June 5, 2024

Defining a hierarchy of knowledge-value: a necessity in EVERY discipline

 If you don't have some sort of hierarchy of knowledge-value in your discipline (a way to collectively distinguish good work from bad work from within the work itself, based on a set of criteria set by knowledgeable experts), you will end up with: 1) a hierarchy of celebrity (the people who are the most popular and well-known), a hierarchy of enrollment (whoever puts the most butts in seats calls the shots), a hierarchy of seniority (in which the olds stagnate the discipline into irrelevance, a hierarchy of newness (worship of the avant-garde), or even a hierarchy of admin proximity (whoever sucks up to the administration best gets the most cookies) The point is you WILL have some kind of hierarchy, whether internally agreed upon or externally imposed. It is always worse for a discipline or profession to have a hierarchy of knowledge-value externally imposed; it typically means the corruption and imminent demise of that discipline.

If a group of scholars faces that fact soberly they can assert more control over how and when the hierarchy functions, mitigate the worst aspects of how it functions, and check blind spots in their assessment. A denial of the need to assert and define a collective sense of value to define a discipline is a reactionary view. If you don't at least try to define, you have ceded your intellectual autonomy to much larger forces, and some sort of hierarchy will de facto impose itself, usually a kind all that much worse for there being no agency of actual scholars in its making.

I think humanities and social science scholars are much more reluctant to engage in this kind of process, partly because they have internalized a sort of shibboleth that all hierarchies of value imply oppression, and partly, because they do not feel the consequences of not doing it directly in the same way as, say, an engineer, a doctor, a farmer, an architect, or an airline pilot, to name but a few fields where hierarchy of knowledge-value is very important to their function. In these fields, there is a very clear distinction between those who know and those who do not, and distinguishing between good work and bad work is often a matter of life and death. Landing a plane is not matter of interpretation.

The idea that a discipline can skirt this necessity is a rhetorical illusion created largely by people who have had no experience of the hard work of trying to do it, or who weirdly think that all humanities knowledge is a form of aesthetics, or that Foucauldian canard that all truth claims are a function of hegemonic power. Some academic work is bad, really bad (even that by famous academics), and richly deserves to be called so openly. It may not be bad because the person doing it is a bad person, it may not be bad for lack of good intention, but it is bad nonetheless. Calling it thus will not save the humanities, nor should it be freighted with that expectation. But when one is brilliantly contemptuous of low quality and poorly designed research that lacks focus and rigor, one is expressing a yearning for something better that may keep the fire burning in the humanities a while longer.

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