I have been thinking about cynicism lately, particularly of how pervasive it is in the academy and how easily it spills over into the rest of my life. What should I find, but a lecture about the very topic from one of our ESN mentors, Greg Ganssle. Thwarting Cynicism and Discontentment: Virtuous Practices of the Christian Scholar was presented at Faculty Commons’ National Faculty Leadership Conference this past summer. Greg works with the Rivendell Institute, as well as serving as a lecturer in philosophy at Yale.
Greg notes that cynicism is a professional hazard for academics:
Another reason for the proliferation of cynicism in the University is that we are being trained to become professional critics. Becoming a critic of ideas and movements carries the occupational hazard of cynicism. We take text after text and argument after argument and subject them to a rapid digest and criticize regiment. We sit in our seminars and shoot down the entire life project of a scholar such as Aquinas or Hume in under an hour and then move on the next week to repeat the offense against another thinker.
For cynicism, Greg suggests an antidote of affirmation:
I want to propose one practice that can help counter the development of a cynical mind. This is the practice of the Discipline of Affirmation. The discipline of affirmation is simple to grasp but not easy to practice. I can summarize it in a sentence. Affirm before you criticize. Make it a habit to search for what is good and true and beautiful about a position or idea before you look for what is false or bad or repugnant in it. Decide to say what is good before you say what is bad. Talk about what contribution is made by an idea or movement or thinker before you talk about your criticisms. I think it is especially important to speak what you see to affirm. It is part of the discipline of affirmation that we speak our affirmations out loud. It is not enough simply to think about them. We need to make our affirmations public.
Have you practiced the discipline of affirmation? How have you struggled against cynicism in your academic life?