A Principled Defense of the University

The modern university is undoubtedly among humanity’s crowning achievements, and, more than many other advances made over the last five centuries, it is in danger. Now, more than any time in the last century, at least, universities and even the concept of the university itself need defending on principle, so that they will not be washed out in the flowing spring tide of reactionary resentment that exploits legitimate criticisms against them.

The Crown Jewel of Modernity

The modern university is the engine of knowledge production in modern society, and as such, it is among humanity’s greatest achievements and most precious resources. None of humanity’s great institutions has been so successful at producing and sharing knowledge, being a center of culture, and generating opportunities for citizens and nations alike as the university. Nothing comes close, in fact, and this is because the university exists specifically to fulfill this vital function of modern liberal democracies.

Many think of the university merely as a school, and certainly it is that. It educates its students and so prepares and credentials them for careers in certain specialist sectors of our complex modern economy. Valuable and laudable as this service is, however, it is probably the least meritorious and significant of the university’s many functions. The academy is a cultural center devoted not just to teaching and learning but to knowledge production. Each university is a sprawling congress of minds and personalities, many experts near the tops of their many respective fields, convening in roughly one geographical place in a collegial spirit for the sole purpose of producing and sharing knowledge and culture with each other, the broader community, and the students within their midst. Within a university, various departments bring together diverse minds with similar talents to pool specialized resources for producing specialized knowledge, and through the gravity of collegiality, proximity, and shared vision in the production and sharing of knowledge, each elevates and enables the others to move in a kind of concert that would be impossible in almost any other setting.  Each university is like a single galaxy in a universe brimming with them, and the same spirit of collegiality, the same urge to produce and share knowledge, to understand, pool, and to drive culture, and the same commitments to academic values and virtues draw them together in great webs of learning for the benefit of humanity.

These academic values and virtues are the effective heart of the university; they are the gravity that holds them together; and they are the core of what must be defended if a defense of the university is to be principled. These values that make the university great include a love of learning along with commitments to open inquiry, freedom of thought, willingness to question, openness to criticism, eagerness to dialogue, providing sanctuary for the impertinently curious, cosmopolitanism, and a certain willing generosity that reflects these values outward, not merely inward. The virtues that come with them include curiosity, intellectual honesty and humility, forbearance of constructive criticism, studiousness, collegiality, separating the idea from the person, and a certain protectiveness, not of the fruits of one’s intellectual labors, but of the means of knowledge production themselves. In the university, whatever personalities may reside within and however they individually uphold or fail these values and these virtues, nobody has final say and nobody has special authority. In this sense, universities are the keystone of the whole system of “liberal science,” so masterfully set out and argued for by Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors, in which he argues that viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech are essential for the continuation of liberal democracy and the production of knowledge.

“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.”

As a result, universities are arguably humanity’s most beneficial creation and have been responsible for producing vast amounts of knowledge and expertise in areas as diverse as physics, history, psychology, philosophy, economics, geography, and art. They are why we have the good things we now have, why we don’t die in childbirth much anymore, why we live so much longer, why we have life and labor-saving technology, and how we know so much about our universe, our history, and ourselves. If we hope to “save the planet,” cure cancer, explore space, uncover more of our past, and understand ourselves better, we need them. As an institution, the university isn’t perfect —nothing is — but the university is an institution without equal in both earned prestige and worth for these reasons.

That said, it is crucial to understand that right now our universities are being made vulnerable to an attack that may become dangerously powerful, and they’re generating much of that vulnerability from within. It bears stating, however: the vast majority of the problem can be addressed by engaging in serious housecleaning of a stark minority of the academy. But, by refusing to repair their out-of-control broken sector, which resides almost entirely within the humanities and social sciences, fueled by postmodern thought and critical theory, university administrations risk allowing their storied institutions to be fatally weakened or even destroyed.

