Cognitive Dissonance and Scholarly Pursuits

By June 5, 2008

Much is said on the Bloggernacle about the cognitive dissonance that many feel as they try to reconcile the knowledge they acquire through scholarly treatments of Mormonism with what they hear in their church meetings every Sunday. In this post I would like to explore another form of cognitive dissonance that I find quite prevalent in my own quest to become a professional historian. I hope that you will permit me a moment of personal reflection about something that I think is relevant for those who produce and consume academic history.

My history department here at the U of I is what I would consider a very politically-minded group. These very bright men and women, many of whom I admire very much, strive through their own processes of historical inquiry to reveal examples of social injustice, promote community activism, and rebuild the world according to their own utopian visions. My department is closely affiliated with the ethnic and gender studies programs on campus with many history professors holding joint appointments in these other politically-charged units. These distinguished scholars have gathered around them a body of like-minded graduate students that carry an equal fire for making the world a better place through their research and writing. I remember the impressive answers that members of my cohort gave when our department head asked each of us what historical problems keep us up at night. Issues of violence, oppression, death, and war dominated the discussion. I admire the tenacity and sincerity of those that radically seek to change the world by revealing the mistakes of the past.

Nevertheless, I find that most historians rarely offer methods for solving social problems; we are excellent at identifying and documenting oppression but poor at righting such wrongs. We also hold such myopic views of our own issues that petty matters often put us at odds with those with whom our politics cross. When such political issues combine with the jealousies and antagonisms inherent in the realities of tenure procedures, departmental bureaucracy, and funding issues the solidarities of the scholarly enterprise often rip at the seams. At times we let intellectual arrogance get in the way of true dialogue and empathy.

I am not trying to be overly critical of professional historians; instead, I’m just trying to describe the disconnectedness I often feel within graduate seminars. I love the intellectual stimulation of graduate school, and my studies have helped me understand my priorities and beliefs. Yet I sometimes find myself arguing about things I really don’t believe and holding back some of my true opinions in order to avoid mockery or offense. When I focus my life exclusively on scholarly debate, I seem to feel less connected to the real world. I guess I’m simply wondering if my experience is unique. Do others experience similar cognitive dissonance in their academic pursuits? How do you deal with it? I apologize for the personal nature of this post, but this topic has been in the forefront of my mind as I continue my preparations for my preliminary exams.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Personally, I believe the sort of cognitive dissonance you describe is one of the most important purposes of education. We don’t pay thousands of dollars to a university, simply in order to have our existing ideas confirmed and validated. Learning involves challenging our exisiting ideas, and real education prepares us to modify (or sometimes even reject) our established ideas when challenged by reliable evidence.

    When I was in my first year of law school, my torts professor was the kind who gave students nightmares. It was common for him to subject students to “mockery and offense,” and most students hated him for it. For me, however, he was my favorite professor. Why? Because I understood the game. You see, any student could give the correct answer, but this professor was committed to getting students to apply legitimate analysis, preparing them for more challenging questions they would face in the future. His technique, though intimidating to many, pushed them to evaluate a question properly, rather than leaping to established assumptions. I realized quickly that no matter what answers I gave in class, this professor was going to push my limits, so I didn’t take it as a personal attack. As a person who best learns through actively discussing ideas, I became the most vocal student in the class–and one of the most successful.

    At one point, a fellow student told me how sorry she felt for me, because the professor was “always picking on” me. She couldn’t understand why he “targeted” me. I had to chuckle, since I was the one actively asking to be “targeted,” and rather than being threatened, I was learning amazing things.

    Comment by Nick Literski — June 5, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  2. Joel,

    There has been some discussion among history graduate students and adjunct instructors about these issues. The professors who trained them are quick to critique social injustice in the past. And for this younger historians admire their mentors. But these same tenured professors can also be quite elitist and conservative when it comes to issues in their profession. Many of them have acquiesced in paying adjunct instructors a pittance for teaching and offering them little to no benefits. Most tenured history professors are complicit in the efforts of history departments to produce an oversupply of history PhDs that continually outstrips the demand for new tenure-track history faculty. Fortunately, there are exceptions to these patterns among individual historians and the historical associations are trying to do something to address these problems and inequities.

