The “Cult” of Academia

This is my second time reading Big Machine, and I still find myself puzzling over the Washerwomen and the power they held over Ricky and his family, all while preaching a gospel of doubt: “Half the Bible is folks getting tricked! So maybe we rethink doubt. Not as our enemy but our ally.” This perspective surprises me because it seems that most systems of faith, both religious and secular, emphasize loyalty above all else. In my mind, loyalty and doubt will always be at odds.

Although I wrote a whole paper trying to answer this question in a previous class, I still don’t know that I’ve found a satisfying answer. However, in class discussion today, we talked about how in the Washerwomen’s instruction to question everything, they implicitly place themselves in the role of knowing the answers. Ricky says that the Washerwomen’s main idea, “was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken. Which one? Take your pick… The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working. A new church had to take its place.” The more I consider this sentiment, the more I understand its initial appeal and its quieter connotations. If you say, “We believe that all other institutions are broken” the silent accompanying idea is “We are not broken.” This is an Other-ing that isolates believers and establishes the power of the Washerwomen. It is also a rhetoric that reminds me, creepily enough, of academia.

In our group discussion today, we likened the Washerwomen’s philosophy of doubt to the Socratic method often used in classrooms, encouraging learning through a constant cycle of questioning. I think the model for liberal arts education often follows a similar recursive pattern of learning through questioning and exploration. In theory, this model of learning rejects the power dynamics of “teacher imparts knowledge, student receives knowledge.” At the same time, a learning institution that invites students to question seems to imply that the institution holds the answers, or that there is some higher and correct Knowledge that can be reached through questions. Even within a very decentralized classroom, it seems hard to avoid the power dynamic within this model of learning—the students question, guided by a professor who has already questioned and found answers. I don’t mean to say that doubt or questioning within academia is inherently problematic or “cultish,” only that I see parallels between the Washerwomen and educational institutions—both find their power and structure through this “big machine” of doubt.

The failure of institutions is a common theme in Big Machine. Beginning with the man kicked off the bus—or maybe beginning with Ricky himself—Big Machine seems occupied with people who have been disenfranchised, or cast aside by Institutions. In the same way, it feels like you only need to scroll down Facebook now to find evidence of distrust in our institutions of knowledge or learning—climate conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, anti-vaccinators. These are all belief systems which are built out of distrust for institutions of authority. In class, we discussed the way a virus or an idea can be self-organizing. In the same way, maybe doubt can be self-organizing; it evolves to accommodate contradictory evidence. So it’s not enough to say “actually, this evidence proves that vaccines don’t cause autism,” because a conspiracy can warp to accommodate that new evidence—It doesn’t matter how much evidence you produce if people don’t trust the source of that evidence. In a way, it’s incredible to consider how much scientific curiosity and mental power is being devoted to these conspiracies, by people who felt abandoned or disenfranchised by scientific or academic institutions.

As usual, I’ve come to no real satisfying conclusions. However, I do feel like I understand a little better why Ricky and his family—feeling disenfranchised and unrecognized by their own Church and society—were so drawn-in by the Washerwomen’s gospel. Rose’s description of doubt as “the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men” feels especially apt, because I don’t think of machines as inherently good or bad—they are just tools to human pursuit. I think it might be useful to consider doubt in a similar way.

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