The Ideological Cesspool that is Academia

1. Kimberly Strassel writes,

Apparently the only kind of thought not allowed is that which might “undermine,” according to UnKochMyCampus, “environmental protection, worker’s rights, health care expansion, and quality public education.” Stopping such research is the mission of this organization, which is spearheaded by Greenpeace, Forecast the Facts (a green outfit focused on climate change), and the American Federation of Teachers.

2. Read Tyler Cowen’s post on Elizabeth Anderson, a chaired professor of philosophy invited to give a prestigious lecture at Princeton.

I won’t summarize her views, but I will pull out one sentence to indicate her stance: “Here most of us are, toiling under the authority of communist dictators, and we don’t see the reality for what it is.” These communist dictators are, in her account, private business firms. That description may be deliberately hyperbolic, but nonetheless it reflects her attitude that capitalist companies exercise a kind of unaccountable, non-democratic power over the lives of their workers, in a manner which she thinks is deserving of moral outrage.

I cannot view this charitably. The way it looks to me, if you are on one side of the ideological divide, you are harassed and hounded. If you are on the other side, someone whose ideas are ignorant and ridiculous is considered an eminent scholar.

I am not saying that no one should listen to Elizabeth Anderson or that she should not have a forum in which to speak. Exposure to a broad range of viewpoints is a good thing. I just wish that there were a little boy who would stand up and say that the empress has not the slightest bit of clothing until she can explain the concepts of exit and voice, and explain the different ways in which they empower individuals.

But as far as I can tell, broad exposure to ideas is not what our leading colleges and universities are providing these days. Let me provide a perspective on this, and on “critical thinking.”

Critical thinking is not challenging views that are disliked. Anyone can find fault with those with whom you disagree. It is questioning the views of people with whom you agree that constitutes critical thinking. Above all, it means questioning your own views.

Many people are familiar with Rene Descartes’ phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” Few people know the context. Descartes’ is meditating about what he can know with certainty. He asks, what if all of my sensory perceptions are simply tricks played on me by an evil demon? Then maybe everything I believe that I know about the world around me could be wrong. But I cannot be wrong about my belief that I am thinking. At least one entity in the world certainly exists, namely, the person doing this thinking.

The ability to question large chunks of your own belief system is for me the essence of a well-trained mind. When we share things that other people say and write on the Internet, chances are they are things that we agree with. How often do you share things that raise reasonable doubts about your beliefs? If you do that as often as once a month, you are doing well.

If the future truly belongs to those who can think critically, then today’s college faculty may be left behind.

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15 Responses to The Ideological Cesspool that is Academia

  1. Matt Osbun says:

    FIRE (www.thefire.org) completely agrees with this.

  2. Dave Smith says:

    Apparently the only kind of thought not allowed is that which might “undermine,” according to UnKochMyCampus, “environmental protection, worker’s rights, health care expansion, and quality public education.”

    There is no way one can underestimate the problem here. Because many who disagree with progressives on these points are not trying to undermine anything. Education is an example. I want Federal Funding for education to be zero. But I want that because I think Federal Funding for Education undermines education. These people could not even start to pass a Turing test, which is one of your main points of course.

  3. Dave Smith says:

    I’ll add this: I don’t see this as a problem where I teach now, which is a large regional university in the south/southwest. We have a wide range of ideologies among the faculty, including a bunch of kooks. I’m tenured, and am a high level administrator, so I know quite a bit about what is happening on campus.

    I saw it quite a bit at where I got my PhD.

    • Andrew' says:

      I’m thinking kooks and ideological persecution may be orthogonal.

    • Dain says:

      Somewhat mirrors my experience. Community college was almost totally non-politicized. When I got to four-year, it got worse.

      The leading lights of the university system are the worst. Meanwhile some commuter college in flyover country is staffed by more practical types.

  4. Michael says:

    I wonder if she feels the same about teacher-student relationships or, say, GAs’ and TAs’ bargaining power in big academia. Exit is a bit more complicated in academia.

  5. Jeff R. says:

    God and Man at Yale was published in 1951, over 60 years ago. This is an old problem, in other words, so in the interest of saying something original, let me throw this out there: lots of people like to bloviate about this, but no one really takes the problem all that seriously. Very few people, are picking colleges based on educational content. They base it on the signaling value of the college’s name. Revealed preferences, people. This is how vapid leftist ideology can thrive: because education consumers (ie, students and their parents) are less interested in what is being taught in non-core classes, and more that that they can regurgitate it coherently to demonstrate their skills in reading comprehension and writing, their conscientiousness, work ethic, etc. In that sense, you could even argue that the more bizarre, impenetrable, and detached from reality the curriculum or theory is, the smarter you have to be to write a paper disguising these facts.

    Notice that the handful of attempts to construct alternative institutions, like GMU, for example, or Hillsdale, haven’t exactly turned the academic world on its ear. Notice also, that in many cases, people on the right have chosen to swap one brand of nonsense for another, like at Liberty University, Bob Jones or Patrick Henry (hello, creationists).

    • R Richard Schweitzer says:

      But, are there still “scholars?”
      What gave rise to “Think Tanks?’
      Where is scholarship now practiced?
      There’s a little bit of everything everywhere.

    • Andrew' says:

      I consider the undergraduate problem to be somewhat distinct from the graduate level problem.

      I suspect you are right that nobody really cares what they tell undergrads. But people are deeply interested in graduate students (future allies), grants, steering research program paradigms, policy influence, etc

  6. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    “The ability to question large chunks of your own belief system is for me the essence of a well-trained mind.”

    And that must include understanding HOW this came to be so for you; then, whether you have really developed that ability to examine correctly.

  7. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    For Elizabeth Anderson, I would suggest large doses of Robert Nozick.

    For the current conditions in academia, considering how they came into being in my experience (going back to the 1930s et seq.) I marvel at the nature of the demise beginning and the nature of what appears to be arising to follow.

  8. N. says:

    Arnold —

    Anderson has, apparently, spoken to your points on voice and exit at least once before. From her page of abstracts:


    “Comment on Dawson’s “Exit, Voice, and Values in Economic Institutions,” Economics and Philosophy 13 (1997): 101-105.

    Graham Dawson provides a novel moral defense of market provision by stressing the value of theinterpersonal relationships of customer markets. I argue that his distinction between auction and customer markets cannot bear the moral weight he places on it, nor does it undercut my arguments for ethical limitations on the market.

    I haven’t read the piece, but I would be interested in you giving a (perhaps more charitable, perhaps not) once-over and reporting back.

  9. ThomasL says:

    Quick apostrophe to Descartes, a strong critique from a methodical realist standpoint is Etienne Gilson’s “The Unity of Philosophical Experience”.

    It is one of those rare books of philosophy that is approachable, even witty, as well as learned. He is a talented writer, as well as being intimately acquainted with the works and thought of the philosophers and philosophies that he is examining.

  10. Aaron Powell says:

    I feel like I should pop in to quickly defend Anderson. She’s a much deeper and more subtle thinker than you give her credit for, and one who strikes me, in my interactions with her, as rather well-informed—and even perhaps a tad sympathetic—with libertarian political philosophy. She’s not a libertarian, of course, but she’s also far from the cartoon Marxist you make her out to be.

    And I say that not just because she’s appeared on my podcast: http://www.libertarianism.org/media/free-thoughts-podcast/equality-capabilities-or-equality-outcomes

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