Upon occasion, I come across a statement from a progressive that so perfectly illuminates their muddled, nearly incomprehensible thinking as to be nearly breathtaking. Have they no idea they’ve descended directly into self-parody? I think. Of course, they have no idea; this really is the way they think, and what passes for reason and intellectual discourse in progressive circles. I speak primarily of academia and politics.
The man spouting the assertion that inspired this brief article is one Ta-Nehesi Coates, who is an editor for The Atlantic. As well as being an obviously heart-felt progressive, he is also black, which is clearly detrimental to intellect in the exposition of Mr. Coates’ worldview. I don’t suggest that black people are inferior intellects, merely that some black people allow an idea of “authentic” blackness to determine what they think and believe, and usually to their detriment and the detriment of society. The same is true of those that judge the world through the lens of whiteness or la Raza. Coates, of course, is also billed as an “educator.”
He has recently published a book titled “Between The World And Me,” which Scott Johnson critiques at Powerline. By all means, take the link and read the whole thing (Johnson also has several follow-up articles). For now, however, consider this excerpt:
Coates infrequently makes his points directly or attempts to formulate an argument. I take it, for example, that he did not get good grades as a student at Howard University. This is how he puts it: ‘I wanted to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of my professors.’ No further explanation is offered.
“I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of my professors.” Perfect.
This is among the clearest–unintentional–explanations of the progressive mindset I’ve ever seen. But to understand it, we must first learn–don’t worry, unless you’re like Coates, you can learn–that “means of knowing” has a long and dishonorable history in academia.
Underlying every “studies” department in the modern university is the foundational concept of “alternate means (or ways) of knowing.” It’s quite simple, really. Want to build an academic discipline, get tenure and the prestige of a full professorship, but there is absolutely no proof for your theories of race, culture, gender, intelligence, language, history, etc.? Merely claim that conventional, stodgy thinkers are unable and unwilling to understand your brilliant new ways of knowing! Of course they can’t replicate your results (usually there aren’t any)! Their ancient science, invented by dead, patriarchal white men, cannot embrace superior, racial, sexual–fill in your preference here–means of knowing, so they can’t possibly understand the inestimable value of black studies, queer studies, queer black lesbian gay transgender studies, and every other way of knowing not accessible to traditional, pedestrian thinking and logic.
After all, who is to say whose means of knowing is correct? Who is to say whose way of knowing truth is better than that of anyone else?
This way of thinking has very significant advantages for its advocates. It entirely removes any obligation to discover or appreciate the truth or to recognize any difference between fact and opinion. My way of knowing is every bit as good and valid as the way of knowing of someone else. Because my way of knowing is newer and purer–authentically black, for instance–it’s better, and none may prove it is not. It is non-falsifiable. Its results–and if they don’t exist, so much the better–cannot be reproduced, and any argument against it is inherently racist, anti-woman, anti-gay, whatever. It is adaptable to any situation. It is impossible for such ideas to fail, but if they appear to fail, that is merely because they’re too advanced and nuanced for less evolved beings to understand and apply them. Or there has been insufficient time for them to work their miracles, or they haven’t been applied correctly, or fervently enough, or people who oppose them have been allowed to exist and thereby dilute the authenticity.
Back to Mr. Coates’ undergraduate experience: ‘I wanted to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of my professors.”
Speaking as an actual educator, and as an older white guy who has at least a tenuous connection to reason, logic and reality, I would be tempted to translate this as: “I wanted to learn, but was a lazy, self-absorbed jerk,” but that obviously reveals me as someone incapable of embracing alternate means of knowing.
Unfortunately for me, I attended college, and earned a degree, in ancient times, times when one attended college because it was there that people who knew a great deal more than me worked. I fully expected to learn things I did not know, including means of learning those things–good study habits, logic, reason, that sort of thing–and lo and behold, that’s what happened.
Every year, some of my students think themselves brilliant. A few are. Most merely have a grossly inflated–and insupportable–opinion of their supposed brilliance. Usually, with kindness and perseverance, and repeated demonstrations of how much they don’t actually know, they become more capable of learning that which they thought they knew. Even the truly brilliant may learn there is no substitute for humility and experience.
But there are always a few like Mr. Coates. They are secure in the unshakeable knowledge of their own brilliance, of their alternate means of knowing what they believe they know. Any attempt on their part to explain this brilliance tends to sound like nonsense, but that’s not for me to judge, is it? Mr. Coates’ means of learning which came naturally to him might be thought to be mere ignorance, the ignorance of the uneducated, those unwilling to look outside themselves for knowledge, but then again, I’m judging that by conventional means of knowing. What do I know, and by what means?
Rich Lowry of National Review also reviews Coates’ book, here.