Home/Rod Dreher/Exiles From the Academy

Exiles From the Academy

I’ve talked a few times here in recent days about the hostile work environment that conservatives may face on campus, at least in humanities and social sciences departments. I keep getting letters like this one, which I’ve altered to protect the grad student who sent it:

I’ve thought about writing you concerning the events of this week, but I probably said enough in the comments. And really, what more is there to say? How upset I am? (I am very upset). How disgraceful the reaction has been among academicians? I haven’t seen a single critical word spoken about the situations at Yale or Mizzou by any of my grad student or professor friends on social media. Mostly it’s been ignored. The few people who have said anything are uncritically positive, as though there’s no reason anyone who wasn’t a racist/bigot/whatever wouldn’t reflexively support the protestors. As though there just aren’t any good reasons to stop and think about whether or not there is anything going on here other than Bull Connor style racism.

Whatever. The idea of the Benedict Option is already having a real impact on my career plans, because even in the absence of all of this insanity I’ve been thinking long and hard about whether I want to play the “game” of higher education in the typical high-stakes way: prestigious postdoc one place, prestigious postdoc in another place, tenure track position in a third place, angled into a prime job somewhere else. I just don’t want to drag my family though that. Even if being a white-ish male wasn’t going to be held against me, and the fact that I work on [deleted] instead of trendy bullsh*t wasn’t going to be held against me, I have been having second thoughts about the role, if any, that I would ideally like to take in the American academy. I guess I’ll still apply for jobs. I don’t know. Lately what I’ve been thinking was to try to get an adjunct gig while I’m writing up my dissertation, and see what happens from there, but it’s hard to overstate just how upsetting this past week has been to me. Up until last week, somewhere in the back of my mind I still thought that maybe there was some way I could find my place in the American academy. That hope has been all but extinguished.

From another conservative, this one an academic in France; I’ve edited this slightly to make him hard to identify:

I really want to thank you for your blog, which does function as an excellent ongoing participative think tank, with you as director and main contributor. I think it can make a true difference in the future : keep on your work, I think you keep drawing more and more people to you and leading them to think, and hopefully to act (BenOp).

Much of what you describe in the US has happened over the pond as well. I’ve seen it in my [institution], in the general package, ambience, in the selection process as well (vetting more and more conservative students out at the entrance exam in favor of objectively inferior but PC and left wing students). The professional formation remains top level but much liberal crap being taught at undergrad level : biased sociology and gender theory but less and less philosophy and literature.

About social justice warriors: your comparison to Robespierre and the terrorists is entirely valid. There is a sentence which rings a bell : “We don’t have leaders, we follow consensus”. You should read Augustin Cochin, a historian and sociologist having devoted his short career (killed in action in World War I) to thought societies and the Jacobin decision-making in Revolutionary France. Some of his works are translated into English. A part of François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution is about Cochin’s thesis. Cochin was a Catholic grand-bourgeois but born fifty years later. Furet was a famous scholar and, as a former Communist during his youth, he got a personal experience of the liberal thinking at its purest and most wicked (if he had been a millennial and not coming of age in 1945, he would have certainly been a young fire-breathing SJW).

Merci! Your comment about the Benedict Option reminds me that all people of good faith who are devoted to the Western tradition — Christians, certainly, but also Jewish, Muslim (I’m thinking about our frequent commenter here “Jones,” a believing Muslim, but also someone I count as an ally), and non-believers in the Allan Bloom mold — need to organize, and when possible or desirable, form institutions.

I also received an e-mail from a young academic who is a political conservative and a practicing Christian. He has a job in a highly competitive field, and considers himself lucky to be employed. But the culture on his campus is so heavily dominated by SJWs that he has to keep his mouth closed and his identity hidden, out of fear. He says that he works with “some good, kind people,” but that the intellectual atmosphere on his campus is suffocating.

“I respect my colleagues’ opinions, and find some of them intriguing,” he writes. “But you can’t debate them; their opinions just are. There is only stasis, no dynamism. What kind of intellectual environment has an overriding characteristic of stasis?”

He says that if it stays like this, he will probably leave academia, and find something else to do. He’s young, and cannot imagine spending the rest of his career in this bog, where “diversity” is a sham to mask the exercise of raw ideological power from the Left.

This kind of thing is what the blogsite Heterodox Academy was formed to fight. It is not an initiative of conservative academics. Its leading light is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a self-described secular liberal, but one who is greatly concerned about what the one-party state that is campus life is doing to the function of the university, and the work it produces.

