E-Pluribus | January 29, 2024
Curiosity requires free speech; there's more than one way to fight illiberalism; and the future of academic freedom.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Stephen L. Carter: College Is All About Curiosity. And That Requires Free Speech.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter says that curiosity is a prerequisite for a meaningful higher education experience. A lack of free expression on college campuses will kill curiosity.
In the wake of so traumatizing and polarizing an episode [Oct. 7 attack’s in Israel], to say nothing of its aftermath, students of different ideological persuasions will nevertheless behave like the rest of us, selecting facts from sources that share their predilections. This behavior is intellectually inside-out. A goal of higher education must be to train our students (and often ourselves) away from re-enacting endlessly the famous 1954 experiment by Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, in which students at Dartmouth and Princeton watched a film of a penalty-ridden football game between the two schools. When questioned about what they witnessed, each side’s partisans saw mainly the fouls committed by their opponents.
[. . .]
[I]f the purpose of the university classroom is simply to impart information, digital agents will soon perform the task better than experienced teachers, and colleges will find themselves unnecessary, merely duplicative of what students can get at home, cheaply and efficiently.
But this stumble toward redundancy rests upon a fatal misunderstanding of why the classroom exists. Teaching a subject is important; it is also in a sense incidental. The classroom is, first and foremost, a place to train young minds toward a yearning for knowledge and a taste for argument — to be intellectually curious — even if what they wind up discovering challenges their most cherished convictions. If the behavioral economist George Loewenstein is right that curiosity is a result of an “information gap” — a desire to know more than we do — then the most vital tasks of higher education are to help students realize that the gap always exists and to stoke their desire to bridge it.
The lineage of academic freedom can be traced back at least to the 15th century, but historians tell us that the modern conception comes largely from the German universities of the 19th century. As the physicist and philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz put the point in 1869, scholars must be “more fearless of the consequences of the whole truth than any other people.” In a world where so many “other people” are on the lookout for wrongthink, the ability to pursue truth becomes more precious still.
[. . .]
In her fine book “Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry,” Barbara M. Benedict shows how this quality that we nowadays consider a virtue was in the past often regarded as a dangerous disruption of the social order. The view on campus today is often much the same, with scholarly work guided along particular ideological paths, and with those who transgress often marked down as unpersons. What the essayist and literary critic George Steiner derided half a century ago as a “nostalgia for the absolute” is these days everyday academic life.
[. . .]
If telling students and faculty what they must not say is bad, telling them what they must say is often worse. The success of the university, Paulsen wrote, rests upon the notion “that truth is the sole aim and not the proof of officially prescribed and quasi-officially desired or at least permitted views.” During the second Red Scare, which began after World War II, the most significant threat to this view was the loyalty oath. Faculty members across the country were asked to swear allegiance to the United States and, often, to affirm that they were not and had never been Communists. Many who refused lost their jobs — including at the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful institutions.
Nowadays, I worry that we’re repeating the same mischief, with mandated (or strongly encouraged) “diversity statements” and the like. I’m often told that because I obviously agree with the goals the statements promote, I shouldn’t make a big deal out of them. But this objection misses the point. The “what’s the big deal?” approach puts me in mind of the philosopher Sidney Hook, who in a 1953 essay in The Times argued that an academic who refused to swear to not being a member of the Communist Party was like a chef who refused to say whether he was the one who poisoned the food. Not for a moment did Hook entertain the notion that the hypothetical professor might simply believe, as a matter of principle, that it is wrong to screen the professorate for ideological conformity.
It was wrong then; it is wrong now.
Don’t mistake me. I’m not against ideology and social movements, except when they interfere with academic curiosity. On campus, at least, you should be able to support Israel in the Gaza War, yet feel free to argue that the Israelis have prosecuted the conflict too aggressively; or to support the aspirations of the Palestinians, yet be willing to condemn unequivocally Oct. 7.
Read it all.
Bari Weiss: The Right Way to Fight Illiberalism with Christopher Rufo and Yascha Mounk debate
While Christopher Rufo has racked up some very public wins lately, Yascha Mounk has deep concerns about higher education and the direction of free expression. At The Free Press, Bari Weiss brought the two together to share their thoughts and contrast their approaches to illiberalism in the public square. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
As antisemitism has spread at our universities, many started asking how this could happen when campuses are famously sensitive to microaggressions. How could schools that provide students emotional support animals and cry closets allow this kind of thing?
Perhaps DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—wasn’t actually about those words, but about something else. It’s about replacing the principles of good-faith debate and truth-seeking scholarship with an illiberal orthodoxy that puts a premium on identity over ideas.
[. . .]
Those are not questions with simple answers, and certainly not ones on which Christopher [Rufo] and Yascha [Mounk] agree.
Christopher is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a board member at New College of Florida, and maybe the country’s most influential conservative activist and biggest cheerleader of Florida’s Stop Woke Act. He thinks that using the power of the law to stop DEI is essential.
Yascha, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an international affairs professor at Johns Hopkins University, is on the other side of the political spectrum.
While he thinks that DEI—and woke ideology more broadly—is concerning, he doesn’t think the answer to its illiberalism should come in the form of bans and legislation.
[. . .]
Bari Weiss: Some people call it wokeness, which sort of automatically brands you as being on the right. Other people call it critical theory or identity politics or postmodern neo-Marxism. There’s a lot of disagreement about how we actually describe this thing that all of us are witnessing. So I want to start there. What is it that we’re actually talking about?
