Academic Genius and Nonsense

Commentary, Education, Gerry Bowler

Nobody does unintentional humour quite like an academic. Nobody can produce accidental laughter like a tenured professor explaining her deep thoughts to the masses. We have an excellent example of this sort of comedic gem in a recent article entitled “Jordan Peterson and the debilitating cult of genius” by Jennifer Garrison of St Mary’s University in Calgary.

Professor Garrison resents the attention that University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson is receiving and uses his fame to launch an attack on the notion of “male genius”, a phenomenon which she says is threatening our universities and democracy itself. (At this point I can hardly see my keyboard to type that sentence, blinded as I am by the plenteous flow of tears of mirth.)

These academic alpha males wreak their hideous destruction by … well, Dr. Garrison is not clear how male geniuses actually hurt post-secondary education, but she is sure that their presence devalues feminine labour and guts the Humanities. Instead of this scholarly patriarchy, what the modern Canadian university needs, she says, is a “diversity of voices”, by which she presumably means more academics who think like she does.

It is true that the Humanities – philosophy, history, literature – are in deep trouble at the university level. Partly, this is because our contemporary economy seems to prefer graduates from science, technology, or the trades, rather than from medieval poetry, but there are three other powerful reasons for the decline of interest in the traditional curriculum.

The first is that the endangered disciplines have been taken over by a cadre of youngish professors who have no interest in the eternal truths that the Humanities offer, and who only plumb Shakespeare, Plato, or Herodotus to show how rotten Western Civilization is. Using the trio of gender, race, and class, these academics can reveal the hidden meanings and the male power structure underlying any subject. Thus, students in English classes read King Lear, not as great drama and poetry, but as a discovery of the evils of early-modern patriarchy and “male anxiety”.

Secondly, the professoriate has debased the notion of objectivity and serious research. Why slog through years of examining lab reports or ancient manuscripts when you can engage in “Me-Search”, that fascinating branch of academia known as SPN (Scholarly Personal Narrative) where intellectuals publish articles about their feelings and dreams? A simple taxpayer without the benefit of higher education might think that was sketchy and unreliable. No! Here is assurance from one such author that profound academic scrutiny is going on: “First I used rigor in data collection and analysis. I achieved rigor by interviewing myself to build my narrative.” OK, then.

Thirdly, those currently teaching the Humanities have abandoned attempts at outlining the Grand Narratives, the threads that link important events and people in art and history. The more marginal, insignificant and oppressed the subject the better for the new humanities. Critical Fatness Studies, Feminist Glaciology, and Lesbian Dance Theory all threaten (or so we are told) the hegemony of “cis-heteronormative White Supremacist settler colonial logics” that have hitherto run the university and which once taught that hard work, reason, and open debate were good for students and society. Therefore, it makes excellent sense for the brainwashed campus mobs to shut down people like Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Charles Murray who would only use white supremacist tools like free speech or rationality to discuss crucial ideas.

Universities are in trouble but not from geniuses, of which we have far too few of either sex. The identity politics, sexism, and racism that underlie the attacks on Jordan Peterson have made the humanities a playground for a privileged caste of idlers who would be far better off put to honest labour in a community garden than allowed to run loose in a classroom.