[A student] organization wanted to invite former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in late spring or early fall 2016. Fortunately, the administration has to review all such invitations. We debated and did not just rubber-stamp this particular invitation. We asked the student leaders to engage in a conversation.It's called teaching the controversies, and too often, this columnist's concluding remarks are honored in the breach. "The best learning often happens during debate, disagreement and controversy. We do well to remember that our educational missions are part of a continuing process intended to result in graduates more capable of navigating the world than when they first entered our campuses."
That conversation went as follows: as a college, we will not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking, but we want to know, what teaching purpose do you believe will be served? What will he contribute to academic discourse? And how likely is it that he will persuade other students to adopt your point of view? If you truly believe in the positions you’re promoting, then why bring in a speaker who’s just a flamethrower? Why not bring in someone who is capable, in open discussion, of winning hearts and minds?
And the student leaders responded with, “You know, you’re right.” Engaging them in conversation before they brought in the speaker enabled our community to head off a potential problem.
There's a lengthy essay by James A. Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose that suggests the "potential problem" might not be so much with Milo Yiannopolous as it is with those constituencies within the university whose priors are so tight that a speaker capable of winning hearts and minds still has no business speaking. There's much more in the essay than I can do justice to, thus I'll limit my elaborations to two points.
They start with a statement of principles very much in the spirit of that "the best learning" passage.
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 principle, yes. In practice, not so much.
[O]ur 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.For thirty years, at least, we have understood the first argument.
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.
Universities are failing to carry out their mission. Contributing to this failure is a collection of ideas we call "politically correct." The intellectual foundation of these ideas is an extreme relativism that questions the possibility of objective knowledge and seeks to dispel "coherent beliefs of any kind." A university built on such a foundation cannot stand.It has taken a long time for that foundation to crack, or for voices with greater influence than mine, to point out what's gone wrong. Messrs Lindsay and Pluckrose are naming names: now, who is to kick butts?
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.Indeed so, although such ludicrously silly and horrifying papers are easy to undermine with mockery.
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.
The mind-set that leads to the production of such papers is corrosive, and ought be called out, unsparingly. Thus:
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.It takes a theory to beat a theory. As economist George Stigler had it, a theory that offers an explanation less than half the time is less efficient than flipping a coin. I've read through a few of these -studies papers over the years, and the impression I get is of extended literature reviews heavy on verbiage and light on analysis.
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 second argument sees a problem with what the authors see as the conservative case against higher education.
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.Earlier in the essay, the authors link the populist objection to higher education with an explicitly religious argument.
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.Dear reader, there need be no conflict between evolutionary biology and a reluctance to tinker.
Specifically, "special creation" of the heavens and the earth has more in common with "social construction" as understood in the Church of Intersectionality. In the case of special creation, it is God's Work, Now and Ever Shall Be. Oppose or be damned. In the Church of Intersectionality, there is a Special Creation, if only Enlightened Acolytes can implement it. Oppose or be damned.
Evolutionary biology offers a strong counter-argument to Special Creation. Show me the fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.
Evolutionary thinking also offers strong counter-arguments to Social Construction.
Bipeds emerged from other primates. Bipeds who figured out how to trade favors and stuff lived longer and passed along their knowledge to their offspring. Bipeds who were better able to strike a balance between shunning others and interacting with others lived longer.
Thus, there's nothing wrong with never-ending questioning, or as I have it, playing with ideas, as an academic value. Provided the tinkering isn't experimenting with real people and no control groups.
Reality is biased toward social conservatism. Deconstruct that at your peril.