LSU Faculty Senate Publications

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Message from President: Readers of heroic literature such as that written by Homer, Virgil, and an assortment of epic poets know that various forms of shame—embarrassment; bashfulness; reticence; and shyness to name but a few—serve as powerful mechanisms of social control. None of the warriors in Beowulf want their peers to regard them as less than valorous, hence will do anything, including courting of self-destruction, to avoid reprobation. Our ivy-covered walls stand far away from the shores of Troy, yet shame and shaming remain effective tools for controlling even freethinking academic people. In its various disguises, shame may well count as public enemy number one for those in the employ of universities. A productive petri dishes for the cultivation of shame is the segregation of and resulting envy and wariness among the disciplines. In a process that resembles the tainting of mankind by original sin, relentless criticism of public employees, along with the suggestion that seemingly wellpaid professionals ought to be grateful for their wages, sets up an environment in which faculty members feel shy about asking for more. What happens next is that those skilled in the less prosperous disciplines—nowadays, mostly those comprising the liberal, the performing, and the fine arts—begin to feel inferior to and therefore ashamed in comparison to those who have made the wise choice to prepare for careers in the affluent disciplines. This interdisciplinary shaming is by no means a one-way process. Those in the rich disciplines—for the most part, the STEM fields—become cautious about tooting their own horns lest they be seen as proud or presumptive. Finally, those in an assortment of homeless disciplines—agriculture and law come to mind—begin a regime of self-censorship, either fearing that they have no place in or wanting to avoid a dichotomous dialogue between the genteel and the mechanical disciplines. This cycle of shame fits well with the ambitions of those who would like to subordinate education to other agencies and other goals, for the aggressive seldom fear the reticent and are more than ready to speak out against the shame-induced silence. The pervasive sense of unspoken shame in many American universities arises from a deep uncertainty in the American consciousness about achievement. On the one hand, the now old-fashioned faith in progress—in the “great big beautiful tomorrow,” as the Disneyland “imagineers” once called it—drives the American mind to present our institutions as better than everyone and everything. On the other hand, the intense egalitarianism of American culture casts into suspicion anything or anyone situated too far to the right side of the renowned Gaussian distribution curve. From this mentality, which transcends rank, the seemingly powerful upper administration enjoys no exemption. The thinness of credentials among those in command positions, where last-minute degrees in “educational leadership” and other recently invented areas is far more the rule than the exception, ensures that seeming leaders will experience secret embarrassment either when confronted with scholars possessing disciplinary competence or when compared to management board members, who possess that other badge of accomplishment, money, in much greater degree than do their proxies in seeming leadership roles. Those who not only run institutions, but who deal with legislators experience an even more special short of awkwardness on the realization that, in their well-learned smoothness as simulated academic personnel, they cannot possibly excel at the kind of aboriginal mediocrity that characterizes legislators and many elected officials. Overcoming the culture of shame is both easy and difficult. One response to the juggernaut of shame is an unrepentant embrace of accomplishment: an affirmation that, despite everyone being created equal, some end up being cleverer than others and, on top of that, some are better at distinguishing Beethoven from bombast. Another, more therapeutic approach is to answer imposters by making recourse to fundamentals. Administrations, for example, enjoy barrages of statistics. They dole out shame by reminding a citizen giving public comment at a board meeting that a 1998 IPEDS study concluded x, y, or z owing to data drawn from the 1995 NCATE investigation of some or other acronym-identified phenomenon. Questioning whether such a pursuit of the trees is the best way to see the forest will often enough undercut the strategy of intimidation by overcompensation. So will asking covertly embarrassed experts why, if their expert opinions were so wise, we have, as a result of their policies, arrived at the difficulties that beset us today.