Where To, Academic Man?
Serious scholarship now takes place in a sort of intellectual underground.
A good friend—a retired professor of science at a prestigious university—despairingly sent me yet another example of the cancellation of information challenging the woke zeitgeist. The article, which appeared in the influential journal Physics Education Review, claimed that whiteboards “collaborate with white organizational culture, where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down.” As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, an even bigger fish, the American Physical Society, not only jumped in to defend the nonsense but stifled contrary opinions put forth by a group of highly credentialed physicists.
It seems that similar outrages occur in academia almost every week. Respected scholars invited to speak on campus are shouted down or chased from the stage by howling packs of indoctrinated students, violent Antifa members are hired to teach at major universities, and highly discriminatory “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” mandates are inserted into the curriculum, governing documents, and job advertisements.
Illustrating how deeply cancel culture has intruded upon valid intellectual exploration, an anonymous anthropology Ph.D. who goes by the internet pseudonym Stone Age Herbalist recently wrote in a widely circulated UnHerd article:
What seems obvious to the general public — that prehistory was a bloody mess of invasions, migrations, battles and conflict — is not always a commonplace view among researchers. Worse, the idea that ancient peoples organized themselves among clear ethnic and tribal lines is also taboo. Obvious statements of common sense, such as the existence of patriarchy in the past, are constantly challenged and the general tone of academia is one of refutation: both of established theories and thinkers and of disagreeable parts of the past itself.
His lament suggests that the emerging consensus among academic anthropologists has become preposterous. Everything we know about primitive people, both long dead and alive today, indicates that the sort of social organization described—ethnic, tribal, and patriarchal—is pretty much universal. Yet that apparent verity conflicts with the majority views in today’s anthropology departments; in some, such observations cannot even be expressed, let alone defended.
Such thinking sounds the death knell for truth and knowledge—and yet it prevails throughout much of academia. My friend’s despair was hardly irrational. Yet Sauron has not completely won the whole of Middle Earth. Some hearty contrarian academics still remain, and many of their colleagues, who personally lean to the left, still support an open exchange of ideas. Perhaps more important, small bastions of conservative thought have appeared in the last couple of decades, both inside and outside the academy.
Inside, independent academic centers and institutes that receive outside funding but are still part of the university have, with a few exceptions, proven to be both resilient and effective as far as providing post-doctoral employment for newly minted conservative Ph.D.s until they can find more permanent positions. In part because of these centers, every new conservative Ph.D. of my acquaintance has found appropriate intellectual work, mostly in academia.
Another very hopeful development is a new spirit of engagement with academia by conservative state politicians. Until recently, even in solidly red states, Republican politicians gave wide latitude to public university systems to run their own affairs. In doing so, they turned a blind eye to intellectual realities, and those institutions responded by becoming woke and allying themselves with politicians on the left. Lately, however, there has been serious pushback. For instance, as of May 1, twenty state legislatures have proposed bills disallowing or limiting the use of DEI political litmus tests in the state university systems.
Additionally, some states are restoring the spirit of the open exchange of ideas on their public campuses by mandating debates or discussions featuring multiple perspectives on controversial topics. Florida recently passed a bill that requires public universities to create an Office of Public Policy Events to hold large-scale discussions or debates on major issues on campus. North Carolina has already created a “Public Discourse Program” for the same purpose at its flagship campus at Chapel Hill and may do something similar for its entire university system.
As promising as these developments are, it is unlikely the academy will become a completely open forum any time soon. Even in a best-case scenario, opinions will not be allowed to stray too far from established norms. There has been too much censorship for too long, too much social disapprobation, with too many factions poised to disrupt events whenever the discussion veers outside the narrow boundaries of their approval.
Furthermore, conservative efforts to date have done little to confront the deep-seated bias in departments, administrations, academic journals, and research funding agencies, where the worst silencing goes on. As the saying goes, “personnel is policy,” and new hiring continues to move faculty and related staff further into cancel culture. The left will find other means than statements of agreement with DEI principles to winnow out non-conforming jobseekers, and it may take more than a few laws protecting free speech to change the real dialogue on most campuses.
But even if the momentum against openness to differing views continues in the academy, there is growing activity outside the protective walls of the Ivory Tower. Another institution vies to be the leader in public discussion: the internet.
Important ideas are increasingly likely to be introduced on the websites of think tanks or web-based media publications rather than in academic journals. Still, these publications must remain within a certain range of perspectives or face cancellation techniques such as the loss of access to social media.
Most people are familiar with highly visible dissenters who have left tenured academic positions, such as former Evergreen State College biologist Brett Weinstein or former University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, both of whom now thrive on the internet. But there are some academics—some still working inside the academy—whose work goes far beyond current conventions. The above-cited Stone Age Herbalist is one, and he describes how serious scholarship in his field now takes place in a sort of intellectual underground:
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For or many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious confines of modern academia. And so, in these hidden places, professional geneticists, bio-archaeologists and physical anthropologists have created a network of counter-research. Using home-made software, spreadsheets and private servers, detailed and rigorous work is conducted away from prying eyes and hectoring voices.
The internet has made it possible for even the most unique scholars to promote their ideas to the broader public. Another anonymous internet intellectual—the outrageous Bronze Age Pervert—self-published a book (Bronze Age Mindset) in 2018 that burst through the barrier that separates the wishful world of self-published writers and the lucrative world of celebrated authors. To many younger scholars in academia, tired of the boundaries imposed on them, his book was seen as intriguing—if not thrilling. To more established intellectuals, it was seen as ill-conceived and threatening, although more than a few found it worthy of real analysis.
With so many new entrants into the world of ideas outside of traditional sources, academia’s stranglehold on the national discourse may be broken, and the Ivory Tower itself may be forced to open up. But that is only if the current freedom to exchange ideas continues. What the future brings is anybody’s guess; the future of the intellectual life of the nation comes down to a question of power: Who controls the dialogue?