    I have had a few bruising experiences with professors in my department as I have explored these issues. In fact, my former advisor tried to kick me out of graduate school. The department chair was kind enough to take me on as his own student when this happened. Right now I live in a different state than my department. So far I have been able to pursue my political beliefs and activism without fear of retaliation from my department. Blogging has probably been one of the things that has kept me sane. It has also introduced me to people beyond my own department who share my interest in social justice and reforming the historical profession. The best advice I have probably received is to finish my dissertation and get a job where I will no longer have to live under the control of my department. But then maybe every history department suffers from the same kinds of problems. So who knows where I will end up.

    Comment by Sterling — June 5, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  3. It’s not quite cognitive dissonance as most people use the phrase, but you’ve spoken to an important question. It seems to me more about community and identity than about dissonance per se. How do we decide who we are and to whom we belong when multiple groups have credible claims on our loyalty?

    Nick, I agree that it’s wonderful to be challenged in school, but that’s not really how I read Joel here. I reflect on this a lot as I write Mormon religious criticism to an academic or educated non-Mormon audience, and to be honest it does create interesting moments of a perceived identity in flux or community tension. (My classic snafu was talking with some new Mormon friends at a dinner party about some of my research, and I described the apocalypse or eschaton or somesuch academic sounding phrase and then had to pause and say “the what-do-we-call-it? the Second Coming.” Everyone had a good laugh about that.)

    For me, these conflicts have pushed me toward a more central but less specified self-definition, something about God and God’s claim on me, which allows me to understand my interactions with others in terms of my overall system.

    Best wishes with this time of identity negotiation. It’s not easy, but I do believe it has the potential to be spiritually rewarding.

    Comment by smb — June 5, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  4. Nick, Sam, and Sterling;

    I find it fascinating that each of you honed in on a different part of the post, and offered help accordingly. Thank you all very much for your comments.


    I agree that the purpose of education is to present evidence for different ways of understanding the world. I like to play a similarly vocal role when in class to push myself and my classmates toward deeper levels of understanding. Yet knowingly playing the role of provocateur in class often makes me feel like the process is more of a game than a reality. It fosters some sort of moral disconnect.


    I think you have it even harder than I do because you study Mormon topics. For you the politics of History come directly into contact with the politics of Faith. I appreciate your personal insights very much.


    I agree with you that part of the problem comes in the tension between history as a profession and history as politics. As academics we devote our lives to the conviction that ideas matter, yet it is disheartening when ideas seem not to translate into actions in our own or our colleagues lives. My department really is quite good at trying not to exploit new scholars, but the conditions you describe run rampant throughout the profession.

    Comment by Joel — June 5, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  5. I guess I am just wondering what to do when the process of critical inquiry starts to feel like a means in itself.

    Comment by Joel — June 5, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  6. #5: criticize it.

    Comment by smb — June 5, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  7. I’m skeptical that anything written in my discipline or yours (or any other) is going to make the world a better place in any noticeable way. I hate to recommend Stanley Fish again, but his commendation of academic virtues for academics (“Save the world on your own time“) is probably relevant here. Teaching effectively and setting a shining example of scholarly integrity is about the best you can hope for. Those are good things, and worth doing.

    Good luck on your prelims!

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 5, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  8. Amen to what Jonathan said.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 5, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

  9. Fish’s essay is a strange combination of wisdom and folly. He seems to elide a crucial distinction between immoral behaviors of a corporate body, whether business or academic, and the espousal of pet causes. It’s one thing to say a university oughtn’t fight over wars, quite another to say that an institution that purchases goods ought not to do so in an exploitive way.

    Comment by smb — June 5, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  10. I too would not put this under the label of ‘cognitive dissonance’, but maybe something along the lines of motivational disenfranchisement. Terminology aside I do think there’s a legitimate concern from the perspective of the University. It is possible for one’s social concerns to push one’s scholarship more toward dogma than actual scholarship.

    That said I don’t think the situation is a bleak as some make it out to be. Generally speaking I don’t think anyone believes in agenda-less scholarship. I can only speak from my own experience, but at Harvard one of the more prominent topics in the graduate seminars I’ve taken in Anthropology are questions about how to navigate between motivations for scholarship and attempts at objectivity in scholarship. While there is no doubt those that hold to the paradigm Jonathan points to, I can personally say that I’ve seen rather little of that. I’ve actually sat in discussions about the role of the professor as public intellectual, and the university as a source of cultural criticism and preservation.

