Poop, Meet Fan (Epistemology and Legitimacy)

The concept of "legitimacy" has been on my mind a lot lately. How it exists and also breaks down at many levels. Legitimacy is usually not a bit that flips, one moment something has it and the next moment not. Legitimacy builds up slowly, it erodes over time. This thinking has left me in a bad place.

I was thinking about the Supreme Court recently, especially after the picture I took of its current false facade when I was in Washington the other week for the National Film Preservation Board. In particular I was pondering the striking decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, with Chief Justice Roberts joining the (more predicatbly "liberal") 5-4 majority.

Parallel to this, I asked a question in my animation class recently. "How would you guys even know if I had any idea what I'm talking about? Can you trust me?" After a few moments, one student responded, "that's a pretty major epistemological problem." The more I think about it, it's kind of terrifying. The only thing that makes something legitimate is the underlying belief that it is legitimate. And there's a million things that could chip away at that belief at every moment.

Students trust that a professor running a class is quailifed to run the class, and that the course is the right one to certify a certain kind of knowledge for a degree. But you and I both know that's not always true. There are courses now and again taught by someone who feigns expertise that they actually don't have (or they might only believe they have, but no one with authority will relocate them). There are courses that are only on the books because of the tautology that they are on the books. Legitimacy erodes, students can smell the bullshit in those courses, and then they eventually come to believe that any course could be suspect.

Professors trust that students take prescribed courses in a prescribed order as part of a carefully designed curriculum, and then go into the world with a certified level of expertise. But that's not always true either. Somewhere up the administrative chain an assistant who may not even have a college degree can say "don't you worry about it, I'm the one who signs off on your graduation, not that dumb professor, so you can substitute this other class for the one in your major." I recently discovered that this actually happens. Legitimacy erodes, faculty eventually believe that anyone without any qualifications and/or with a chip on their shoulder can damage a program's credibility by sending out students without requisite skills.

Since I was 18, I've never not voted. But even twelve years after the debacle of Bush v. Gore, this is the first year that I've ever really genuinely questioned whether my vote ever really counted. Not in a big-picture philosphical way. I'm talking basic mechanics. I punch a hole or I push a button. Then what? I can never really know if there is a corresponding "+1" that successfully registers and is attributable to my individual action. I have no receipt, and even if I did, it would prove nothing other than that I showed up. There are sometimes some nice senior citizen volunteering their day to watch over the proceedings, but isn't that just a veneer? Some hyper-partisan functionary can claim there was a "glitch" or that some numbers were transposed. Another hyper-partisan official can close down polling places with almost no notice. Agents of chaos and discord, all.

In one form of epistemology (and man oh man am I oversimplifying), there are basic axioms of knowledge upon which other dependent beliefs rest. A foundational axioms must not depend on any other basic belief in a given system (that's what makes it foundational). However when a foundational axiom ceases to be foundational, it becomes dependent on external factors, at which point something happens that professionals call "the shit hitting the fan." What if votes aren't real? What if nothing in school is true? What if the highest-ranking religious official in my choice of organization is not infallible? Dogs and cats living together.

I'm no constitutional scholar, but I don't think Chief Justice Roberts would normally have ruled in favor of something like the Affordable Care Act. However, my hunch is that Roberts wasn't really offering an opinion on the ACA at all. I think he cast a very astute vote in favor of preserving the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Another partisan ruling that imposes something that clearly goes against the will of the majority may have been a neo-con's wet dream, but would have completely erased any remaining credibilty that the Court had, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it would have threatened the very concept of judicial review. Roberts knew better than to cast doubt on a foundational axiom. He's a smart guy.

Problem is, how many smart people are there out there? Florida officials have already shown that they are willing to win no matter what the damage to belief in foundational systems. In my parallel story here of academic struggle, I worry. Clarion calls for a total reinvention of higher education notwithstanding, some things about academia have to be true for the whole concept to work. Professors have to be verifiably productive in their field of expertise—it's not sufficent to just present well and know the right people (that's peer review). The teachers in those areas (who have proven themselves through peer review) must be free to conduct research, and build resultant curriculum free of political retribution (that's tenure). Then finally, curriculum must be built—and then verified through advising—by people who are not vulnerable to whim or politics, by faculty without fear of retribution.

Everything in higher education rests on those three foundational elements in a perpetual cycle. If those three things break down, then the validity of everything else is suspect. And now I suspect everything. Not a great attitude to have going into Election Day tomorrow.