As it stands in the moment, these university-defining values and virtues are coming to be doubted. For various reasons, the university seems to be forgetting its scholarly values and forgoing its collegiate virtues. It is opening itself up to legitimate criticism and with it illegitimate attack. Under normal circumstances, the university should be able to hear legitimate criticism and adapt accordingly and thus weather illegitimate attacks untarnished, but due to its failure to do the former, the latter gains support and the anti-elite reactionary onslaught of criticism of the whole institution could undo it.

The Rising Tide of Resentment

Over the past few decades, the university as an institution has lost a significant amount of public support and credibility. The Pew findings in July 2017 which looked at this issue in America show this to be highly partisan.

Pew Survey 2017

In August of last year, Gallup confirmed this finding, discovering that 56% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in colleges in comparison to only 33% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who hold that same view. This general skepticism of the academy corresponds to findings that conservatives show considerably lower trust in science — in 2010 only 38% of conservatives expressed confidence in science, as compared to 40% of moderates and 50% of liberals. In fact, these two concerns are likely to be correlated. This supports a very real concern that the next great wave of reactionary anger will target the academy as it moves on from its current malice directed at mass media, expertise, and governance by an elite political class.

One hypothesis for the disparity between liberal and conservative attitudes about the university holds that it is caused by conservative values which seek to defend traditional beliefs and social structures that can be threatened by scientific advances. The ongoing attempt, especially in America, to treat biblically literal creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolutionary biology springs immediately to mind. It has also been argued that conservative distrust for the academy may arise from conservative psychological traits relating to a need for certainty and cognitive closure, which stand in opposition to the never-ending questioning burning at the heart of university values, and this can be seen in a generally reticent attitude about tinkering with social and economic policy.

Still, it is far from clear that these paint the whole picture. Studies which look closer at anti-academy attitudes seem to show that the partisan divide, in the US at any rate, seems to be related, less to a sort of anti-intellectualism described so many decades ago by Richard Hofstadter or to an objection to education in itself, but to the perceived political orientation of universities. That is, the growing conservative distrust of universities and their open-ended tinkering is probably mostly due to partisan tribalism combined with a largely accurate perception that the universities have become mostly left-liberal bastions.

Supporting this view, a 2017 Civis study found only a slight difference in Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on the usefulness of higher education but a much greater one on concerns about their political agenda.

Civis Survey 2017

Similarly, a 2017 paper looking at conservative attitudes towards science by Cofnas, Carl and Woodley showed that conservatives actually felt more positively than liberals towards “production science,” whose work focuses on invention and innovation for the sake of economic production, but their attitudes were much less welcoming towards “impact science,” which aims to understand human impacts on the environment and health. This paper therefore argues that what conservatives are distrustful of is not scientific methodologies themselves but the activities of certain branches of the sciences — especially in the social sciences, which seek to influence policy, largely in a liberal direction. Of note, this problem is not confined to the US; in the UK, the Adam Smith Institute draws on the same studies to express concern about political bias in British universities. (See particularly Duarte et al.) Though many on the left and within the university are eager to deny it, there is excellent reason to be concerned about this political bias, which is becoming overwhelming and threatens to produce cultures of academic and political conformity that run directly contrary to the values and virtues that necessarily define the university as a university.

The Left Bias in Universities

Far from being a conservative boogeyman, that universities currently show shocking degrees of left-leaning political bias is a demonstrable fact. In the UK, a survey found eight in ten University lecturers to be left-wing and data suggests that less than 12% of academics vote conservatively compared to 50% of the general population, and that in the Brexit vote, 10% of academics voted “leave” compared to 52% of the general population (p4). Although “leave” or “remain” do not map neatly on to right-wing and left-wing politics, this is still a significant gap between the attitudes of academics and that of the general population, and objection to and suspicion of this has come largely from right-wing sources. The right-wing UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, for example, published a front-page article complaining of “remainer universities,” and in response to accusations that it was trying to stifle academic freedom, a spokesman for the Daily Mail told HuffPost UK:

“Far from ‘challenging academic freedom’, the Daily Mail is deeply concerned this freedom is under threat from universities falling into the grip of left-liberal consensus thinking, enforced by profoundly illiberal policies such as ‘no-platforming.’”