    Comment by RG — June 5, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  11. Fish?s essay is a strange combination of wisdom and folly.

    Oddly common in most of his writings.

    As an aside while I don’t have much to add to the discussion since I’m not formally in academics the whole question reminds me of a question that has come up at a variety of philosophical blogs the past year. There the question is whether teaching ethics makes one more ethical. Empirically it clearly doesn’t and there are plenty of formal ethicists who act unethically. The question then is why.

    My personal feeling is to quote the cliche there is a big difference between knowing the path and walking the path. One can even walk the path without knowing the path. I think we get so caught up in academics we forget that it is, in a real sense, paper knowledge.

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2008 @ 1:04 am

  12. BTW – if you are interested one of the better discussions was at one of my favorite blogs, The Splintered Mind. The other one is what started a lot of the discussion the last year and is at Experimental Philosophy. Both while not directly the same as your post seem to discuss a very related issue.

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2008 @ 1:07 am

  13. Smb, you toss off the line about institutional purchasing as if it’s a simple matter to separate pure from tainted goods in a corporate, capitalist economy. I could point you to some discussions of cigarettes and famous hotel chains… In any case, Joel’s post is not about institutions, but individuals, where I think Fish’s case is stronger.

    RG, what paradigm do you think I’m pointing to? I thought I was just linking to an article. Fish isn’t calling for purely disinterested scholarship (which I don’t particularly beleive in); he’s calling for scholarship rather than activism from those who are employed to produce scholarship. Or perhaps he might say that the proper agenda of the academic is propagation of academic virtues.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 6, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  14. RG, what paradigm do you think I?m pointing to? I thought I was just linking to an article. Fish isn?t calling for purely disinterested scholarship (which I don?t particularly beleive in); he?s calling for scholarship rather than activism from those who are employed to produce scholarship. Or perhaps he might say that the proper agenda of the academic is propagation of academic virtues.

    If he’s calling for scholarship rather than activism, he’s either unclear in the distinction between the two, or I disagree as far as he’s outlined it here. The ‘paradigm’ I refer to is:

    “Academic virtue is the virtue that is or should be displayed in the course of academic activities — teaching, research, publishing. Teachers should show up for their classes, prepare syllabuses, teach what has been advertised, be current in the literature of the field, promptly correct assignments and papers, hold regular office hours, and give academic (not political or moral) advice.”

    As far as this article is concerned it’s a paradigm that creates a simplistic distinction between the academy, politics, and morality; conflates the ‘individual’ with the ‘university’ and ‘professor’ with ‘teacher’; minimizes the role of the university in society–reducing it simply to education; furthers a rift between the academy as theory and the practical implications of that theory…. Am I missing anything?

    Comment by RG — June 6, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  15. As a non-academic, I am trying to envision a university as Fish describes it, and finding it somewhat hollow sounding. In my college work, I most valued those professors who actively engaged us on multiple levels. My minor was English Lit, and the discussions that we had ranged from the purely literary (ie-literary forms, historical context) to real world application (ie-moral implications, what kind of people would we be as a result of our study). There is a fine line of advocacy that can get crossed, but the best try to handle it appropriately, and engage the students where they are.

    Comment by kevinf — June 6, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  16. Kevinf, Fish isn’t advocating that literature classes should only teach aesthetics or formalism. The discussions you describe, as I understand them from your description, are all part of standard operating procedure.

    Holy cow, RG, what part of the paradigm have you personally seen little of? Teaching? Research? Teachers showing up on time? Are you sure you’re getting your money’s worth out of grad school?

    Seriously, I don’t see how the paragraph you cite has the implications you attribute to it. How, exactly, is promoting the idea that teachers should be current in the literature in their fields problematic in the ways you describe? I’m also not seeing a good alternative–teachers should not be current in the literature of their fields?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 6, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  17. Hey Jon, how do you say ‘uncharitable’ reading in German?

    Come on it should be obvious that:

    1) The paragraph I quote is taken in relation to the entire piece; the article teases out the fuller thesis; and the implications I attribute to this paradigm through the thesis are derived from the article as a whole (Hence the phrase “As far as this article is concerned…”).

    2) The claim within this paragraph is that being an academic (or having “academic virtue” in his terms) is limited to certain things (such as preparing syllabuses), and is by definition not other things (specifically here, the giving of moral or political “advice”).

