Cersonsky: Life, death and scholarship

Over spring break, I headed downtown from my Baltimore hotel for the International Conference on Infant Studies where I’d be presenting a poster on my summer monkey research. A few minutes en route, the drizzly mid-morning was pierced by collective chants emanating mysteriously from behind a skyscraper.

At first glance unconcerned with their lack of visibility — actually, pushed from the road to a back alley by the police — 30 or so local workers marched ovally in step, carrying pickets on behalf of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters. Apparently, local employers pseudo-privately contract cheap immigrant labor, allowing them to avert costly payroll taxes and drive down wages for unionized workers.

For a moment, I got to chat with one of the protesters about organized labor in Baltimore and New Haven. The conditions are similar: big money meets sympathetic city machine meets large local labor supply. Yet despite our nods, our stakes were blatantly different. He’d be there all day. I, an activist part-time, was on my way to schmooze about social cognition.

I don’t think it’s useful to dichotomize academia and the “real world,” or discourse and action. Research and debate provide meaning and value to the world of the academic, just like labor organizing and firefighting do for their practitioners. Academic psychology is a practice — a culture — with unique rituals, exemplars of success, norms of right and wrong and community. Adapting Pericles, David Lewkowicz, president of the International Society on Infant Studies, likens scholars to citizens: A scholar who fails to provoke debate is not a quiet scholar but a useless scholar.

But though each of us operates in different spheres with different sets of values, we live in the same political world with the same economic crises, workplace inequities and corporate power-grabs. In that light, I’m wary of the sort of armchair political culture that academic discourse breeds.

Consider Steven Pinker, Harvard cognitive scientist and currently among the most public of American intellectuals. It’s no surprise that Pinker is a libertarian; negative liberty is an ideological construct as abstract as the principles of cognition that he and his colleagues seek to uncover. I toyed with the ideology myself — before living in New Haven and meeting the stare of institutionalized poverty. If you like “How the Mind Works” and don’t watch your step, you’re holding hands with laissez-faire fetishists who speak “for the people” but ignore the actual problems that the “free market” imposes on the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

The academic left is equally guilty of diverting attention from the real problems of the world. As Richard Rorty argues in “Achieving Our Country,” if labor strikes and legislation are the means of change, then postmodernist lamentations of totalizing power, “late capitalism” and America-as-Disneyland only motivate inaction.

These dangers of armchair ethics are visible in political discourse. In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky writes, “The means-and-ends moralists, constantly obsessed with the ethics of the means used by the Have-Nots against the Haves … are passive — but real — allies of the Haves.” In that vein, Republicans have complained that the Employee Free Choice Act, which would replace private votes on unionization with a card-check system, will restrict “democracy,” even though its primary purpose is to give workers increased leverage. More recently, right-wing politicos caviled about the “deem and pass” strategy once considered by House Democrats as a way to pass the Senate’s version of the health care bill without bringing it up for a vote.

The more abstract our academic and political discourse gets, the less attuned we become to the concrete problems facing our society and the less likely we are to try to solve them. We shouldn’t feel guilty about being academics, less so philosophical debaters or students at Yale. But we should recognize that our political opinions will be informed by what we see and do in the world, and that the lab, armchair and debate hall only show us and allow us to do so much.

Ivan Pavlov, the father of classical conditioning, once scolded an assistant for showing up late amid the street riots of the Bolshevik Revolution: “What difference does that make when you’ve work to do in the laboratory? Next time there’s a revolution, get up earlier!”

Or, stop and check it out, and then sprint to work. If only for a few minutes, the revolution needs you!

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.