And

“The Mail has no objection to acquainting students with Left-wing or pro-EU ideas. But if these are all they hear, doesn’t this subvert the whole purpose of a university?’”

There has been considerably more attention to the left-orientation of universities in relation to American schools. For example, Honeycutt and Freberg (2017) surveyed university faculty in 76 disciplines about their willingness to discriminate against conservatives or liberals. They found that the vast majority of faculty members in all disciplines except agriculture (a paradigm production science) identified as liberal and that conservatives reported experiencing more hostility. Heterodox Academy, an organization of over 1,700 professors and graduate affiliates committed to viewpoint diversity, focuses on the problem specifically. Its site says:

“When campuses don’t include ideologically diverse voices and don’t engage seriously with dissenting ideas, students and scholars miss the opportunity for their thinking to be challenged. They don’t get the chance to figure out which ideas hold up within the crucible of open inquiry. Biases go unchecked. Critical thinking is abandoned.

A lack of viewpoint diversity on campus undermines the academy’s ability to realize the goals of scholarly inquiry and education. Instead, research and learning spaces become self-affirming echo chambers in which ideological validation displaces critical inquiry.”

In short, the right-wing is losing trust in universities largely because they see them, mostly but not altogether wrongly, in politicized terms. While it remains unclear precisely to what degree the university should skew left or right, if at all in either direction, it is nearly beyond question that the current situation of severe leftward bias constitutes a significant problem and source of legitimate criticism. Particularly, to the degree that the university is truly becoming a “self-affirming echo chamber in which ideological validation displaces critical inquiry,” the right is raising a valid concern that, in our opinion, lacks not so much substance as it does moderating and necessary precision.

Ideological Echo Chambers

The growing perception of universities as ideological echo-chambers is, above all else, the driver undermining their reputation. Compounding the problem are well-publicized and frequent reports of academic activism, censorship, protests, firings, no-platforming, and intimidation at universities directed not only against conservatives but also at moderates, centrists, and even leftists who do not fully comply with the fashionable moral ideas of the day, which today means intersectional ideas. (Helen wrote about this problem here and here.) Because what happens in the university today tends to filter out and impact culture, we now see these ideas taking a certain undeserved pride of place within corporate diversity offices and, particularly, throughout media. This greater problem has now also reached a pitch that, in that it cannot be ignored, hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In addition to these significant issues of campus authoritarianism, people are also becoming more aware of the multitude of ludicrously silly (and often horrifying) academic papers being published in the humanities and social sciences due to social media exposure by accounts such as @realpeerreview.

Even when papers are not explicitly silly (often with considerable taxpayer funding) or advocating for legitimately worrying social engineering, they often lack substance, simply building on theoretical frameworks and earlier papers and making their work unfalsifiable and unable to be criticized. (James wrote about this here.) Making matters more complex, this vein of academic sophistry is the primary intellectual engine driving the aforementioned bad behavior while ostensibly substantiating it within the academic canon — giving opinion, pretense, and speculation (often simultaneously political in nature and only barely tethered to reality) the undeserved veneer of produced knowledge.

Fortunately, the university isn’t the problem in this regard, only some rotten sectors within it. While left-leaning bias may be pervasive on campus and its own significant problem, the active politicization of education and scholarship is limited only to a handful of departments. “Oh, of course,” we often see in print these day (typically from the right), “another university professor” pushing some absurdity, but the problem isn’t this, and specificity matters. Only a handful of academic disciplines — most ending in “studies” — generate these problems, and the vast majority of such examples can be tied back to those departments, which are in desperate need of serious and painful housecleaning. Most of the rest of the university, and with it the bulk of the work of most of its professors, not only isn’t a problem; it still represents both the best of civilization and its greatest hope for a remedy.

