I really like Bill Badke. A lot.
He’s pretty much an impossible guy not to like! And, importantly for me, when it comes to the librarians’ topic of “information literacy” – that is, how we can find information, examine it for value, and put it into practice – he has a lot of wisdom to share. Let us attend!
Therefore, it’s no surprise that he had all kinds of insightful things to say about “Fake News” and information literacy in the most recent Circ Ideas podcast. If you are a librarian or one who teaches people about research, you should definitely check it out!
As readers of this blog might expect though (oh no! – the big “but”), I disagree with Bill on a few of the things that he spoke about. Note what he says, for example (at about 26 minutes into the interview), about academics as he speaks of their willingness to seek truth:
[the academics I know] want to see rigor, want to be contradicted if they need to be contradicted,  absolutely want to further the discipline, [and] develop knowledge that can be of benefit to society. I think that is the main kind of person that we see in the academic world….[i] And so all of those things cause me to believe that, for the most part, the information establishment is pretty much OK. Even while it needs correctives, and critical information literacy is a good way of doing that. For the most part, we’re in pretty good shape, but under threat.
Authority may not be, as Badke claims, “constructed and contextual,” but context is certainly important here! Badke works at Trinity Western University in Canada, which is its “largest privately funded Christian university” (per Wikipedia, so must be true). It is a conservative evangelical institution that no doubt attracts some of Canada’s top Christian minds. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me – as someone who has studied extensively how Christianity has shaped the Western world – that the scholars at Badke’s institution are exceptionally active, curious and conscientious – “super devoted and dedicated to their disciplines,” as he says. No doubt, they believe that truth exists and that they have a vocation from God to seek it in their scholarly pursuits (see Philippians 4:8 and note who Paul quotes in Acts 17).
My take then, is that it is very likely the case that Bill is extrapolating from his experience in a way that simply does not scale. I agree with him that this is what academia should be, but I do not think, for the most part, this is the way it currently is.
For example, Badke’s fellow Canadian, the fiery academic Jordan Peterson, would vociferously disagree with him. Peterson’s evaluation of academia in North America is that it is chock-full of dangerous postmodernist corruption. And while his cultural and political views might be considered exceptionally conservative and even dangerous by some, he will not be as easy to “deplatform,” as folks say today, as people like Richard Dawkins, Charles Murray, or the exceptionally provocative Milo Yiannopoulos (though, interestingly, my very socially and politically liberal friend really liked this interview). In fact, Peterson has been appearing almost everywhere in the last several months. His interview on the Joe Rogan show reached one million views in days. He has been written up relatively favorably in the Huffington Post, and recently spoke to a student group at Harvard on the topic of Postmodernism and the Mask of Compassion.
Really, if you haven’t heard of him, you might want to check this gentleman – who has dedicated a great portion of his life to studying Nazism and Communism – out:
I think Peterson is largely right on the money in this interview, even as I find some of what he says to be very unhelpful[ii] and, of course, discouraging – “Overreacting much?,” I sometimes think. At the same time I also note that he talks (and elsewhere, rages[iii]) about a “war” of words that is occurring in the Western world.[iv] He is convinced that those he is challenging have absolutely no desire to meet in discussion and debate to find a reasoned solution because, in short, they do not believe reason and truth are a real thing.
Sadly, I think that is largely right (and I was recently given the opportunity to discuss this – on the podcast of a truck-driving Christian layman! – particularly how my “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” papers might relate to postmodernism).
Six years ago I think I would have basically agreed with most everything that Bill said in his podcast (even if I am sure I would have still been scratching my head over the proclamation of “Authority is constructed and contextual”), but I think it was right around that time that this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education tipped me off that my confidence level in higher education as a whole was not really justified.
I had an uncle who had gotten me a popular book mentioned in that article, and at the time I read it with great fascination and interest. Nevertheless, it did seem rather doubtful — and a bit fantastical — to me at the time, and the Chronicle of Higher Education article was, for me, the tipping point which led me to where I am today.
I am asking — urging! — you to listen to Jordan Peterson tell you why academia is not what we might think it is or what it claims to be (again, see the video above). I think we ignore his complaints at our peril.
[i] Here, in the middle of this quote, he says the following:
“…and I think the same kind of thing happens in journalism. The people who are doing it are for the most part super dedicated to finding answers, even finding the truth. They are not dedicated to promoting a bias. They’re dedicated to actually informing the public and keeping the public aware of what’s happening in the world. They may editorialize, but they’re doing it on the basis of “this is what I believe is actually going on here, and I have evidence to support it…”
[ii] In particular, his Darwinian-driven worldview concerns me in spite of his own more gentlemanly and compassionate nature (here is a post I did elsewhere that evaluates his position from a theological perspective).
“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”. To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves. We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).
At the same time, as I express in the same blog post where I quoted this, I think that this kind of argument fails, because it is ultimately only rooted in a kind of pragmatism.