Live the Future You Want

I’m not especially fair-minded by nature. I have to struggle against temper, a quick tongue, an instinct to mock. Some of the long-windedness here is my way of guarding against those inclinations, getting myself to inhabit the obligations I’ve set for my public self, my scholarly self.

More than anything else, this is what disappoints me about some of the turn in criticism of academic institutions of late, particularly from people whom I previously read sympathetically. It’s one thing to criticize. It is another thing to describe and then live the alternatives. In much recent criticism, I don’t see an alternative to herd mentality, to close-mindedness, to groupthink, to callow invocations of political positions, to slanted or one-sided selections of material and evidence, to an aversion to exploration and complexity.

I see the mirror image of what the critics abhor. I don’t see folks trying to reach for something better, something different, trying to imagine and practice how we will debate and teach and write in some better kind of academic culture. That’s really what I’m trying to do in this blog, more than anything else: to try, even when it is against my nature, to constrain myself to what that better practice might be.

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8 Responses to Live the Future You Want

  1. We discussed this privately, but I want to praise you in public, since you’ve become the model of fair-mindedness in my eyes. Much as it may make your eyes bleed to read some of the blogs I’ve been reading of late, whenever I post about them I’ve got your blog open in another window. Now I may just print out this post and tape it on the wall next to my desk.

    And this may sound unnecessarily sycophantic–sarcastic even–but I don’t mean it to be either. You’ve changed the way I approach scholarship, and for that, I thank you.

  2. ivory says:

    You know, part of the “problem” with your arguments is that you are being too systematic for those who passionately engage in vitriolic diatribes against bias and academic indiscretion. If you meet emotion with logic, the confrontation can be unpleasant for all involved. I think this debate, at its heart, is about validation more than anything – people want to be comfortable in the classroom. But good teaching pushes people out of their comfort zones. I also think there is a high probability that you will not be able to erradicate bias without impinging on academic freedom – and my bias would be to allow as much freedom as possible.

  3. RCinProv says:

    Ah, sounds like The Intimate Contest for Self-Command, one of Thomas Schelling’s best works.

    I appeciate the transparency of your blog, Tim. You work ideas out in public, which takes real effort and, I think, courage.

    Best wishes for the summer, RC

  4. Joey Headset says:

    I’m probably missing some backstory here… but I think I know the particular type you refer to. It’s a special breed of hypocrite that loudly demands respect and civility from others while denying such courtesy to precisely those they demand it from. I’ve found that there is a very particular psychology driving these types. It goes something like this:

    “I want the world to be a civil place where everyone can freely express their opinion! This can never come to pass… until such time as everyone who disagrees with me SHUTS THEIR STUPID MOUTHS. The enemies of civility will never be quiet until they learn that nobody wishes to hear them. I can teach them this fact by shouting them down at the top of my lungs, and by insulting them. Also, I can strategically twist their words around until the amount of time it takes my enemies to untwist their own intended meanings exceeds the amount of time they are willing to spend disrupting the blissful civility all decent people demand. Therefore, I can *I* be as shrill and dishonest and malicious as I please… because it’s really the only way there will ever be peace.”

  5. withywindle says:

    Brian: “You are all individuals!”

    Crowd, in chorus: “We are all individuals!”


    Sometimes its hard to be distinctive
    And make it clear you’re just one man;
    But if you nuance, then the construance
    Is that Tim Burke will be your fan.

    Greet you as open-minded,
    Say that you aren’t blinded
    By views too closed and simple;

    And tell the world you’re reaching
    Those ideals that you’ve been preaching;


    Welcome back.

  6. hestal says:

    Duck, here he comes again.

    I visit lots and lots of blogs, yours is the best. So I don’t care what all those other folks may say about you, in my book you are ok. But…

    If there is to be a better kind of academic culture it will have to fit into the rest of our social structures. And they need to be better as well. So I find it hard to imagine how better elections, better legislation, better economics, better… you name it can arise independently. Evolution, left alone, produces different rates and types of change. So I think it is necessary to produce a grand idea that encompasses all, and then to implement it as a coordinated systems project. Who is in better position to do this than a guy like you and your fellow historians? Where is the grand design?

    I agree with Ivory that you take a systematic approach. I do too. I am a computer guy (retired) and our public institutions cry out for a systems review. The Founders did not like the government of their day and so they fought a war to get rid of it. They designed one system, the Articles of Confederation, and it did not work very well, so they got rid of it. They produced the Constitution and it worked fairly well for about one hundred years and then some of the assumptions they made showed their imperfections. Now we have one stinking mess on our hands and it is time to get rid of it. It is time for a new design, a new system. New technology needs to be applied. The old goals need to be reviewed and updated. The pieces that work need to be kept, but the rest needs to be overhauled. Elections are no longer needed and should be exterminated, as should the Senate and the House. Blah, blah, blah. Anyhow I am writing my book, but where is the book from the leaders of your profession?

    And now for something completely different. Each developing brain grows over time and the time is critical. How one engages one’s developing brain from hour to hour is of maximum importance and yet in my education classes it was not discussed. Are all alternatives of equal value? Does it matter what an adolescent does with his time? If so then video games are of the same value as time spent in the physics lab. But are they of the same value?

    I think that education experts should be designing courses that manage each waking hour of the student, and that management should not have very many options. I truly mean every waking hour. In my youth I was regarded by many as being smarter than most. I was very busy in college doing lots of things and my professors played no role whatsoever in helping me map out a program to make the best use of each hour. I wish they had, I was too young to know what was best. I was really too young until about age 26. There is so much more that I could have done and my brain would have been the better for it. Of course, I went to Baylor University, which I freely admit barely qualifies as an academic institution, especially in the 1950’s.

    So this old man is counting on you to save the day.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, thanks, all. Wasn’t fishing for compliments, really I wasn’t, though I’ll take the catch that came up in the net. More I’m really trying to challenge the current roster of conservative critics of academia to play a different game, to build and imagine and be joyous. I can get behind the impulse to make room for more views, different views, a broader range of ideas, in the academy. That’s the tide that floats all boats. But if that’s what it is about, then the critics have got to show some love for a course like Penn State’s “American Masculinities”, which not only seems unobjectionable to me, it seems like a great course.

    Ivory of course speaks to something that weighs heavily on me. I’m not really that sure that what I’m doing works. Maybe getting much angrier, much more harshly judgemental, is not just more emotionally satisfying, but what is needed now. Maybe replying to plainly malevolent or manipulative discourse with reason is the act of a chump. But like Scott, I think that what happens when you go that route is you wrap the whole world in a cloud of misperception. Colleagues, potential friends, minds and ideas that make you smarter, people whose habitus is as deep and legitimate as your own, all become your enemies, and the everyday life of academic work wrapped in a never-ending war of all against all. I think it’s both pragmatic and morally right to take the risk of being a chump, in that context. That doesn’t mean that exactly the attitude that Joey describes doesn’t annoy the hell out of me, by the by–and I think he characterizes it very well.

  8. lauram says:

    Tim — I’m glad you’re reaching for something more on this blog. Your elder statesman persona is very much needed in academia, as well as the blogosphere. I look forward to seeing your presence in blog comments when things get hairy. You are almost always the calvary coming to the rescue.

    It also might be fun if you started another blog where you let angry, sarcastic Tim loose every once in a while. The Dr. Hyde blog.

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