Who’s More Valuable, Einstein or a Staff Instructor?

geniusThe CBC is promoting the opinion that Jordan Peterson exemplifies the harm in our love for male genius. The author makes the insane claim that all ‘academic labor’ is of equal value.

Like it or not, University of Toronto Prof. Jordan Peterson is a cultural sensation. Over the past year and a half, Peterson has gained notoriety through his open hostility toward trans rights and feminism as well as his characterization of universities as tools for indoctrinating students into what he terms “neo-Marxism.”

Peterson has never expressed hostility towards trans-rights, only to the state’s desire to compel us to alter our speech based on ideology.

He has throngs of online followers. A column in the New York Times noted he’s been called the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world,” and academics regularly write columns seeking to discredit him. I am an academic, but this is not one of those columns. Instead, I think we need to question our incessant need to talk about Peterson in the first place.

Criticizes those who talk about Peterson. Writes hit piece on Peterson.

Our obsession with Peterson reveals a larger cultural problem that threatens to cripple our universities: our adoration of the individual masculine genius. This cult of genius comes at the expense of a vibrant intellectual life and thriving democracies in North America.

How does masculinity come into this? And how does valuing genius damage intellectuals and democracies? This seems irrational.

Peterson’s success is built on the fact that he was deemed to be a part of that special and highly nebulous category of genius — a term (much like “expert”) that is almost exclusively reserved for men.

There are more male geniuses the female geniuses for the same reason that there are more male idiots than female idiots: Men’s intelligence varies more than women. The average intelligence of men and women is very similar, but women cluster more tightly about the mean than men do.

In a recent column, Peterson’s former colleague Bernard Schiff explains that Peterson was hired and promoted precisely on these grounds: he “sometimes appeared to be in the thrall of his ideas and would not, or could not, constrain himself and self-monitor what he was saying. That was OK. He was eccentric.”

For my commentary on Schiff’s hit piece, see Marxist Apologist Attacks Jordan Peterson.

In universities, we often take “eccentric” along with bad behaviour as a mark of genius: we ignore complaints about intolerance or sexual harassment because geniuses are above the rules.

Why do you do this?

We really like geniuses. We hire and promote them and students want to study under them.

Makes sense. If you could hire Einstein to teach physics, why wouldn’t you?

One problem with genius is that it is something one is rather than something one does. The concept implies that academic work is not, in fact, a form of work. When we only care if a university has its fair share of geniuses, we devalue and label as more feminine other forms of academic labour — from teaching to administration to less trendy research.

What a load of bullshit. Geniuses do the real work of science. Look how much modern physics is based on the work of Einstein. We should value teaching and administration less than true advancements in science. Who is calling these ‘feminine’?

In fact, the majority of undergraduate teaching in North American universities is now done by contract faculty (the majority of whom tend to be women): PhD-holding subject experts who are paid per course. If they are lucky enough to be teaching a full course load every semester, they might earn around $28,000 for working in excess of 40 hours a week.

Yes, because teaching undergrads the basics of well understood science is less valuable than mentoring PhD students who will become the next generation of scientists. Associate professors make a lot more because they do a lot more.

Permanent faculty, on the other hand, are often overloaded with administrative work, such as curriculum planning and advising students. A recent study has shown that this work, too, falls largely to female faculty members — keeping them from engaging in innovative teaching and groundbreaking research.

For those who want to move into administration, it makes sense to take on such activities. Those who love their areas of research should avoid these tasks. Are women being forced to take them on?

This emphasis on genius also threatens to destroy entire fields of study, particularly the “softer” disciplines in the humanities (art, English, history, etc.) since “genius” is typically reserved primarily for the more male-dominated STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Since the arts are subjective, their study is very different from their advancement. Genius artists typically don’t work in universities. In the sciences, those who study them also advance them. Genius scientists often do work in universities.

Politicians, administrators, many members of the public and Jordan Peterson himself regularly deride the humanities as frivolous. (Ever heard a joke about an English major being a barista-in-training?)

And often, the humanities are frivolous.

On the contrary, the humanities are vitally important in an increasingly polarized society because they help us to understand, analyze and critique differences in human communication and culture.

Bullshit. The humanities are the source of much of the polarization in society. There are few in academia who understand humanity, and their voices are drowned out by the political message of those who don’t.

And (for the practical-minded) humanities majors do get satisfying jobs. Their skills are in demand in the corporate world and they may actually have more career success than business majors.

The degradation of the humanities is making this less true. For example, I have recently seen jobs in the technology industry that now require a STEM degree.

We need to reject this cult of the masculine genius. If we want a thriving intellectual culture, we need to start valuing all academic labour and forms of inquiry.

Not all forms of inquiry are equally valuable, and much academic labor (for example, administration) is pure overhead. Managers don’t add value, they merely enable its generation.

It’s not just better for universities themselves; it’s better for building a more tolerant and democratic society.

Academics in the humanities are some of the most intolerant and antidemocratic people in our society.

In order to shift this culture, we need to demand that politicians and administrators value and economically support a diversity of voices inside universities.

Yes, because having the state throw more money at it is always the solution.

If we want a strong democracy and intellectual culture, let’s forget “genius.” Instead, let’s build stronger universities.

If you ‘forget genius’, you certainly aren’t going to build stronger universities.

This is why it is so dangerous when the state directly funds higher education. Allowing diversity politics to override academic merit weakens universities. When universities have to survive on their merits, they need to show value to attract faculty (who bring research funding) and students (who pay tuition). This keeps them honest.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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