    3) I have no problem with the demand that professors should be current in the literature of their field, show up on time, and research (they indeed should do all of these, and in my opinion these are the minimum requirement); but with the exclusion of other things, which in this case are political and moral positions (Here’s where your uncharitable reading of my previous comment comes in).

    So to clarify, the parts of the paradigm I have seen little of are the attitudes that things such as political, moral, or even religious positions need to be checked at the door in order to participate as an academic. Again, this is only my limited experience, and others have obviously had different experiences. I should also add that I personally believe that context is an important role. My political position about who the next president of our nation should be, is mostly likely not relevant to a class on the history of Christianity in India; but should it become relevant I see no reason why I shouldn’t state and defend my position–similar to the way I would expect my students to do the same.

    Comment by RG — June 7, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  18. RG, it’s only uncharitable if I can figure out what you’re saying but willfully choose to ignore it, but I really and truly couldn’t. I do admit that my comment was intentionally irritating, but it did have the intended effect of eliciting a clarification (which I appreciate).

    I agree that there’s place for representing political or moral positions as an academic; if you don’t bother to speak up for the things you believe in, no one else will. You mention that context plays a roll, and I like Fish’s test: is there an educational reason for introducing a moral position? Sometimes it really is educationally helpful to remind students that there is a moral component to the topic under discussion.

    But it can quickly get out of hand, too. It’s easy to elevate one’s own moral or political position to the only legitimate or academic perspective. Pretending that the stakes of academic work are higher than they really are turns curricular discussions into the clash of civilization, or it can be used to justify critical dismissal of scholarly work by someone with a differing opinion.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 7, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

  19. I like Fish?s test: is there an educational reason for introducing a moral position?

    Jon, how are you understanding Fish’s use of ‘educational’ here? It seems that you either misquote it (Fish explains clearly that it applies to “any action contemplated by a university“), or buy into Fish’s conflation of the university with the individual academic in the university.

    Comment by RG — June 9, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  20. […] at Juvenile Instructor there was a discussion of cognitive dissonance and scholarly pursuits. No, it’s not the discussion you think it is. Rather it is the big divide between what […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 2: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — June 9, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  21. Full quote from Fish: “The basic test of any action contemplated by a university should take the form of a simple question: Has the decision to do this (or not do this) been reached on educational grounds?”

    RG, you speak of ‘conflation’ as if it were a bad thing, rather than just an exaggerated word for the normal condition of having responsibilities as an agent of an institution. Universities give people not just money but also institutional reputation and credibility in return for the individual’s furthering of the university’s agenda. Particularly in teaching, teachers represent the university and should be able to justify their actions on educational grounds. I don’t think I’m using ‘educational’ in any esoteric sense here. What kind of conflicts between the individual and the university do you foresee?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 10, 2008 @ 1:22 am

  22. Jon you didn?t answer the question. I asked how you understood Fish to use the term ?educational?. I didn?t inquire how you personally understand the term (although that?s certainly pertinent; and in as much as that seems to be the assumed question, you didn?t answer that either). My hunch is that you?re misreading Fish and making your own argument.

    Do you agree that what is ?educational? is:

    Divorced from proclaiming moral views.

    “My concern, however, is not with academic time management but with academic morality, and my assertion is that it is immoral for academics or for academic institutions to proclaim moral views.”

    Meant to simply serve society.

    “…we will default on the responsibilities assigned us and come to be what no one pays us to be — political agents.”

    “…sectors of the general public will come to regard the university as a special-interest lobby and decline to support it.”

    Not meant to critique society.

    “The same reasoning applies to investment strategies. It is the obligation of the investment managers to secure the best possible return; it is not their obligation to secure political or social or economic justice. They may wish to do those things as private citizens or as members of an investment club, but as university officers their duty is to expand the endowment by any legal means available. The general argument holds also for those in charge of maintenance and facilities. The goal should be to employ the best workers at the lowest possible wages.”

