Are Academics Cowards? The Grip of Grievance Studies and the Sunk Costs of Academic Pursuit

There is much that should be said about the ways in which the dominant Social Justice ideology has negative impacts upon the university, free expression, academic freedom and, especially, the sciences. Like all rigid ideologies, Social Justice is inimical to science—not because of what it claims or concludes but because of how it goes about reaching its conclusions. Social Justice, like all rigid ideologies, is only interested in science that supports its predetermined theoretical conclusions and holds all other science suspect.

Of course, the accusation that the sciences are susceptible to the forces of Social Justice and its endless politicking may come as some surprise to those in the sciences, because they are duly confident in their own rigor. They are right to realize that, even if the Social Justice educational reformers go too far or have a frightening amount of institutional control, they cannot really influence science directly because they don’t do science. The assumption held by many, which is plausible, is that scientists will keep doing science according to rigorous scientific methodologies and needn’t worry much about the influence of politics from the more ideological sectors of the academy—including the administration.

This attitude is both laudable and quaintly naive. It is likely to underestimate the degree to which the sciences, like all disciplines, are susceptible to the influences and whims of a dominant orthodoxy. We should note that this exact concern is also what we hear from proponents of Social Justice when they attempt to encroach upon science—it’s perhaps the chorus of the siren song of feminist studies of science and technology to insist that the sciences are already biased and that their activism is a necessary corrective. These criticisms of science insist that science is already prejudiced towards the ideological assumptions of white, Western men and therefore needs to be made more inclusive. This argument, however, goes against the core and essential nature of science, which is universality. Whatever is true about the world should be discoverable by the same methods, regardless of who or what does the experiment.

Another core part of the scientific process is skepticism. This means that science, as a process, is already geared to minimize and correct for potential biases and errors, be they ideological or otherwise. Input into ways to do this more efficiently are always welcome, but Social Justice approaches do not seek to further improve the objectivity of science. Instead, they aim to introduce opposing biases, which they see as effectively counteracting existing ones. Far from being a novel or useful insight, however, concerns about the lack of objectivity on the part of any given observer or theoretician aren’t lost on any serious scientist or philosopher of science and haven’t been in decades (and appropriating Thomas Kuhn’s work here doesn’t work on the Social Justice side).

For these reasons, scientists should be deeply concerned with the possibility that people with strongly ideological and political motives, many of which are ambivalent at best and hostile at worst to the core values of scientific inquiry, might establish themselves as the body of working scientists and arbiters of what science can and should be done and for what reasons. Rigorous epistemology and a certain willingness to let the cards fall where they may and to have one’s ideas proven wrong will suffice.

The thing is, it is extremely likely that a majority of working scientists, at least outside of the social sciences, are keenly aware of the ways in which Social Justice can corrupt science, its conflict with the core values of science and science education, and its potential costs and implications. Nevertheless, it appears that they are letting it happen. Why would they do this?

There’s no real mystery in this question. Most of the scientists who see the writing on the wall and wish they could do something about it will eagerly tell you precisely why they don’t speak and act against the creeping woke hegemony they know will eventually corrupt their disciplines, possibly for generations. They’re afraid. They’re afraid they’ll be fired. They’re afraid they’ll be blacklisted from jobs, tenure and research funding opportunities. They’re afraid they’ll become thorns in the sides of the administration, especially the Grand Wizards of their institutions’ Offices of Diversity and Inclusion, and targets of the newly minted campus inquisition Bias Response Teams, and never have another peaceful day to get real work done. They’re afraid they’ll be done like Tim Hunt was done.

Outside of the academy, this attitude often gets them branded cowards. In fact, the insistence that academics are cowardly, and that’s how we got into this mess in the first place, is one that seems to have a worrying level of support lately. It’s probably true that significant numbers of academics are cowards. In the main, however, it is only true in the sense in which a person is a coward for knowing that the first few to speak out in a revolt against any hegemonic regime are going to be its first martyrs. Speaking game theoretically, she who speaks out first should always be somebody else.

On those grounds, it’s probably not correct to say that academics are cowards. We hear exhortations that they should have the courage to risk their positions by speaking out because they have options. They have PhDs for God’s sake—surely they can get another job somewhere. This is a popular myth, but the opposite is nearer to the truth. Getting a PhD often locks a person into very few options other than to toe whatever line is needed to stay in academia. If we’re going to solve many of the institutional problems facing the academic working environment, not least the creep of Social Justice ideology into these institutions, the reality of the PhD job market is going to have to be taken into account.

To understand and find a workable path forward, we need to empathize.