It is therefore crucial to address these problems if we value the universities as places for the productive and free expression of ideas, for being public centers of culture, for the development of skills and expertise, and for the advancement of human knowledge.  We think the authoritarian development in the universities and the dubious “studies” scholarship behind it are dangerous to the future of the academy and even liberal society itself, and so we have addressed the problem, repeatedly and at length and plan to continue doing so. We do so because we think it is vital to preserve the academy as a gem of civilization and to fix the problem currently corroding it from within. Those problem departments fail the essential mission of the university by manipulating education, politicizing knowledge production, and limiting what can be studied and how and by whom, and they should be held to account. That is, we want to strengthen the universities because we believe in them, and we are far from alone in this endeavor (see this piece by Clay Routledge). We hope to encourage those who share this view to argue in a way that will support scholarship rather than undermine it.

The Threat From the Reactionary Right

Our allies in this matter, who understand the university to be a treasure worth defending, despite presenting some significant problems at the moment, are likely to need rousing and to be urged toward nuance. They are likely to underestimate, and thus to inadvertently encourage, a potentially far greater problem in their well-intended efforts to clean up the academy.

Much criticism against the left-heavy university is completely valid and needs heeding; however, another strand of criticism of the universities is arising and it comes from a very different place. It comes from the reactionary (sometimes called “populist”) right and it manifests not in reasonable concerns about liberal bias but in anti-elitist attacks on “elites,” “experts,” “academia,” “the university,” and “university professors,” as places and people who are dangers to society because they have the wrong kinds of values and think the wrong kinds of leftist foolishness. The reactionary intention is not to fix some flaws in the system but to bring it down, along with scholarship and expertise. It expresses itself through partisanship yet comes from a place of anti-intellectualism made into a tribal badge of honor, and it is taking advantage of the universities’ current predicament. Importantly, this reactionary tide will readily make use of incautious arguments from people with better, remedial intentions to achieve its undesirable ends. For example, referring disparagingly to “university professors,” when what is meant is “a particular sociology professor who is also a radical critical theorist,” is an increasingly common misrepresentation that will do untold damage by its repetition by well-intended reformers.

A much criticized tweet by Professor George Ciccariello

This kind of statement pictured above is clearly a problem, but it isn’t a problem with university professors, most of whom would see it as patently ridiculous. It is a problem within a particularly radical ideology within a particularly ideologically-driven form of scholarship within a particular set of departments within the academy that have, it seems, gotten a bit too comfortable with the quarters they’ve been afforded within the ivory tower. That these activist-scholars have rejected the fundamental ethos of the university from within it is not a justification for disparagement of higher education and scholarship itself; it’s a justification for the university to begin a systematic review of its worst tenants.

In America, anti-intellectualism on the right has been brewing for decades. This is the argument made by Jason Blakely for the Atlantic (of note, Richard Hofstadter famously recorded it in greater generality at book length in 1962). Blakely particularly detects a “rise in sharply hostile ways of talking about the universities among conservatives in the last fifty years” and argues that “the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.” He sees influential right-wing figures including Irving Kristol as the initiators of this trend. As the left changed from its old Marxist views focused on economics to a broader, human rights-centered liberalism, Kristol complained that the New Left was seeking a “radical cultural revolution that would demolish the religious traditions and virtues that sustained a democratic form of free-market capitalism.” Philosopher Harold Bloom echoed these values and deplored a shift away from religion and traditional beliefs about morality:

“Students in our best universities do not believe in anything … An easygoing American kind of nihilism has descended upon us, a nihilism without terror of the abyss. The great questions — God, freedom, and immortality, according to Kant — hardly touch the young. And the universities, which should encourage the quest for the clarification of such questions, are the very source of the doctrine which makes that quest appear futile.”

This anti-intellectual assault on the universities, which was primarily motivated by religion and traditionalism infused into an increasingly reactionary conservative identity, continued into the 90s. Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman argues a 1994 article by Bradley Foundation president Michael Joyce titled “The Legacy of the Wisconsin Idea: Hastening the Demise of an Exhausted Progressivism” to have been deeply influential on the current right-wing attacks on the university. In it, Joyce, he says:

“declared war on the state’s system of higher education as a means to ‘re-empower the traditional, local institutions,’ working to ‘re-establish the dignity of traditional folk wisdom’ and ultimately ‘hasten the demise of progressivism.’”

