Knowledge ‘Creation’

by Sonny Bunch on May 10, 2012

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Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist who has written a couple of books on academia and has written for a number of major newspapers in one form or another, was recently fired by the Chronicle of Higher Education for writing this blog post. In it, she snarked that “If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it.” She then went on to make fun of some of the topics, describing them as “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.”

Riley was subjected to a barrage of criticism, labeled racist, and let go from her position after “several thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment” and “for the distress these incidents have caused our readers.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the right saw this as a return to the Great PC Wars of the late-80s and early-90s. I largely concurred, tweeting “The liberal mob has spoken. The expiation has occurred. The new Gods of diversity are satisfied. The sun will rise tomorrow.” Most liberals, especially the younger ones who populate my Twitter feed, supported Schaefer’s firing for being a racist meany-pants blogger.

But there was a secondary, more interesting split: that between academics and journalists. Jonathan V. Last noted that Ann Althouse and Alan Jacobs, two conservative bloggers who also happen to be academics, had trouble seeing what the big deal with her firing is. She kind of had it coming for her “attack on named, individual students” according to Althouse and because “you don’t criticize stuff you haven’t read. You just don’t, not ever,” according to Jacobs (who proceeded to criticize a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Riley that he hadn’t read) (UPDATE: In a second update, Prof. Jacobs clarifies that the second line in the first update in that post I linked to was a joke; my apologies for misreading him). Meanwhile, Kevin Drum and Betsy Rothstein*, two liberal bloggers who also happen to be journalists, thought the firing was scandalous. Drum wrote “if Riley had written the exact same blog post about, say, Classics or Film & Media Studies, she’d still be working at the Chronicle,” while Rothstein slammed the Chronicle‘s editor: “Here’s to hoping all our editors have stronger backbones that that of Liz McMillen.”

For the record, Jacobs also noted this split: “Starting to believe that this Chronicle/Riley contretemps is less a conservative/liberal thing than an academia/journalism thing.” This strikes me more and more as largely right; the real question is why this tension exists.

I’m reminded of something that Freddie DeBoer wrote in one of his (several) blog posts haranguing the Atlantic for failing to pay due deference to the academy:

I can only guess why the magazine’s leadership has decided to make the website a repository of anti-university propaganda. Certainly, the Atlantic is staffed by the kind of (faux) high-brow journalists who believe that only they should be granted the laurel of creating knowledge; each of these pieces speaks of nothing so much as the author’s bitterness that other people make knowledge in other ways.

Now, there are a couple of interesting phrases in here: “creating knowledge” and “make knowledge.” I remember being struck by them at the time, but I wasn’t sure quite why. As the fight over Riley has picked up steam, however, the reason for their oddness has crystallized. One accumulates knowledge. One acquires knowledge. One does not make knowledge. Knowledge—truth, fact, experience—exists independent of us. We simply cannot make knowledge. It’s not a compound to be forged in a laboratory or a car to be assembled in a factory or a plate to be prepared in a kitchen. No journalist I know of thinks he makes or creates knowledge. They might craft a story within which knowledge is divulged, but I’m unaware of any who would argue that they’re “creating knowledge.” Presumably, those in universities should be engaged in a search for knowledge and not a quest to invent knowledge. Stories in the Atlantic and dissertations at our nation’s universities shouldn’t be adventures in knowledge creation but knowledge explication.

Let’s circle back to Riley’s original blog post and look at the specific theses she was criticizing. One came about because the author “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” Another “argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’”

I’ll go off the conservative reservation here and say that the first topic actually sounds like one proposed by someone interested in knowledge explication and Riley was wrong to criticize it. The dissertation fills a gap in our understanding of a subject; the author’s not creating knowledge but rediscovering lost knowledge. It might be a minor topic or an uninteresting one to most, but it doesn’t sound like the author’s engaged in an effort to just make stuff up. The second topic, however, sounds like a half-baked op-ed for the Nation. In addition to simply being incorrect—McWhorter is brilliant but no conservative; he simply rejects the ideology of victimization that runs through black studies—it’s the sort of thesis that just sounds like it’s trying to shape some larger narrative. In other words, it sounds like the sort of thesis interested in knowledge creation.

I don’t want to speak for Riley, but it sounds like this idea of “knowledge creation” and the academic fields in which it festers is what she’s pushing back against. It does not strike me as unreasonable for her to do so.

*I think Betsy might complain about being described as a “liberal” blogger; she certainly isn’t as liberal as Drum, but she’s not exactly a rightwinger either.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sean May 11, 2012 at 4:28 am

(Surfed over from Dreher’s blog.)

I like the way you’ve framed this. There is a difference between explication and creation, but I don’t think they’re at all discrete. Explicated knowledge is placed in a framework, which necessarily creates a narrative that influences the reader’s perception. (Read two competing historians on the same topic if you don’t believe me.)

I think Ms. Schaeffer Riley, by your analysis, created the knowledge that these theses are worthless.

In addition to simply being incorrect—McWhorter is brilliant but no conservative; he simply rejects the ideology of victimization that runs through black studies—it’s the sort of thesis that just sounds like it’s trying to shape some larger narrative. In other words, it sounds like the sort of thesis interested in knowledge creation.

That may be true, but it’s still impossible to know that without reading something beyond a line in a sidebar about the work. Neither you nor Ms. Schaeffer Riley knows whether the scholar “simply rejects the ideology of victimization that runs through black studies,” either–that is simply asserted without proof in the original blog.

It’s entirely possible that a case could be made that the black conservatives mentioned (McWhorter is a critic of many tenets of the mainstream Civil Rights movement so it makes some sense to include him, but no, he’s not a conservative per se) have indeed set back some Civil Rights advances without the argument coming from whole cloth. I suspect there’s data in that thesis, and that it’s been, or being, verified to some extent or another. Maybe the argument is hopelessly flawed, maybe not. Maybe there’s some knowledge creation and knowledge explication going on. We just don’t know.

It’s entirely possible that the scholar who is writing that dissertation devotes whole sections to the interplay of victimization and larger cultural forces in the black community. Certainly MLK, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee, among many others, have spoken about the need for blacks to do it themselves and not fall into the “blame whitey” trap. (Not that they get much press for saying non-scary, non-provocative things like that.) This idea that black leaders blame whitey for everything is just lazy and uninformed. (Perhaps there’s some knowledge creation going on in this assumption?)

The fact is, you can’t write such things about the quality of the scholarship or the arguments unless you’ve decided that you already know what they are. That’s neither an academic nor a journalistic standard. It’s an ideological one.


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