Imagine yourself as a relatively new PhD. Chances are that you have spent anywhere between the last three and twelve years dedicated to higher education, and you have been following a path of increasing difficulty, paired with increasingly specific and narrow focus. By definition, supposing your committee and institution were up to the task and you’re not a rather extreme outlier, you should be for about eighteen months the world’s foremost authority on some exceptionally narrow topic within a subfield of whatever field you tell people that you got your doctorate in. You’re going to be competent in other aspects of that field, of course, but it’s important to remember that you’ve spent at least the last two or three years of your program (or the entire program, depending on the country where you studied) going right to the bottom of some fairly deep rabbit hole.

Why did you do this? Passion. Love. Interest. Enthusiasm. To pursue the simple dream of doing something you genuinely love doing.

It’s virtually impossible to push yourself through a PhD program unless you truly love the subject you’re studying and want to devote your working life to researching it and teaching it—which means getting an academic job. And earning a PhD isn’t exactly a picnic. (When I did my master’s degree, my reaction was that it was a bit surprising how easy it was to earn compared to my expectations going into the program. When I finished my Ph.D., the only thing I could say was, “they don’t give those away!”) In nearly every case, it takes a great deal of dedication, interest and passion to earn a PhD, to say nothing of luck and talent.

The phrase grad student is misleading. It seems to many kind of like Easy Street. But many PhD students and postdocs work obscene hours—often in excess of eighty hours a week—to keep up with their educational, research and job duties, especially if they want to do well enough to score a tenure-track job later. They usually get summers off from coursework so that they can work even harder on their research, so there’s no real break there. They also usually do this out of passion and grit because there’s hardly any money in graduate assistantship stipends in the wide majority of fields.

And don’t get this wrong. This isn’t a poor PhD candidate story: it’s a tale of investment. A PhD program isn’t just school (or college); it is just another kind of apprenticeship like that any master tradesperson has to go through, except that it takes about a decade of insanely hard work to get through the first stage of it. To earn a PhD requires an enormous investment of time, energy, talent and resources. And what do you get in return (besides your degree and a set of wizard’s robes, complete with a hooded cape and a goofy hat)? (Note: You have to buy the robes and hat, and they’re expensive. Further, you’ll never wear them again unless you go into academia professionally.)

Pause to consider this. Chances are, if you’re looking for academic jobs, especially in the sciences, you’re coming off a postdoc or two, so you’ve literally spent the last decade or more in training for the job you hope to get. You’ve made incredible sacrifices for it. You’ve invested more into getting past the first hurdle of a future career than almost anyone else. Just imagine training at double full time, paid less than minimum wage, for a decade for a job and then being able to think it’s worth risking the career you’re working for to make a political point, even a really important or necessary one.

It’s not easy to call that cowardice when you see what it’s really about.

But you got a PhD at the end of it, so you’ve got little to worry about now, right? Wrong. By the time you earn your PhD, you will have achieved a few things, all of which contribute to why your job prospects outside of the academy border upon the mythological.

One: you’ll be hyper-competent in something pretty narrow and specific, while being generally knowledgeable about the raft of information that supports that specific set of skills. This isn’t particularly great for you, unless you get to apply that specific focus or fall into something closely related. This isn’t really a problem within the academy because it’s where your passion for researching and teaching led you—and it’s the job you trained yourself for—but if you abandon academia, it is a big problem.

Two: you will become overqualified for the vast majority of positions in the working world. For a long time, I wasn’t able to understand how overqualification is a problem, but I do now. If you are overqualified, you aren’t just worth more than many employers might want to pay; you’re worth more for a specific and important reason that matters far more than your education. Employers know that overqualified employees aren’t likely to last a long time in their jobs. It’s altogether too likely that an overqualified employee will become bored with their current job or find one more fitting to their qualifications and leave. This is a real risk for an employer, especially one who may (or may not!) already be paying you a lot more for your time than they’d pay someone rightly qualified for the work. This limits your employment options to something for which you are genuinely qualified (mostly in academia), jobs that don’t care about high turnover rates or jobs obtained through nepotism.

Three: despite having proved your capacity to learn new things and get very, very good at them, you’re likely to be essentially useless at everything else. I know this is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of PhDs, but it’s exactly how they’re seen from the outside. Even making the jump from a coding-heavy science specialty to something like commercial data mining—which you probably have the skills to adjust to quickly—isn’t an easy sell.

