Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 23, 2009 (Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 20, Page B7)
By TIM CLYDESDALE
Popular epistemologies are funny things. The latest one slipped into our party unannounced, slowly replaced all the food and decorations, and then stared back blankly when we asked how our Mexican fiesta had turned into a country-western barbecue. Only after the tequila wears off and we piece together the evening do we realize, with embarrassment, that the change has been a long time coming.
For decades, we professors and administrators drank deeply of notions like “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and “the transformative power of the liberal arts,” paying little heed as the American populace shifted from widespread respect for the academy to considerable skepticism of it. Today our students occupy the leading edge of that popular shift, with no real interest in the elitist notions that we consume so readily. But they are wise enough to keep their views private, given the economic necessity of attending our party.
Our students arrive on our campuses with years of experience in observing disputes about what is and is not known, and with well-established ways of handling such things. For example, should they view Thomas Jefferson as the brilliant author of the Declaration of Independence and a “founding father” of the United States, as a political hypocrite who owned slaves and impregnated them, or as a dead president irrelevant to their own lives but important to their history teacher? Similarly, how should they view global warming, illegal immigration, and evolution?