Thursday, May 24, 2012

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Arrogance and Ignorance

I can outline but do not fully understand such scientific concepts as Schrodinger wave equation, general and special relativity, Olbers' paradox, Planck's law, the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, study of fluid mechanics, Bernoulli equation, or several other ideas that are basic building blocks of modern physics and engineering. I've got the big picture on some of those ideas but definitely can't go into the nitty gritty details or the mathematical equations. Why? Well I took a few classes some decades ago and enjoy reading about them but I'm not a physicist or an engineer. So I'm not the man to speak with authority about any of those topics in either an applied or theoretical sense.
Imagine if I didn't let that little lack of knowledge or any basic credentials in physics stop me. Suppose I sauntered into a convention of physicists discussing string theory and smugly informed them that not only were their equations and calculations all wrong but also their entire field was balderdash, completely worthless. I declared the only reason they were involved in the field was because of a Eurocentric bias against non-Western modes of understanding the Universe. So to me, they were all, by definition, losers and racists with a special hatred of black people.

Let's say that, once challenged to share my credentials and experience in the field, provide some evidence of my claims, or even simply show that I had even read some of the sources which I was categorically dismissing, I arrogantly responded that I hadn't read any of their simple-minded twaddle and had not the slightest intention of doing so. If I were asked to leave it wouldn't be censorship. It would be an incident of experts involved in grown folks' discussion realizing that I was neither expert nor grown and had nothing of value to add.
Former Wall Street Journal writer Naomi Schaefer Riley did what I just described above, only being a conservative, she substituted black studies (history, sociology, everything) for physics. She was invited to give her opinion on the field by the Chronicle of Higher Education. When you're writing critically for something which is read by actual educators and scholars you need to come correct but Riley did not. You can read what she wrote here. Her essay shows that she has such incredible contempt for anything investigating the history, culture, or sociology of black people that she not only thinks such academic endeavors are not worth her time, she doesn't think they're worth anyone's time.  For example:

You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. 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. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them....
Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man

OK. By all means please read the entire piece yourself. Riley had more to say, much of it nonsensical in my view but make up your own mind. The biggest problem with what she wrote is that she freely admits she didn't even read the dissertations she was mocking. Because to her it's just not worth her time. In some aspects her know-nothing attitude is akin to what Dubois had to deal with at the turn of the century.
Now I do not believe that social sciences are quite as rigorous as the disciplines of physics or mathematics (personal bias) but I do believe that before you dismiss something you need to at the very least know something about it. That's true in every discipline, soft or hard science, music, sport, art, whatever. It's an academic and logical crime to jump to a conclusion without even evaluating the evidence. Clearly Riley was not willing to engage in fair criticism; her mind was already made up beforehand. So the Chronicle of Higher Education(CHE) decided maybe it would be for the best that she blogged and critiqued elsewhere. On cue, the usual suspects started screaming and crying about academic freedom and political correctness and censorship.
This all misses the point. Riley's puerile and viciously lazy condemnation of an entire academic body of knowledge is really quite breathtaking in what it reveals about the thinking of SOME right-wing, mostly white conservatives.
  • There is nothing that black people have done, are doing or will do in America that is worthy of rigorous study.
  • The only reason anyone would study black history, sociology, anthropology, etc is because they hate white people.
  • Black studies are only of worth to the extent that they agree with a conservative ideology around race.
  • Even if some black person somewhere did something worth studying, black studies departments lack the ability to produce such study.
That pretty much sums it up. Never mind that there are such esoteric fields as Judaic studies, seminars on Ottoman economics, scholarly books about music printing in Leipzig during the 30 Years War, or a myriad of other popular or obscure topics in which some number of people study, become expert, teach and obtain doctorates. Only the study of Black people , and especially the study of Black people by Black people seems to call forth such putrid bile by the right wing. 
Riley ignores the fact that there is of course no reason that you could not be both right-wing and an expert on Harlem Renaissance poets or Negro Baseball league economics. You could be damn near fascist and know more than any living soul about sharecropper political economy in the Mississippi Delta of the late thirties or musical sharing between 1920's Cuba, Jamaica and New Orleans. So you can make your own judgments on why Riley is so fearful and contemptuous of Black studies. You can also read what Black Ivy League scholars had to say about their field here.

1) Was the CHE right to part company with Mrs. Riley?
2) Do you think black studies is a worthwhile field of endeavor?
3) Is it fair to condemn something without examining it?
4) Can you explain special relativity in ways that I could get it?
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