The result of this is the following employability portfolio. Unless something pretty fortunate happens to you (or nepotism), you can either (a) get a job in your field, which will almost certainly be in academia for most PhDs; (b) attempt to build something on your own; or (c) work somewhere that has high enough employee turnover not to care about your overqualification, for example, as a stocker in a grocery store or a barista in a coffee shop. The myth here is that (b) is easy because you have a PhD. It is, in fact, by far the most difficult of the three options. And (c) is about two notches above throwing the hardest decade of your life in a dumpster and setting it on fire.

Essentially, shooting for that job in academia—which is probably your main ambition anyway—takes a ton of work but is worth competing for because building something successful on your own takes a lot of auxiliary skills, work, time and luck, and it’s still extremely high risk. Most people who try this path fail, and there’s nothing in staying in formal educational spheres until you’re almost thirty that increases your odds at making it in the real world.

Worse, you haven’t probably had the time or resources to lay any of the tracks to pull this off if you’ve been working in academia up until this point because those jobs are usually insanely busy, especially now. That also implies that you can’t really safety net yourself in an academic job while you start building something because working in academia (especially sub-tenure) will leave you with absolutely no time to build a goddamn thing.

Because there are so many people with PhDs now and so many more in the educational pipeline, the academic jobs you’re after (both for practical reasons and because, remember, it’s probably your dream) are insanely competitive—often against people who literally cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t want to work as hard as they can for every waking moment of their lives. Therefore, these extremely demanding jobs don’t come easily, and thus there’s a lot of justifiable fear of losing one. (The applications process for academic jobs is, itself, a fairly brutal full-time job—except it doesn’t pay a cent.) This is even without factoring in the insane investment that went into being qualified for them in the first place.

It’s grimmer than that, though. Because your skill set is likely to be highly specific in your research and limited to education outside of it, there’s pretty much nothing left for you in the overqualification gulf between these options and working the back room of a big box store. And you can’t safety net there, either.

The same forces also make for another type of hypercompetitive pressure on academic jobs—you go obsolete fast. Your skills are hyper-specific, and there’s an army of people coming up behind you, with similar hyper-specific skills, which are just that little bit more fresh. Remember how I mentioned that you’ll be the world’s expert in your dissertation topic for about eighteen months? Yeah, well, take that much time off, and you’re obsolete. There’s no bridge back, at least not to a tenure-track position at a research university. After that much time has passed out of active work in your field, it will be virtually impossible for you to convince anyone that you’re marketable against the glut of hungry candidates who haven’t stepped away for a minute.

So, if you’re going to go for that academic job, you’re going to have to chain yourself to it. Your alternatives are to abandon it entirely (along with your dreams and most of the point of your hard work up to that point) and either take the great risk of building something new, completely changing course in life (probably by taking up a trade), or working in the lowest sectors of the economy, just as you could have done without ever chasing your dreams first.

So take a minute to imagine working a double-full-time apprenticeship in something you’re passionate about and want to do more than anything else in your life, doing it for a decade, and then having to give that up to serve someone coffee because you had political opinions that bucked the institutional orthodoxy. Worse, tenure is (perceived to be) little protection against the considerable inroads made by the Social Justice ideology into the academic institution’s administrative ranks, so that the further one goes in an academic career, the more one has to lose by challenging it. To lose tenure is, in a best case scenario, to have to earn it again, and if PhDs don’t come easy, tenure is far worse. It’s a grim picture.

This set of options sucks so much ass that it’s perfectly reasonable—not cowardly in the least—for so many academics to choose chaining themselves to their careers to be able to keep doing the thing they loved enough to go to college for a decade to be able to do and teach. I mean, you could go back to teaching as an adjunct, but you’re quite literally better off bartending.

In short, we don’t see most academics risking their careers to speak out against the creep of Social Justice ideology or other institutional and administrative nightmares because the risks just aren’t worth the potential rewards in most cases. This isn’t cowardice. It’s a legitimate problem to be overcome.

The thing is, there won’t be change if a few faculty members speak up. On the contrary, by putting themselves in the firing line and being summarily executed, other academics are likely to be further deterred from speaking out. To make a difference will require a critical mass action. It will require honest communication between academics for them to realize how many of them there are who see the same problem and become emboldened enough to feel safe speaking up about the institutionalization of a Social Justice orthodoxy throughout the academy and beyond. What we need now is a way for academics to connect with each other, share their concerns, discuss ways in which they can support each other and then all speak out at once.