By the 21st century, this kind of traditionalism-versus-intellectualism rhetoric had become very well established among a significant faction of conservatives (and, ironically, may have accelerated the left-leaning biasing of the university by politicizing it and situating it more deeply as anti-conservative). Within the last few years, spurred by the rise of reactionary anti-elitist “populism” on the right and the increased exposure of leftist academic silliness within humanities and social sciences departments, the credibility of the universities among conservatives has plummeted to a new low. We should therefore expect this to be politically weaponized.

The next right-wing populist will win by attacking American Higher Education, argues Eliot Kaufman in an article in the National Review. The GOP, he says,

“will need a message around which to coalesce. More precisely, it will need an enemy. Republican voters may disagree on policy and principle, but they can agree on whom they don’t like: Radical professors, race-obsessed provocateurs, gender-studies grifters, anti-Israel fanatics, weak-kneed administrators, disgusting libertines, angry feminists, and illiberal student protesters.”

And

“It will hammer the same themes as before but excite populists with different terms. ‘Radical professors’ will become ‘anti-American’ or ‘Communist.’ ‘Racial provocateurs’ will become ‘anti-white racists.'”

Kaufman fears these tactics are very likely to be successful for three reasons:

  1. They’re partially true;
  2. Universities and the left are in denial about their truth; and
  3. Republican voters have already been primed to believe them.

Perfectly reasonable concerns about ideologically-motivated silliness and nastiness in some departments can, in this way, feed into the terribly misguided attack on scholarship and expertise generally (see Tom Nichols’ admirable summary, The Death of Expertise , for a non-reactionary conservative’s take on that). Therefore, even while the university abnegates its greatest shield, an open commitment to academic freedom, a serious problem is impending from a source that completely misrepresents the problem and denies the reality that the university itself is one of humanity’s most useful and productive creations and worth standing up for. This, above all else, necessitates a powerful, principled defense of the university to begin as soon as possible.

The Threat from Within

There are many reasons that university administrations offer little more than a weak-kneed defense of their own institutions, and primary among them is the exploitation of the left’s moral architecture. Noble and useful as the harm-centric, justice-oriented left can be at its best, it is particularly susceptible to ophobophobia — the exaggerated fear of being perceived as bigoted. Because of the overwhelming left-leaning bias of the academy in general, it is becoming increasingly susceptible to exploitations of this fear.

To summarize in brief, the left’s moral architecture, at least since the radical 1960s, has been overwhelmingly concerned with promoting (or at least not injuring) anyone that it deems oppressed. Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry have become its biggest moral taboos, and overcoming, eradicating, and avoiding these has concomitantly become its most sacred charge. Universities are rightly proud of their long history of asking unfettered questions and thus challenging the status quo, and they became rightly proud in their promotion of the vanguard of progressive cultural developments. They are, in fact, the place where many of these noble ideas were incubated and developed, and even when they went consequentially wrong, they often still made progress toward solving serious problems.

Take, for example, the work of feminist Susan Brownmiller, whose feminist study of rape led to one of the most consequential and controversial mistakes in legal and academic history. Brownmiller is famous for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, which forwarded the interpretion that rape is wholly about power and male domination, the result of patriarchal misogyny rife throughout society, and not about sexual desire. This unlikely (in fact, false) proposition remains the predominant feminist view of rape and was adopted as a standard of jurisprudence, and a consequence of this apparently obvious error in assessment is that rapists who could not be found to have a power-based motive for having committed their crime, other than the obvious sexual desire, would be acquitted. One such case led another scholar, Craig Palmer, to study rape and, in 2000, publish a book called The Natural History of Rape, overturning Brownmiller.

While it’s tempting to write Brownmiller off as having been an ideologically blinded feminist, her work on rape served a valuable function that netted genuine social progress. As a result of Brownmiller’s persuasive book and its removal of sexual interest as a cause of rape, people were forced to reckon with rape in a way that didn’t allow for victim-blaming, which uprooted deeply harmful cultural assumptions about rape that, ultimately, exonerated many more rapists than her ill-fitting reforms did. The university, working as it should, will make such adjustments, study the outcome (as did Palmer), and adjust again, ratcheting society toward a better state and bending the moral arc of society toward justice, among other things. Of course, it doesn’t always work as it should, and Palmer was vilified as a pariah for questioning a quarter century of feminist orthodoxy on such a sensitive issue. (For more details on this story, see Alice Dreger’s book, Galileo’s Middle Finger.)

Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger.

In this example, then, we can see not only how universities provide a powerful engine for genuine social progress by making use of liberal science, we also see how they became warped and traded their universal liberalism for identity-based activism-scholarship. This considerable problem largely followed the fashionability of the widespread incorporation of postmodern thought into the humanities and social sciences, also beginning in the 1960s.

Postmodernism was first and foremost an intellectual movement which utilized a specific brand of deconstructive social critique in order to question and undermine well-established models of society, social values and knowledge. The potential usefulness of this endeavor for discovering faulty assumptions was considerably outweighed by the destructive, cynical and radically skeptical attitude it took to the possibility of objective knowledge. When the high deconstructive phase of postmodernism passed during the 1990s, its mantle was taken up by successive waves of critical theorists who turned this rather aimless social critique into a self-edifying (and insatiable) project and, in so doing, developed the contemporary post-colonial theory, queer theory, intersectionality and critical race theory which dominate large parts of the social sciences and humanities today and, in a condensed user-friendly form, fuels cultural leftist political activists.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of the Heterodox Academy, addresses the problem with this:

 “But what happens when young people study intersectionality? In some majors, it’s woven into many courses. Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile…. A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.”

And:

“This means that on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout-downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country. It’s schools such as Yale, Brown, and Middlebury in New England, and U.C. Berkeley, Evergreen, and Reed on the West Coast. Are those the places where oppression is worst, or are they the places where this new way of thinking is most widespread?

Can you imagine a culture that is more antithetical to the mission of a university?”

Nevertheless, it is essential to remember that such “critical” ideas are not dominant in all fields and are emphatically not characteristic of the university as a whole. As Haidt himself points out:

“When you look at who signs the petitions denouncing professors for what they’ve written, or demanding that journal articles be retracted, it is mostly professors from about seven departments in the humanities and identity studies.”

There are substantial branches of sociology (particularly those which focus on gender, race, and sexuality), parts of English literature and history, and certain approaches to philosophy and psychology which have taken on this way of thinking to the exclusion of all other ideas. This is negatively affecting scholarship, and the increasing legitimacy of the criticisms against it is threatening the university.

A significant example of this impact occurs in the replication crisis in the social sciences. In brief, the replication crisis has arisen because a shockingly small proportion of results in the social sciences over the past several decades can be replicated by other researchers (a fundamental standard in science), and political motivations of the researchers is likely to be one of the contributing factors to this problem. As Nathan Cofnas, Noah Carl, and Nathan A. Woodley point out:

“Today, social science is facing a ‘replication crisis’ (Open Science Collaboration 2015): Many findings that were thought to be firmly established are turning out not to be replicable when tested more carefully. It is noteworthy that a significant number of the effects that are falling victim to the replication crisis either supported liberalism or were somehow unflattering to conservatives.”

Of course, there are other concerns as well. Across the universities, the pressure to publish seems to be causing a set of related problems, including incentives to publish more low-quality papers, reviewer fatigue (in which expert readers in the peer review process are overburdened and unable to do a thorough job), and administrations valuing the wrong metrics for professional advancement. Medical researchers Seema Rawat and Sanjay Meena have argued that the “publish or perish” culture within medical science, for example, could produce lower quality and even unethical research, and, writing for Nature, Daniel Sarewitz also expressed concerns that good science could be swamped by an ever-increasing quantity of poor work.

Not all is lost to “publish or perish,” however. A study done in Sweden found that there was no drop-off of high quality papers due to increased publishing in any area but the humanities. The difficulty of measuring the rigor of research in the humanities and the relative ease of producing humanities research (say, as compared to studies in the hard sciences) make it particularly prone to ideological bias and proliferate poor scholarship.