    As far as the conflation issue is concerned, one of the things the tenure process is meant to bring about is a situation where there is a natural tension between the professor and the institution (as well as society). Within certain parameters, and I disagree with Fish as to how wide these parameters are, professors are free to operate under their own agenda. If the tenure process is working properly (which it may or may not), those who are unable to meet the approval of their colleagues (which very well may be because they furthered personal commitments at the expense of furthering their field), will be denied tenure. Professors may teach, may serve the community, and may serve the institution; but I would hardly describe those activities as the defining characteristic of what it means to be an academic. The university as an institution has to foster a positive relationship with the community, especially if it is publicly funded; but that mission may often be at odds with the individual academic. I realize this rather idealistic, but I think theoretically speaking this is where I differ from Fish. FWIW, most of the people that I?ve come across that share Fish?s view are those who have had large leadership roles at institutions (presidents, etc.). They are the ones who have had to ?heard the cats? so to speak, and assume the larger role of acting on behalf of the institution. Perhaps that says something about necessary attributes of leaders, as well as saying something about my own inexperience.

    Comment by RG — June 10, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  23. RG, thank you for explaining what exactly it is about Fish’s treatment of education that irritates you.

    The problem with your three formulations is that they are all negative statements (‘not meant to critique society’), exaggerated statements (‘meant to simply serve society’), or negations of exaggerated statements (‘divorced from proclaiming moral views’)–and all the work is being done by the negation or the exaggeration. If you turn them into qualified positive statements, there just isn’t much controversy there.

    No indeed, professors should not proclaim moral views, but the problem lies in proclaiming. It’s not my place to admonish sabbath observance, for example. Also, moral proclamations are pedagogically ineffective. There are any number of ways to approach moral views in the classroom where students have to think and communicate about moral views, but proclaiming doesn’t work so well.

    If you drop the ‘simply,’ we end up with the assertion that universities should serve society, which sounds pretty good to me. Universities have varied missions, but serving society is a pretty unremarkable part of the platform.

    While the primary mission of universities is indeed not to critique society, the problem there is with the word ‘critique,’ which plays into silly academic self-importance on one hand, and on the other hand the silly anti-intellectual argument that anyone benefiting from American capitalism has no standing to criticize it. But I don’t see any contradiction between serving and critiquing society. If you think of it as using academic expertise in order to imnprove society, there’s little to disagree with.

    For what it’s worth, I think Fish exaggerates the degree to which universities should only think of the bottom line in business decisions. There are plenty of legal ways to make money fast, at least for a short time in a bull market, but recognizing that universities are not actually publicly-traded corporations aiming for maximum quarterly profits in order to please their shareholders should suggest a somewhat different agenda. Sometimes Fish is, I grant you, insufferable.

    If I end up in near-agreement with Fish in this case, then because of the time I’ve spent working around universities, although far beneath the notice of anyone with a significant leadership role. I have no experience with the tenure system, so I have nothing to add on that point right now. If I might ask, though, why do you not include teaching among an academic’s defining characteristics? I understand that research is essential, and that in some fields there are research-only academic positions, but in many fields, research without teaching is done primarily or wholly outside the university, if such positions exist at all. To my understanding, teaching is what differentiates an academic from a nonfiction writer. I take it that you see things differently?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 10, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

  24. Jon you still haven’t answered the question as to how you understand Fish to define ‘educational’. Instead you’ve negated my negations and qualified my exaggerations. I take what you have expressed to be your opinion on the matter; and if it is such, it is somewhat different than the opinion expressed by Fish in the article.

    No indeed, professors should not proclaim moral views, but the problem lies in proclaiming.

    All views “proclaim” some sense of moral perspective (including of course amoral attitudes). What should be said here is, “Professors should not require students to commit to their moral agenda.”

    …universities should serve society, which sounds pretty good to me. Universities have varied missions, but serving society is a pretty
    unremarkable part of the platform.

    Universities are undoubtedly meant to serve society. But I think there is a difference between serving society and being the servant of society. The latter seems to be closer to Fish’s perspective.

    But I don’t see any contradiction between serving and critiquing society. If you think of it as using academic expertise in order to
    imnprove society, there’s little to disagree with.

    Unless your academic expertise happens to be, say, economics or political science in which case the downside of certain economic attitudes (e.g., investing money without regard to social repercussions) in which case, according to Fish, you apparently shouldn’t critique society or the university. Unless of course you count ‘voting for different representatives in the election’ an effective form of critique.

    If I might ask, though, why do you not include teaching among an academic’s defining characteristics?

    I’m using ‘teaching’ above in the sense of dispensing information. I think Fish instrumentalizes the role of the professor into one who simply (and this is no exaggeration) stands in front of students and shares information.

    Comment by RG — June 12, 2008 @ 10:48 am


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