The question comes down to what working scientists and other academics who are concerned about Social Justice ideology can do about any of this. Here are a few suggestions. Do as much as you can feel safe doing. That may mean making anonymous posts on message boards, social media or elsewhere. It may mean signing your name to the same, if you think you can. It is probably helpful to feel out the situation with your colleagues and find out whom you can talk to or to seek out similar people online. The purpose of this is to realize that many other people are concerned that the educational reformers and Social Justice busybodies have gone too far. Recognize that what these groups are after is far more than the pleasant sounding diversity, inclusion and equity and look into what those terms really mean. You may find that a great deal of what they’re after is at direct odds with your core values, and this might rouse you to want to do more about it. Most importantly, realize that you’re not alone in this, and you probably have far more colleagues who agree with you than who do not.

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38 comments

  1. One way of mitigating some of the collective active problems James mentions (for example, wanting to say something but not wanting to expose yourself to reprisals by being the only one saying it) is by joining groups like Heterodox Academy. Membership in such groups immediately signals to other academics that you’re willing to stand up for fundamental academic values like free speech and respectful disagreement. Once the numbers get big enough, others will see them and realize they’re not alone. Hopefully that will help them speak their minds too.

  2. This article claims that concerned scientists, for fear of instant and prolonged reprisal, don’t speak up for the truth against a derelict hegemony on the rise. The phrase “crocodile.tears” immediately comes to mind. Perhaps scientists would be more acquainted with the intellectual requirements of shepherding the truth if they had done a little more of it over the past half century or so.

    This discrepancy is not at all difficult to illustrate. In the 1930’s Alan Matheson Turing wrote a paper about a conceptual machine that used a set of symbols and constraints in order to hold and process information. That paper would lead directly to the modern digital information age. In the 1940’s John Von Neumann famously used Turing’s machine to predict the physical and organizational requirements of an autonomous self-replicator (i.e. like a living cell). In the 1950’s Francis Crick experimentally confirmed Von Neumann’s predictions when he discovered a reading-frame code embedded in DNA, and further predicted that a set of necessary constraints would be found at work in the gene system as well (which were themselves confirmed by Hoagland and Zamecnik). Then in the 1960’s, physicists such as Pattee confirmed (from a purely physical perspective) that the gene system was indeed, not only a symbol system, but the only other example of symbolic *language* (other than human language and mathematics) described anywhere else in the physical cosmos. Who stood up for that truth in science? One only needs to mention the words “intelligent design” to see how brutal and effective the hegemony in science has been. Yet, the facts remain.

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  3. Even though I very much sympathize with this fear, I think it is also important to emphasize that science and rationality and liberalism alone are not solutions. There is a dogma in every academic and political pursuit. The thing to fear about SJW religiosity is that it is static and self-righteous, whereas a more scientific approach is more likely to change.

    I think Douglas Murray said it best during his conversation with Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in London: “We may be in the midst of the discovery that the only thing worse than religion is it’s absence… Look at the religions that people are making up as we speak. I mean every day there’s a new dogma, and you and I and Jordan have repeatedly tripped over those dogmas. And usually survived it has to be said, but they’re stampeding to create a new religion all the time at the moment. Every new heresy that’s invented–and they’re not as well thought through as past heresies. They don’t always have the same repercussions yet, but you can easily see a situation in which they do. I mean, a new religion is being created as we speak, by a new generation of people who think they are non-ideological, who think they are very rational, who think they’re past myth, who think they’re past story, who think they’re better than any of their ancestors, and have never bothered to study their ancestors.”

    Science and liberalism are good, but not good enough. I think SJWs are really on a quest more meaning as much as Islamic terrorists and neo-Nazis are. Liberalism has its limits in the meaning it can provide because it is so anti-communitarian. I think we need to look bad to the kind of politics of Thomas Jefferson (minus the racism and slavery) in order to re-energize the quest for meaning in politics in order to counter Social Justice. We have reached the limits of liberalism it seems, and it is time to update our own dogmatism.

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    1. @Anonymous, you said, “Look at the religions people are making up as we speak”…and ….”they’re stampeding to create a new religion all the time at the moment.”

      Yes and no. Yes, in the blatant way religions are trying very hard to keep up with educated people’s research by making excuses that their god is making these things possible through mere mortal’s discoveries.

      No, in that if you look on the timeline of religions there are no new religions per se but quite a number of spiritual kinds of belief systems which offer their own kinds of specific dogma which also does little to help give answers as to why we are here and the meaning of life.

      Both religious and spiritual populations rely heavily on mere mortal scientist’s empiral results which they will, in their delusional approach, exclusively give credit to a male god.

      Sad.