Christopher Rufo: I think it’s an ideological syndrome. So it’s a cluster of traits, ideas, concepts, narratives, and bureaucratic arrangements that have really revolutionized American society over the past 50 years. I trace the immediate origins back to the year 1968, and the argument that I make in my book, America’s Cultural Revolution, is that all of the ideas from the radical left of that era—the late 1960s, early 1970s—have infiltrated universities and then started to move laterally through bureaucracies in the state sector, in K–12 education, in HR departments, and even the Fortune 100 companies. And what you see over the course of this process is some very kind of multisyllabic, complex ideological concepts from the originators of these ideas in that period. And now they’ve filtered out through bureaucratic language, through euphemisms, to become what we now know as DEI. That’s the ultimate bureaucratic expression of these ideologies.
You can call it—any of those labels that you just suggested, I think, are correct in general, at least facets of this ideology. But at this point, it’s not just an idea. It’s actually an administrative, cultural, and bureaucratic power that has manifested itself and entrenched itself as a new, let’s say, hegemonic cultural force in American life.
Yascha Mounk: I think the best way to boil down the ideas of this ideology is in three propositions. Number one, that identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation are the key prism for understanding society. But to understand how we talk to each other today, or to understand who won the last election, or to understand how political revolutions happen, you have to look at things like race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Number two, that universalist values and neutral rules, like those enshrined in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, are just meant to pull the wool over people’s eyes, that they actually were always designed to perpetuate forms of racist and sexist discrimination, that as Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory, claimed, America in the year 2000 remained as racist as it had been in 1950 and 1850.
And third, which follows rather needlessly if you grant the first two premises, that therefore, in order to make any kind of progress in our society, we have to rip up those universal rules and aspirations and make how we all treat each other, and how the state treats all of us, explicitly depend on the kind of identity group into which we are born. I think if you understand that that is the core of the ideology, what you call it is less important.
Read it all here.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: The Future of Academic Freedom
Most of us viewed the Claudine Gay drama at Harvard from the outside. Jeannie Suk Gersen watched it play out as a Harvard insider. A tenured law professor at Harvard since 2010, Gersen relates her perspective on the events at Harvard and the direction of academic freedom there for the New Yorker.
Sometime in the twenty-tens, it became common for students to speak of feeling unsafe when they heard things that offended them. I’ve been a law professor at Harvard since 2006. The first piece I wrote for The New Yorker, in 2014, was about students’ suggestions (then shocking to me) that rape law should not be taught in the criminal-law course, because debates involving arguments for defendants, in addition to the prosecution, caused distress. At the very least, some students said, nobody should be asked in class to argue a side with which they disagree. Since then, students have asked me to excuse them from discussing or being examined on guns, gang violence, domestic violence, the death penalty, L.G.B.T.Q. issues, police brutality, kidnapping, suicide, and abortion. I have declined, because I believe the most important skill I teach is the ability to have rigorous exchanges on difficult topics, but professors across the country have agreed to similar requests.
Over the years, I learned that students had repeatedly attempted to file complaints about my classes, saying that my requiring students to articulate, or to hear classmates make, arguments they might abhor—for example, Justice Antonin Scalia saying there is no constitutional right to same-sex intimacy—was unacceptable. The administration at my law school would not allow such complaints to move forward to investigations because of its firm view that academic freedom protects reasonable pedagogical choices. But colleagues at other schools within Harvard and elsewhere feared that their administrators were using concepts of discrimination or harassment to cover classroom discussions that make someone uncomfortable. These colleagues become more and more unwilling to facilitate conversations on controversial topics, believing that university administrators might not distinguish between challenging discussions and discrimination or harassment. Even an investigation that ended with no finding of wrongdoing could eat up a year of one’s professional life and cost thousands of dollars in legal bills. (A spokesperson for Harvard University declined to comment for this story.)
The seeping of D.E.I. programs into many aspects of university life in the past decade would seem a ready-made explanation for how we got to such a point. Danielle Allen, a political philosopher and my Harvard colleague, co-chaired the university’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, which produced a report, in 2018, that aimed to counter the idea that principles of D.E.I. and of academic freedom are in opposition, and put forward a vision in which both are “necessary to the pursuit of truth.” Like Allen, I consider the diversity of thought that derives from the inclusion of people of different experiences, backgrounds, and identities to be vital to an intellectual community and to democracy. But, as she observed last month in the Washington Post, “across the country, DEI bureaucracies have been responsible for numerous assaults on common sense.” Allen continued, “Somehow the racial reckoning of 2020 lost sight of that core goal of a culture of mutual respect with human dignity at the center. A shaming culture was embraced instead.”
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To demonstrate that it is against antisemitism, Harvard may face pressure to expand its definitions of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, so as to stifle more speech that is deemed offensive. In order to resist such pressures, the university needs to acknowledge that it has allowed a culture of censoriousness to develop, recommit itself to academic freedom and free speech, and rethink D.E.I. in a way that prizes the diversity of viewpoints. Though some argue that D.E.I. has enabled a surge in antisemitism, it is the pervasive influence of D.E.I. sensibilities that makes plausible the claim that universities should always treat anti-Zionist speech as antisemitism, much in the way that some have claimed that criticizing aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement—or even D.E.I. itself—is always discrimination. The post-Gay crisis has created a crossroads, where universities will be tempted to discipline objectionable speech in order to demonstrate that they are dedicated to rooting out antisemitism and Islamophobia, too. Unless we conscientiously and mindfully pull away from that path, academic freedom—which is essential to fulfilling a university’s purpose—will meet its destruction.
Read the whole thing.
Around Twitter (X)
Via Steve McGuire, here’s Harvard professor Steven Pinker writing in the Harvard Crimson:
Some discouraging statistics from Kevin Bass about college faculty:
And finally, from Steve McGuire, students in Canada shouting down a lecture on… “academic freedom”… (click for video)