In this talk, Haidt explains why certain academic communities become tribal. Excerpt:

Morality binds and blinds, and so, open-minded inquiry into the problems of the Black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along. Sacralizing distorts thinking. Sacred values bind teams together, and then blind them to the truth. That’s fine if you are a religious community. I follow Emile Durkheim in believing that the social function of religion is group binding. But this is not fine for scientists, who ought to value truth above group cohesion.

There’s a term you’ve probably heard in the last 5 years: the “reality based community”. It was a term used contemptuously by Karl Rove at the height of Republican power, when it looked as though the invasion of Iraq had been a smashing success, and Republicans could make their own reality. When the term was brought to light in 2004, liberals then embraced it, because liberals believe that they have science on their side, while conservatives are blinded by religion and ignorance.

But if it’s true that morality binds and blinds, then no partisan community is based in reality. If a group circles around sacred values, they’ll evolve into a tribal moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value. You can see this on the right with global warming denialism. They’re protecting their sacralized free markets. But when sacred values are threatened, the moral force field turns on, and beliefs fall into line. We become intuitive theologians.

He goes on to claim that social psychology, his own field, is a “Tribal Moral Community,” one that is “bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas of findings that threaten our sacred values.” You need to read the whole thing, but in short, he advances three points to support that claim:

1) We have taboos and danger zones

2) A statistically impossible lack of diversity (Haidt could only find one social psychologist in the entire field who openly identifies as a conservative; he polled the room of social psychologists to which he was speaking, and found that liberals outnumbered conservatives by, get this, 266 to 1)

3) Closeted Conservatives. On that point, Haidt says:

I recently came across this narrative, written by a young gay woman in 1985:

Until about a year ago, I was very quiet about my sexual orientation… I often didn’t understand the sexual jokes made by my colleagues… the people making the jokes thought that we all felt the same way, and I certainly wasn’t going to reveal that I disagreed. That would have been much too awkward.

JB was really the first person I talked to about my sexual identity. He made me feel more comfortable and seemed to want to hear other perspectives…. Since then, taking PT’s class opened up a dialog and others have shared more as well. Before I thought that I was completely alone and was afraid to say much because of it. Now I feel both somewhat obligated to speak up (don’t want others to feel as alone as I did) and also know that I have more support than I originally realized.

Compare that text to this political coming out narrative, which was sent to me last week, as I was searching for conservative social psychologists. One of my friends said, in response to my email survey, that he knew of two grad students who might be conservative. I wrote to each of them and asked them about their experiences in social psychology. Both of them said they are not conservative, but neither are they liberal, and because they are not liberal, they feel pressure to keep quiet. One of them wrote this to me. As you can see, it’s nearly identical to the coming out narrative.

In fact, it differs by just five words, because that’s all I had to change to convert this text… into this text, which I told you, falsely, was a coming out narrative from 1985. This is the text of the email that was sent to me last week, by a graduate student who is here in the room with us right now. She and other non-liberal students would like to come out of the closet, just as gay students wanted to 25 years ago. I think we have an obligation to help them.

Of course it’s a moral issue, and the moral argument about political discrimination is being developed by Richard Redding, at Chapman University Law School. But I’m going to set that aside. I’m not even going to make the moral argument. Rather, what I really want to emphasize today is that it is a scientific issue. We are hurting ourselves when we deprive ourselves of critics, of people who are as committed to science as we are, but who ask different questions, and make different background assumptions.

If you care at all about the issue of conservatives and bias in academia, you need to bookmark Heterodox Academy. Take a look at the contributors to it. They are not all conservatives. In fact, some are fair-minded liberals, like Haidt and Harvard’s Steven Pinker, who are doing the hard work of standing up to their own side, for fairness and real intellectual diversity on campus. I am so grateful to them for their courage in this campus climate of left-wing McCarthyism.

In that vein, here’s a good blog post by Thom Lambert, a gay Mizzou professor who writes to support the protesters, in general, but has some strong words for them. For example:

I could not really support my Mizzou students in this difficult time if I did not point out a few things.

First–The top administrators of a school of 35,000 people cannot prevent all instances of racism. Ignorant, mean people are sometimes going to yell slurs from their pick-up trucks when they drive through campus. Drunken frat boys are occasionally going to say ugly things. When you ambush the homecoming parade, to which parents have brought their small children for a rah-rah college experience, some people are not going to be nice to you. Those ambushed may be taken aback and may not say all the right things. People who draw things with poop are especially hard to control. Be prepared: The people who replace the deposed president and chancellor at Mizzou are unlikely to prevent every racist incident on our campus.