      1. @K Spence, I think you misunderstood. The “new religions” that Murray was referring to are Social Justice and Political Correctness. These are religions because they have a thorough moral system and a set of precedures and taboos and prescribed ways to interact. There is no God in the Judeo-Christian literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense they do. And importantly, they are based on nothing but thin air: postmodernism and a fear of coercion.

  4. «Gulag»…
    You are correct more than you think. I wrote the comment above. I am from the former USSR and I meant exactly Gulag. The only reason I wrote “Auschwitz” is that Western people are less familiar with Gulag. Many of them think Gulag is about “re-education”. They do not know that it is possible to cut calves of alive woman to quench the hunger.

  5. Truthful article…tells it like it is.

    Not all who attain high academic status are worthy of practice or teaching and all face the challenges of whatever hoops they went through in their expensive course studies to often face their hard-earned knowledge becoming obsolete during and after their graduation—especially in technology.

    Among associates who work as scientists and engineers, their innate talents in math surpass academic classroom study which makes such pursuits in PhD requirements null and somewhat unnecessary.

    SJWs initially began promoting a way to further push equality—which is a both a conscientious and futile endeavor. A higher or genius intelligence is not guaranteed by a piece of paper at the end of long years’ of academic study. Period. You either already possessed the talent or you were a lucky beneficiary of your parents’ or some government program which spent the money on academic classroom studies to achieve a PhD.

    If there’s a person who solely took out loans to achieve a PhD. or who rides on an implemented government program, I’d be afraid—very afraid—of what you have to offer because the constantly expanding expenses of the academic system allows anyone to buy a diploma as long as they show up and make a barely passing grade.

    Academic PhD. pursuits aside, Artificial Intelligence will eventually make us all become “useless” according to futurists. Perhaps learning how to be excellent caregivers will become the more needed and feasible trend—it’s certainly needed more now, in these times already, than a doctorate degree.

  6. Initially, academics are afraid and keep silence. Then they repeat the lies they don’t believe in. Then they begin to believe in the lie which they say and start to punish heretics.
    And finally an ordinary man becomes the commandant of Auschwitz.

    1. A lot academics will read this article, nodding their approval at each point. They’ll also read Sebastian’s comment below and agree that it’s not worth going against the middle managers. Then they’ll read your comment and roll their eyes. “Puh-leease” they’ll say, “let’s not get into histrionics.”

      But you’re more right than they are. Sooner or later one of their colleagues (or even the dreaded middle manager!) will ask them to, say, sign a petition condemning some heretic. Will they have the spine to say no when they’ve already capitulated to the current state of affairs and the stakes are even higher now? Of course not. They’ll do it to save their own skins.

      Not long after this they’ll be cajoled into denouncing themselves—just as an exercise, of course, a way of thinking about privilege or racism. They’ll be expected to confess their colleagues’ guilt too because to not call others out on their heresy is to perpetuate it—again, all just an exercise. Until it isn’t an exercise anymore because, well, that’s not the sort of thing that should go unpunished.

      This train will keep rolling down the hill until they get off their knees and stop it.

      1. I’d suggest to make it more in tune with reality it works better referencing the Gulag than Auschwitz. Fairly recently an official twitter account from Goldsmith College did make reference to sending some who’d expressed heretical ideas to the gulag for re-education. They were serious.
        It’s hardly surprising as there’s something dehumanising in the ‘structural power’ ‘oppressors’ vs ‘oppressed’ world view. It’s why those who would see themselves as morally righteous have few qualms about abusing opponents or even using violence.

        1. «Gulag»…
          You are correct more than you think. I wrote the comment above. I am from the former USSR and I meant exactly Gulag. The only reason I wrote “Auschwitz” is that Western people are less familiar with Gulag. Many of them think Gulag is about “re-education”. They do not know that it is possible to cut calves of alive woman to quench the hunger.

  7. Another aspect of the professor’s problem is that once you are over 45 or so you cannot change jobs. Schools hire the fresh Ph.D. or maybe after a few years experience but associate or full profs are too expensive to hire. So if you lose your prof job your goose is cooked.

  8. It is indeed naive to believe SJWs won’t affect science. I personally know state climatologists and academics in climate science who have lost their jobs and I personally have been threatened. It is a lucky scientist who can work in human genetics or studies of intelligence and not be protested or worse. Academics in environmental science have in many cases given up objectivity entirely. Recently some colleges have instituted a requirement for prof applicants to submit a pro-diversity statement (what they have done and promise to do to promote diversity) –no one who supports pure merit approaches or notes that women already outnumber men on campus need apply.

