Paradoxes are excellent pedagogical exercises, and any professor worth his salt knows at least a few. To this storehouse of familiar examples, let me add a new paradox that is especially relevant to today’s academy: oikophobia, a term elucidated by Benedict Beckeld in his recently published Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations.
As employed by Beckeld, oikophobia refers to the hatred of one’s own country, including its traditions and values. Such self-loathing, as we all know too well, is commonplace in today’s academy, where one hears endless condemnations of America and Western civilization. We are guilty of racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, economic inequality, rampant police brutality, mass incarceration, ravaging the environment, and on and on, while we never mention the flaws of our enemies. Even public speakers who recount the latest accomplishment of Western science might begin apologetically by noting the sins of slavery, colonialism, and white cis-heteropatriarchy. It’s a far cry from the cliché high school valedictorian speech, which thanks everyone imaginable for making the wondrous day possible.
What makes oikophobia paradoxical is that those who are most infected by this pathology are the greatest beneficiaries of national largesse. In other words, they bite the hand that feeds them, and they bite it the hardest.
To understand the oikophobia paradox, let’s rank all academic departments in terms of their faculty’s ability to survive economically without a university appointment. What would happen to faculty if universities went bankrupt overnight? Least dependent on academic funding would be those in the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, agriculture, mathematics, business (especially finance), medicine, and law. In fact, many professors in these disciplines might increase their salaries while they are relieved of teaching and administrative responsibilities.
Further down this ladder of dependency are faculty in the social sciences and humanities. Finding non-academic employment might initially prove difficult, but the private sector, government, philanthropies, and think-tanks will have jobs for smart people with a record of intellectual accomplishment.
Last in this hierarchy are those in today’s politically trendy fields, such as gender studies, media studies, and various grievance-based fields such as black and Chicano/a studies. Put bluntly, the likely average cognitive ability and technical skills associated with these positions have minimal economic value outside of the university. What could a middle-aged, unemployed queer theorist do in the private sector, or even the government, that could possibly justify a salary of, say, $125,000, travel and research funding, and ample benefits?
[Related: “The Corruption of Science by Social Justice”]
From the perspective of American society in general, the cost/benefit ratio of employing those in grievance-based fields is conspicuous consumption. Their tenured positions are an indicator of a society that is so incredibly wealthy that it can afford to hire professors whose economic contributions are zero. The parallel might be the super-rich paying legions of servants who spend the entire day polishing silver or opening doors. By contrast, how many impoverished nations would hire experts in critical race theory to stimulate national economic development? Nigeria will finally make it to First World status when its universities can afford large departments of faculty teaching post-colonial studies.
This conspicuous consumption is paradoxical because these “luxury” academics are, of all the faculty, the most dependent on the United States remaining a prosperous, politically stable First World nation. Only a thriving, successful nation could afford to pay handsome salaries to those who spend countless hours pontificating on why America is pure evil. Gone are the days when royalty had a retinue of paid flatterers. Leaders now hire those who are skilled at apologizing for our sins.
Why the paradoxical ingratitude? Surely even the most vehement proponent of critical race theory must know, at some level, that he would be far worse off if the United States became Zimbabwe. Economic self-interest would dictate defending the Golden Goose, not killing it. Perhaps those afflicted with oikophobia might try to cure their affliction by beginning every class lecture with a prayer:
We thank all the capitalists whose endless toil and ingenuity have created an economy that is able to pay my salary and provide all the benefits of a First World nation. We thank all the university donors, regardless of their private opinions on controversial issues, whose graciousness makes our good life possible. Amen.
Conceivably, this lack of gratitude is fueled by low status in an extremely status-conscious environment. Even the most fervent egalitarian ideologue must sense the reaction of those in the hard sciences when he introduces himself as a professor of gender studies. Involuntary, contemptuous physical reactions, such as smirks, are not easily hidden.
To be sure, this professor of gender studies may play God in the classroom, excoriating the capitalist patriarchy, fulminating against white privilege, and all the rest, but among fellow university faculty, he is the bottom of the bottom, and he and everybody else knows it. All faculty (and administrators, too), regardless of ideology, accept the pecking order—post-colonial studies professors are too dull to pass Calculus 101, and, for good measure, they likely owe their jobs to political pressure, not a rigorous selection process.