Second–The U.S. Constitution forbids state institutions from employing racial quotas. Having been involved in hiring at Mizzou for a number of years, I can assure that we bend over backward to fill open positions with qualified minority applicants. It is highly unlikely that Concerned Student 1950’s demand that the percentage of black faculty and staff at Mizzou be raised to 10% by 2017-18 can be implemented in a manner consistent with constitutional obligations. You should know that.

Third–Free speech means more than the freedom to express views with which you agree. I honestly think most Mizzou students understand this point, but I’m afraid that the administrator and communications professor in this video don’t grasp it. Lest you be misled by their ill-advised bullying, you should know that the First Amendment is for everyone.

Fourth–Unreasonable demands have consequences. We will survive this, but Mizzou has been badly weakened. I can’t imagine that the press accounts from the last week will help with minority student and faculty recruitment next year. That’s a shame, because based on my encounters with a great many minority students and professors at Mizzou over the past twelve years, I believe most have had good experiences. Perhaps they haven’t been honest with me. Or perhaps the situation has changed in the last couple of years. If so, I’m terribly sorry to hear that. But, following the events of the last week, I can’t imagine that next year will be better.

Fifth–Regardless of your take on the events of the last week, I hope you will not let bitterness reign in your hearts. Unlike many of my gay friends from conservative religious backgrounds, I chose years ago not to write off those people who were once unkind to me. I’m glad I made that choice. I hope any Mizzou student who is currently feeling marginalized for any reason will keep calm, carry on, give others the benefit of the doubt, and be open to reconciliation.

So, Mizzou students, I support you. But I will not coddle you. You’re adults and should be treated as such.

A traitor to his class, clearly.

Finally, on the subject of Benedict Option alternatives to the current higher education model, check out this essay by J. Zachary Bailes and Gary Daynes, on the website CraftEducation.org. They write:

Today, national trends are working against independent schools and colleges. The expansion of charter schools has attracted some students who would formerly have attended independent schools. Proposals for free community college, or free tuition at public universities, threatens a significant portion of independent colleges. Most attention in the education media focuses on public K-12 schools, public universities, and highly selective private universities, leaving most independent institutions invisible. Across the K-16 spectrum, concerns about cost and about the public value of an independent education make it seem unattainable, even to many who would value and benefit from it, or socially useless for those who can. And economic inequality makes those concerns real for many.

Given this national context, independent schools cannot hope to flourish alone. Instead, they need to engage other trends in American life– the heightened importance of the non-profit sector, the taste for innovation and entrepreneurship, the resurgence of urban neighborhoods and small cities, the rise of the local–and the people whose lives and work are enhanced by those trends. Doing so supports the conditions in which independent schools flourish. And it enhances the likelihood that they will flourish in the future.

What follows is a set of theses that outline the rationale for and shape of a movement on behalf of independent schools and the ecosystems–organizations, systems, and policies–that support them.

More:

If independent schools are to exist in a context that supports their flourishing, they must acknowledge the following:

  • they are local entities, embedded in particular places, not nationally significant or distinct from the places in which they are located. The vast majority of independent school and college students come from places close to the school’s physical location. Schools must be comfortable with those students and commit to the well-being of the places where they stand, rather than strive to distance themselves from their actual homes, develop a national profile, or attract the majority of their students from far away.
  • they are non-profit organizations, not private schools. The term “private” reflects both an organizational model and a level of self-interest inimical to the true nature or values of most independent schools. As non-profit organizations, then, schools must foreground their obligation to the public good, and to the public policies that define and protect their roles in society.
  • they are part of an ecosystem of other, similar organizations (the independent sector or civil society). Therefore, they benefit when other non-profit and local entities flourish. In fact, their natural allies are small businesses, churches, civic organizations, arts organizations, cultural groups, and social services. These organizations are the basis of robust communities. And they are the source of students and supporters of independent education.

Read the whole thing. If the campus left and its ideologues in power are bound and determined to wreak destruction on academic institutions, then it falls to the excluded to be creative. Let’s come together and think, and build while they destroy.

UPDATE: Blog Goliard writes:

Haidt’s little “coming-out narrative” exercise helps illuminate something that we should be pointing out again and again and again, and force them to explicitly defend.

That is, that “safe spaces” and “diversity” and the whole constellation of rights claims are not and never were meant to be for everyone. What they’re building is not a system where everyone is treated with respect and consideration, but one where the elect are able to demand protection from and satisfaction for every last thing that displeases them, while they are given license to hector and bully the non-elect, who have precisely zero right to feel safe and respected and have their “existence validated”, whatever the hell that means.

Or, to state it much more succinctly: the screaming Yalies’ “safe space” affirmatively requires that the Christakis’ life on campus be made unsafe. And that’s not a bug of SJW-ism…it’s a feature.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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