  9. I chose option (b) about 2 years ago. Had the foresight to do this after my Masters’ when I realized what’s waiting on the PhD track. We’re about to finish development and go out to the market. Wish us luck! ✌️

  10. Galileo has long been a sort of mascot for scientists because, as legend has it, he faced down the Inquisition. Nowadays entire faculties of science can’t bring themselves to face down a few purple-haired teenagers. Time for the mascot to change—someone who’s more of boot-lick who does what his overlords command. Lysenko maybe?

    1. We’re not scared of purple-haired teens, just as Soviet citizens weren’t scared of some Marxist intellectuals smoking and drinking coffee. We’re scared of ambitious middle managers who aim to reach higher office and realize that they can look good by punishing heretics.

      1. I’m sure Borges wrote a story with a protagonist whose list of fears were Grendel, the Inquisition, the Luftwaffe, and middle managers. The story was never published, however, because the acquisitions editor was an academic and didn’t get the joke.

        Anyway, there’s fear of real things and fear of theoretical things. In my experience, the cause of the latter is either paranoia or (mostly just) rationalization. Given that you’re publishing here, I’m betting on the latter cause. But your fear is unfounded. Middle managers don’t hunt down heretics because they’re too strong a prey for middle managers; such people sacrifice scapegoats that are easy to isolate from the rest. (Rene Girard describes the phenomenon perfectly, though you could just watch a chicken coop for a few hours and see the same thing.) All you need to do to keep your head is use your head. They will back off. And you will gain two supporters for every one you lose.

        By the way, I should mention that I accidentally up-voted you when I tried to hit reply.

  11. This could have been written with a lot less colloquial snark. Grand Wizards? Inquisitions? These are not nouns used in a serious paper, except perhaps on specific portions of history. It does no good to stoop.

  12. The article is basically a long winded summary of the reasons why academics are cowards which is the usual that they have a great deal to lose and very little to gain.

    Why and how we got into a position where almost all academics are rightly too scared to publically state things which have good evidence but contradict current fashionable poliical dogma despite there being no majority support for that dogma in society is not discussed but would be more interesting. the discussion also needs to include the parallel rise in overt racism and sexism encouraged in our universities despite being explcitly against policies as long as it is the right sexim and racism.

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  13. And yet, by your own recent exercise, all these intensely hard working and ‘fresh for just 18 months’ at the very height of their speciality academics cannot weed out cobbled together hoax submissions to their journals. Something doesn’t compute about the ‘hard work’ and ‘deep expertise’ and what seems to come out the other end.

    1. The rot that he exposed was specific to certain fields, and the people who review for journals in this fields.

      This article is about why people in other fields won’t criticize grievance studies, and won’t fight back when the grievance studies people show up and tell them to conform to certain rules in the name of Diversity.

  14. James,

    While it’s hard to disagree with any of the concrete points you made I think if you take those arguments a bit further it actually DOES paint a vivid portrait of academic cowardice, albeit for reasons beyond dealing with the current plague of antirational SocJus religionists that have taken over the asylum.

    When you detail the travails of the PhD process and how much is sunk into pursuing an academic career I don’t think you actually go far enough in painting just how bleak a portrait it is. The crushing poverty almost all PhD’s experience for those 5-12 years, often setting them permanently behind their peers if they don’t win the tenure lottery or happen to have picked a discipline that is actually useful in the real world. The constant specter of depression, anxiety and other mental illness that the insane work hours and often artificially high advisor expectations of output breed at rates 3 times or higher the general populace. Now on top of it we have the crushing self-censorship and thought policing that the administration apparatchiks enforce upon campuses nowadays. You are entirely correct when discussing how hyper-specialized but generally useless for real world use the PhD process renders an individual, essentially predestining doctoral students to pursuing an academic career.

    But the academic career is a cruel joke at this point, and grows more so with each passing year. As if the Sisyphean hell of the PhD itself wasn’t enough, add on years of postdoc-ing and/or adjuncting at barely improved wages all while scrounging and scraping for the mere CHANCE at getting an actual tenure track position. The pursuit of that title becomes its own workaholic hell, but even the odds of finding one of those decrease every year as universities churn out more and more PhDs in disciplines only suited to competing for the chance to feed back into the credentialist Ponzi scheme of the modern university conning undergraduates into going into crippling debt in majors that provide no useful skills or real world value. And THAT soul selling fate belongs to the lucky few percent who win the academic job lottery, with everyone else having literally nothing but wasted decades of their lives to show for it.

    And now you get to do all of that while looking over your shoulder hoping someone doesn’t subject you to career destroying mobbing for saying/doing the wrong thing or in the wrong way, or even doing nothing at all except for being easy prey for some intersectional predator to earn virtue signaling points destroying.

