In Response to Christian Smith

On 9 January 2018, Christian Smith’s “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, Smith rails against the various forms of bullshit that pervade contemporary academia; the piece lists a number of definitions of the term, some of which read as progressive, some of which read as reactionary. Smith identifies his own areas of privilege before continuing to inveigh against bullshit in academe and the effects on prevailing culture that he perceives as proceeding from that bullshit. He relates a disillusionment with the putative mission of academe against the systemic constraints upon it and the ultimate ineffectiveness of efforts to change them at local levels. Any change to come will likely be troubling for those who have to undergo it, Smith asserts, and, while he sees things as likely to resolve well, he anticipates having to deal with quite a bit of bullshit in the interim.

Image result for cow patty
A prime example.
Image from the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

I found myself interested in the article for the scatological reason: it treats bullshit, and I have some pseudo-scholarly interest in the topic. Indeed, I’ve written on the subject in presented work and in one blog post or another. And I was not displeased to find the wide-ranging definition of bullshit Smith advances in the article; I do not necessarily agree with it, but I appreciate seeing the attempt to clarify the term further than Frankfurt, Hardcastle & Reisch, and Fredal have done–even if it is unsuccessful. (It is too grounded in the concrete examples provided, of which there are many, and does not move to extrapolate from them. It also does not make reference to the earlier works in what might be called taurascatology, which seems a lamentable lack from a senior scholar.)

I was not as happy to see the reactionary tenor of Smith’s argument, though, as he hammers away at the various issues he decries. Many of them read as the same kind of talking points reiterated by informational outlets towards which he himself directs ire for their putative corruption of the nobler aspects of American life. (Really, the only change is in the level of affected politeness in the things ostensibly abjured; they’ve always been done, they’ve just been done in nicer clothing and with more forks on the table previously than now–but more forks cost more money, and maximizing profit is the thing to do.) Again, it reads as something that a senior scholar ostensibly invested in the “higher” aspirations of traditional liberal arts curricula ought to take more care to avoid; it smacks to me of the kind of sloppy thinking being abjured in the article.

But what do I know? I’m one of the second-rate PhD students trained by mediocre graduate programs at third-tier universities whose expensive sports programs drain money away from academics, after all, and so far from worthy of commenting on such matters–or such is one of the implications I get from the article. After all, did I deserve it, I’d’ve gone to a top-ranked school with well funded programs that only admits the truly meritorious, right? Not the kind where the parents of uncaring students fraudulently pad resumes to ensure they get in. Because that’s not the kind of bullshit in which academe is smothered at all…

Help me pay for a shovel.

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