[Related: “How Universities Destroy Human Capital”]
Unfortunately, this contemptible status may be irreversible. The professor of post-colonial studies may have an endowed chair, receive million-dollar grants, and be appointed to prestigious committees, but all of this counts for naught in a setting that prizes brain power. And rest assured, most academics are geniuses at calibrating brain power, even in fleeting conversations. In woke-speak, the professor specializing in nonsense will invariably feel stigmatized and marginalized among fellow academics. The contempt can only be denied, not overcome. Resentment is, thus, built into the very nature of academic life.
A different explanation for this oikophobia paradox is the intellectual incentive structure. In a nutshell, all academic disciplines follow trends to varying extents, and in today’s academy, the pressure to be au courant virtually defines woke departments. Denouncing traditional Christianity is so last century, so the ambitious must be ever on the lookout for new evils to condemn. Creativity is rewarded, such as showing how English grammar is racist, why highways destroy black neighborhoods, why classical music perpetuates toxic masculinity, and on and on. Absent a long and honored intellectual tradition to guide scholarship, woke academic departments, like mall boutiques catering to fashion-obsessed teenagers, must invent bizarre novelties. This is an environment in which discovering alleged bias in standardized testing is seen as a major scientific breakthrough. No wonder the catalogue of America’s evils grows by the year—how else can a young assistant professor build a career other than finding some new, previously unnoticed evil?
This perverse incentive structure is the academic version of the tragedy of the commons—the career benefits gained by the individual academic are, overall, bad for everybody. In the case of proselytizing radical feminism, the cost of condemning marriage and child-rearing as forms of slavery is economic collapse, as women increasingly remain childless. After that happens, colleges will lack students and go bankrupt, while the government will be unable to fund public education. In effect, these feminist professors are preaching a message that will, eventually, put them out of business. But they are unlikely to alter their anti-natal message, since that might be career-ending in today’s university. Collective suicide makes perfect sense in the short run.
Whether resentment flows from low status or the logic of career advancement, there is little chance that universities themselves reverse the collective self-destruction. University status hierarchies evolve—the hard sciences were not always the top dog—and academic trends change, but it’s difficult to imagine the demise of oikophobia in the immediate future. Biting the hand that feeds you has become a way of life in much of academia, and it puts bread on the table. The academy’s oikophobia will not be cured from within.
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3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Academic Oikophobia”
Hang on – first you claim that feminist professors are essentially pointless idiots who are at the bottom of the academic hierarchy because they make zero contribution to knowledge and have no measurable impact on the economy or society. Then you tell us that these same feminist professors are ensuring that “women increasingly remain childless” (and thereby causing the slow collapse of university enrollments). That seems like an extraordinarily dramatic impact that they’re having on society! Perhaps we should respect such incredibly influential intellectuals after all (even if we think they’re using their extraordinary economy- and society-shaping powers for ill)?
If in fact you think falling fertility is not directly caused by the feminist professors, but by broader socio-cultural currents of which the advent of feminist studies has been but one manifestation in recent decades, then you are in effect admitting that these disciplines are not quite so pointless, irrelevant, and intellectually inferior after all: they pertain to significant real world affairs (including the economy and demography).
Feminist professors may be preaching a message that eventually puts them out of business. But that won’t happen in their lifetime. It’s analogous to politicians refusing to do anything about social security running out of money in 2034. THEY won’t be in office then; it will be somebody else’s problem.
I believe one of two things will happen in academia over the next half century. First, a significant number of existing colleges will file for bankruptcy and close forever. Second, colleges will focus on degrees that make contributions to society such as the physical sciences, engineering, business and so forth. A minor effort will keep some departments of history, the classics and some social sciences alive, but barely on life support. Womens studies, black studies, queer studies—basically, all of the grievance/victimhood degrees—will have been eliminated.
But the feminist professors of today won’t care. They’ll all be retired or dead. It will be somebody else’s problem.
It’s sooner than you think — FY 2023 starts October 1st so FY-2024 starts in 18 months.
And I think all the changes you mention will happen by the end of this decade — even before Covid, it was predicted that half of the existing colleges will be gone by then.
And don’t underestimate the currency crisis that China currently has (and is covering up), Evergrande, a massive real estate developer built a whole lot of housing where no one wants to live and a lot of it is unfinished. Throw in shaky banking worldwide (including the Swiss banks) and a lot of our academic largess may simply be unsustainable in the near future.