    Yes, we PhD students and academics all are cowards, or at best naïve lemmings who haven’t broken their academic Stockholm syndrome, because we tolerate what any other self-respecting group of people would find intolerable and walk away from, if not outright burn to the ground in revolt. This is why for years I’ve literally told every undergrad I’ve ever TA’ed to NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES consider a PhD. To encourage anyone to submit themselves to that ordeal given the current situation is perverse and cruel, if not downright evil. But faculty need research serfs to churn out papers for them, and universities need bodies to do the real day to day work of dealing with the ungodly amount of students they lure into their own little debt traps…thus the predation continues apace as it always has and the Ponzi scheme lives on.

    Meanwhile I can’t help but laugh every time the discussion of “how to beat back Social Justice” comes up because all the solutions ring so hollow. While I’m sure you’re right (and have the support letters to prove it) that many more PhDs and faculty than would say so in public recognize the threat, or at least don’t appreciate the current campus climate, quantity matters far less than quality in the hierarchal ossified bureaucracy of the modern campus; especially when subversives can be swapped out for starving adjuncts at the drop of a hat. When it comes to all the positions of authority, be it campus wide or on a department by department basis, the people who genuinely adhere to the Cult of SocJus are almost certainly in the majority, with complete control over many “disciplines” on campus. I don’t think it is coincidence either that those are the disciplines where you can do pointless, shoddy or outright made up work to give you the time to be an agitator, unlike those researchers who actually have to do the hard grueling work of real science. Though gods know anyone who thinks the sciences aren’t tainted, at least from above, as well are fooling themselves; SocJus Indoc sessions have been the core part of orientation for MATH TA’S at my “top” public research university for years now as a pet project of the department heads as but one anecdote.

    There is no way in hell that merely speaking up and shining a light on the evil absurdity of their ideology will do anything to stop them; the cultists are in complete control of the machinery and are dogmatic in their belief to the point of being immune to reason, as episode after episode has illustrated. If exposing and excoriating their stupidity wasn’t enough in the original PC/Science wars of the early 90’s, before they had two more decades to consolidate their power, it sure as hell isn’t going to do anything now.

    The only hope there is of curing this systemic infection is getting enough people in academia to threaten, and be willing to actually follow through on, walking away from academia to leave it to fall apart and die. Only that threat of existential annihilation has a chance at getting administrators to blink and agree to the return to enlightenment norms and perform the otherwise impossible restructuring, if not outright purging, of all of the contaminated disciplines as well as those individuals (and ideologies) that poisoned them in the first place.

    But I won’t be holding my breath on that…luckily the student debt bubble should, sooner or later, do the dirty work for us that we all are, yes, too cowardly (or self-interested) to do ourselves.

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    1. I messed up my life pretty badly in my last year of university, ended up not completing my essay for honors in English Lit and graduated with a barely passing grade. I then spent years working in retail and as a barista before deciding I needed a grown up job and reluctantly settling for some computer-y re-education and a cubicle. This comment and the article above make me realize what a bullet I dodged. There may be SJW idiocy in tech but at least the people I know and respect (and follow on Twitter) can fight back (because at the end of the day, if you can do the job someone will hire you)

  15. all of this raises the question: are the costs being sunk too high? because to this art school dropout, parts of what you’ve just described seem to border on (or even blow past at breakneck speed) usury. to say nothing of tipping the scales very much against people without families capable of providing financial support for them throughout the PhD program. perhaps this is a system stuck in the eighteenth century, badly in need of reform, and may even be inadvertently filtering out some of the merit it purports to distill.

  16. I’m usually persuaded by your writing, James, but I expected a much more in-depth treatment of the effect of tenure than this:

    “Worse, tenure is (perceived to be) little protection against the considerable inroads made by the Social Justice ideology into the academic institution’s administrative ranks, so that the further one goes in an academic career, the more one has to lose by challenging it.”

    If I were your editor I would have commented that “perceived to be” is doing way too much work in this sentence; you need to unpack why tenure is not actually a protection for tenured professors who speak their minds on the corrosive effect of Social Justice ideology. Tenure may be difficult to get for most academics, but it is a form of job security and is virtually unique to academia. So, I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but from the outside looking in, tenured faculty who don’t resist the increasing encroachment of social justice dogma into their fields do appear to be cowards.

    1. At a bare minimum, challenging certain assertions would lead to a loss of productive research collaborators.

      I would almost certainly not be allowed to serve on various committees where I have done work that makes a difference in my university and in professional societies.