This, unfortunately, is a problem shared by the social sciences. A 2012 study by researchers Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, cited in Cofnas et al, found that while conservative and liberal social scientists were equally likely to discriminate against each others’ papers in review, liberals are so over-represented in the field that they face a only a 5% chance of having their paper reviewed by someone who might politically discriminate against them. Conservatives, by contrast, face an 80% chance of the same. The departments which traffic in fashionable nonsense therefore have natural advantages in producing reams of low-quality or outright bad scholarship: High levels of political motivation to agitate the system in their favor, relative ease of producing scholarship, and a high likelihood of sympathetic reviewers biased in their favor. This has led to administrative architectures that now unjustly support them and prejudicial control over key sectors of the academy — like educational theory, which creates a self-strengthening feedback loop for them — which enable them to push their agenda into the university system. The result is increased legitimacy for certain criticisms of the academy that are not judiciously applied, are being politically weaponized, and are likely to explode into radioactive political warfare.

The trouble is, the university is no longer well-equipped to identify and fight this problem, and the largely left-leaning hegemony isn’t the only problem. Academic culture in general within the university underestimates this problem tremendously for a number of reasons, many of which are normally benign. For example, academics tend to want to respect the academic work of other fields without “going out of their academic lanes,” which is, to significant degree, the correct application of the specialization of knowledge. They’re also busy with their own scholarship, which tends to be good. More troubling, however, the partisanship already entrenching itself in the university ecosystem leads many faculty members and administrators to be generally inclined to agree with the social justice message coming from the troublesome departments — partly because they skew left and partly because they only have a vague and superficial understanding of it themselves. Far too many scholars don’t really believe that a creeping authoritarianism can be the result of an academic department, especially aligned with the side they see as “good” and “liberal,” nor do they seem to accept the degree to which this problem is occurring. Instead, too many see it as a fringe problem or one caused by the availability of shoddy journals and heavy pressure to publish rather than seeing it for what it is: the overarching mission of the handful of activist-scholars and their home departments.

Adding complexity and difficulty to the problem, much of this authoritarianism has already institutionalized and, from within the academy, appears completely normal. For many academics, the severity of this problem is not and will not be comprehended until they, themselves, have violated the new campus orthodoxy and been subject to its response (See Laura Kipnis, particularly). The problem emanating from activist “scholars” and departments is not only a huge problem for rigorous scholarship, then, but it is already being easily weaponized by outright enemies of the university, including the reactionary right.

Conclusion

It is essential to recognize three things: that good and bad scholarship both exist inside current academia, that good and bad criticisms of the problems exist outside it, and that on principle the university is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and most valuable institutions. Much of the work still coming from the universities is not merely sound and rigorous, thus important for increasing the sum of human knowledge; it represents many of humanity’s greatest and most valuable contributions. On the other hand, some departments and disciplines, namely those working in accordance with postmodern ideas of intersectionality, have put politics ahead of knowledge production — a cardinal sin of the trade — and therefore are terribly broken and in desperate need of thorough housecleaning.

Much of the criticism of the problems that emanate from these broken sectors of academia is sound and reasonable and comes from thoughtful and well-informed minds across the political spectrum, but there is also a strong and growing anti-intellectual, reactionary opposition that threatens not only silly and harmful leftist ideologies that deserve it but scholarship and the university itself. This is a threat we need to take seriously and one which we must be at pains not to unwittingly support with indiscriminate criticism of academia. The university is an institution we need to defend on principle, which currently demands that it and all its departments are held to account upon the very principles that make it worth defending.

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4 comments

  1. Please keep pushing. These are very important arguments. University presidents need to read this article.

    I am eager to read Pluckrose’s forthcoming book on epistemology and postmodern scholarship. If I were braver I would do my dissertation on something similar but alas doctoral students are perhaps the most vulnerable population on campus and there is a chance I would be censored and throw away 5 years of effort.

  2. The Humanities and Social Sciences need to abandon their method, the NHST, which allows these kinds of shenanigans. Instead they need to start using the old method, the scientific.

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