe during the symposium how many academic postmodernists were especially certain about their progressive policy views.) 

A third explanation that particularly interests me as a Christian is the idea that our problem lies with the worldviews that reign in academia.  Scientific naturalism, with its inherent materialist philosophy, undermines the possibility of communication because naturalism makes genes, rather than communicating persons, primary.  While they take human beings seriously, postmodernists’ narrative of conflict and suspicion overrides best intentions.  In the former, nature diminishes; in the latter, power diminishes.  Everyone is frustrated.

But, why are most academics, nevertheless, usually thoughtful neighbors?  While most, especially in our elite institutions, have abandoned Christian metaphysics, they love to deploy its morality.  They learn genteel behaviors in most labs, classrooms, and academic societies  (let alone the homes and, sometimes, churches in which they were nurtured) and find that these behaviors function nicely in the real world.

Occasionally, there are those colleagues who not only share our ethics, but a few, like the colleague in the small group, articulate precisely our goal in the academy: “To search for truth.” I cheered inside when he held fast against the determined perspectivalist.  Then I wondered if he, and the others in our symposium, knew that the old epigraph that has betokened many a university—“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”—owed its genius to the God-Man from Galilee.  It is that same Jesus in whom the “fullness of God” dwells, and through whom academia’s whole can be made genuinely greater than the sum of its parts.