The Clash of [Academic] Civilizations?

In 1996 Samuel Huntington published “The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking the World Order.” Huntington’s thesis is that in the absence of the old traditional cold war clash of nations, the major conflicts in the world will be cultural–that our identities–ascribed or chosen–will shape how we respond to world events.

Huntington’s argument has been the topic of many critiques–I’m not going to go into the details of his argument or the counter-positions.

But the wording “clash of civilizations” is one of those handy phrases that lends to metaphor, and has been used as shorthand to describe many disagreements, especially those that seem intractable or rooted in identity.

As the semester starts at many colleges and universities, the education press is filled with stories that seem to illustrate a clash of cultures. The University of Iowa (my alma mater Go Hawks!) hired a new President–someone with very limited experience in Higher Education but years of experience in leading major corporations. Faculty (in general) were opposed; the Board of Regents approved the hire unanimously. Clash of Civilizations?

In the last few weeks, Inside Higher Ed has run a couple of viewpoint pieces that describe what many see as a clash of civilizations–faculty and administration. In one article, a former faculty member turned associate dean and then provost (Kellie Bean), lamented the gulf she saw once she moved from faculty to administration, and noted as well the tendency (on the part of both faculty and administration) to stop seeing the person and replace the person with the role–THE faculty; THE administration.

In a second article (same day–must have been a theme day), the author (Matt Reed) seconded some of the concerns, but also noted some of the reasons why this happens. Reed reminded readers of the power of language–in cases where we reduce people to roles, we employ synecdoches (I love it when I can pull in my rhetorical education). THE administration becomes a blanket term for any action by anyone with any relationship to the administration of the university (very much like the powerful “they” phrasing: “well, THEY said”–always be wary of pronouns without antecedents). And THE faculty stands for any action by anyone in any classroom.

Unfortunately, then it is relatively easy to create a clash when we lose the individual and end up with a faceless “they.”

Differences do exist. All of us have our own perspectives. We have access to different sources of information, and we may often have different priorities. In my classes, my priority is simple: Make sure the students are learning what I am teaching–a straightforward focus. When I was a chair, I still had to care about student learning, but I added in a whole department and all the issues that come up with being, at best (as the outgoing chair told me), “first among equals–all the paperwork and none of the fun.” The further away I get from the classroom, the larger the picture gets (and the more important, of course, that pictures include forests and trees).

So the point? Well, you’re all smart enough to get lots of points out of this. My point: Even with different perspectives and different priorities, let’s try to remember to see and think from multiple perspectives–and keep remembering that real people are behind the phrase THE administration and THE faculty.