      I would be under a microscope. We all make mistakes, and my mistakes would be policed far more rigorously than anyone else’s. Our job security is not unlimited. I’ve seen what the politically favored individuals get away with, and what the disfavored individuals get scrutinized/threatened over.

      I do gently challenge certain assertions in certain settings, but I’m not about to stand up in the middle of the mandatory implicit bias training and start quoting the Ceci & Williams study. I’m not about to argue with my Dean when she starts talking about the Implicit Association Test and how it allegedly proves that we all have biases that affect our decisions and make us racist and sexist. I’ll send the relevant studies to certain trusted colleagues who might be persuadable. I’ll point to data on the predictive validity of standardized tests with certain trusted colleagues. But if I’m in a large group and a person with political clout makes some blatantly false assertion, and then follows it up with a proclamation that those who disagree are sexist or racist? Sorry, not fighting that one. I’ll talk one-on-one with trusted people afterward.

      1. I do all of those things at my workplace, and I don’t have tenure (I’m not an academic).

        What actual protection does tenure offer you? If its protections are so limited, why is it so sought after? Is it more of a status issue rather than freedom to express heterodox thoughts?

        These are not rhetorical questions, I’m genuinely curious to get your perspective. Thanks.

        1. Two things:
          1) In matters unrelated to diversity issues, I have tremendous professional autonomy. Were I not using a pseudonym I could point you to concrete ways in which I have innovated in my teaching, research, and professional service.

          2) Even in these political matters, they’d have to do some work if they wanted to fire me. I exercise caution because I fear that they could (after some time) succeed in that work, were they to try it. But they would have to work for it.

      2. Your comments begs the question to what extent do those with real power within academic institutions buy into the ideology, are they just running scared of the bullies, or are just abdicating their responsibilities to shapes the institutions as places of learning. I know that stats regarding professors, and get that those with heterodox views may have much to lose by sticking their head above the parapet. But i would have thought the further you go up the structural food chain they less you’re threatened by staff and students no matter how vociferous they maybe in their absurd threats.
        Surely it’s they who could in theory set the tone, and make those who would want to speak out feel like those at the top of the institution have their back.
        I realise academia is it’s own beast, but when environments’ within organisations turn toxic, the buck usually stops at the top.

        1. Administrators have even less security, actually. They can be summarily dismissed by the people above them. Dismissing a tenured professor at least requires some work. (Many of those administrators have tenured faculty positions that they can return to if they have to leave their administrative jobs, but people who have spent too much time in the world of no teaching, high pay, large offices, nice luncheons, and plush travel perks rarely want to return to the grubby world of grading papers, lower pay, and getting chalk dust on their clothes.)

          Also, they all want to move up the ladder, and they know that they will need to demonstrate some diversity-related accomplishments in order to do so. An aspiring professor being interviewed just has to say something nice about diversity, and talk about their experiences working nicely with people from different backgrounds. (Given how many international students there are in PhD programs, it’s not hard to come up with an anecdote about working with people from different backgrounds.) An aspiring upper administrator, on the other hand, needs to show that when they were in their previous administrative job they improved diversity numbers in some way. Some of those putative accomplishments might involve questionable interpretations of statistics, but they still need to at least look like they’re doing something concrete. They are under quite a bit of pressure to deliver for the ideological enforcers.

          All of the administrators on my campus are basically issuing threats to faculty hiring committees, insinuating that if we don’t hire enough non-Asian minorities and/or women (at least in male-dominated fields) then they won’t approve our hiring decisions and we’ll be short-staffed. They need to do this because improving faculty diversity numbers is the best way for them to move up the administrative ladder.

  17. I do fight whatever small fights that I can. I do quietly mentor students who are bothered by this stuff and have the self discipline to keep their mouths shut when necessary. I do use my position to help the careers of people who are doing good things.

    If I get in trouble, I guarantee that I will either be replaced by an adjunct (with even less security to fight whatever fights I’ve been able to wage) or a tenure track person who was selected for vocal wokeness (given the current demands for very woke Diversity Statements in job applications, and the fact that a department hiring someone after a scandal would be under intense scrutiny).

    Some day somebody will speak out in a way that makes a difference and then the frauds will be edposed. In the meantime, some of us are laying the groundwork for that day. Some of us are protecting good people, pushing back on the margins, mentoring students who have promise but don’t conform ideologically, and quietly subverting where we can. Some of us are quietly reminding colleagues that the excesses tolerated in the name of Diversity look a lot like theocracy.

    We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t escape overnight.

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