Cynicism in the Academy

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?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Tobin commented on December 17, 2008 Reply

    I need to read more about Greg’s critique. There’s a difference between criticism–even fierce criticism–and cynicism. I find cynicism akin to gullibility. Both are knee-jerk, anti-intellectual stances. Gullibility is an unthinking acceptance of an argument; cynicism is an unthinking rejection of the same. “Affirm before you criticize” is a good antidote to both.

    A colleague does this using a simple rule when discussing a conference paper:

    Say just three things he likes
    Say just three things to improve

    It forces him to say good things (but not over-praise), find things to improve in works he likes, and limit his criticism for work he finds poorly done.

  • Tom Grosh commented on December 18, 2008 Reply

    Greg’s piece is quite helpful. Thank-you for the post Mike.

    Mike, Tobin, and others following this thread,

    It comes to my mind that the “flippancy” of our nod, nod, wink, wink era mixes with a dangerous “sense of entitlement” to pass judgment when things aren’t said/done “the right way.” Furthermore, such lifestyle/perspective becomes more tempting among individuals which find themselves in the overlapping cultures of the elite, “cultured,” and/or academic.

    In Letter XI of C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” “Everything is clearly going very well.”


    Because the Patient’s two new friends are “consistent scoffers,” whose laughter should not be mistaken for Joy, Fun, or even the Joke Proper, but instead Flippany. The below paragraph wraps up the letter and helps “flesh out” flippancy and it’s “spiritual danger”:

    “But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

    Lord forgive me for the times when I’ve sat in the back of the room feeling good about my flippant commentary, at times verbal and other times in my head (but possibly stored for future use). Grant me the grace to receive that which is good, offer helpful next steps to address that which truly falls short, and to put away “the snear” or “brief cut-down.” Renew my call to encourage “Human Flourishing” at Following Christ 08.

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