The university system—the academy—is undoubtedly one of the greatest jewels of the post-Enlightenment Western tradition. Having evolved steadily away from their original functions, primarily as seminaries, universities have become unparalleled cultural centers, engines of knowledge production, and halls of advanced education. All of these are necessary to the creation and maintenance of truly modern societies. Their lofty status is well-earned, as so many of the obvious fruits of our advanced societies are the direct or indirect result of the culture, research, and educations that occur within the academy. This, few would dispute. Or, perhaps, relatively few would have disputed it until quite recently.
The reason for this newfound doubt in the academy—which has grown over the last fifty years to a fevered pitch today, with a clear majority of Republican voters in the United States saying this year that college is bad for America—is ultimately a growing realization that it is failing in precisely the feature that makes it the jewel of modern societies. The university earned this reputation not only because it is organized in a way that makes it very good at what it does, but also because it has had little or no particular reason to be self-interested or partisan in orientation, at least in principle.
Whereas a seminary puts its cornerstone on God and bends everything else to that concept, whereas a think tank is ultimately destined to be captured by the partisan bias that established and maintains it, and whereas a research center, lab, or school connected to some corporate interest will nearly always suffer from the conflict of interest at its heart, the academy was set up specifically to be a place of acculturation, pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the higher education of the citizenry and a democratic electorate. That is, the university gains its extraordinary societal value from its principled lack of any conflict of interest in its core missions.
It isn’t hard to see that this isn’t the case anymore. Though much within the academy is still worthy of our highest esteem and praise, something has gone rotten as well, and it is no longer being contained effectively. Word has gotten out. Something is going badly wrong. The academy has fallen prey to conflicting interests, and an easy escape from them seems unlikely.
One of these issues is that the university has become increasingly partisan, tilting ever further leftward politically at least since the 1960s. This, we have every reason to believe, was not wholly an organic process but one that followed the deliberate activism of the New Left of that era and since. This activism sought to criticize and replace liberalism with a more ideal political economy in which left-leaning sociopolitical agendas are purposefully woven into what it means to be “democratic” in the first place. Its method has a famous name, Critical Theory, which is ultimately an academic exercise in explaining how liberal societies fail to secure justice and fairness for their citizens as defined by leftist analyses. Critical Theory was intended to remake the social sciences so that they would not be merely descriptive but actively prescriptive about how a “free” society should be. This rubric was called “cultural studies.”
Now, as a direct result of this activism and the associated scholarship, the left-leaning or outright leftist bias of the academy is beyond reasonable doubt. Some departments exceed a statistic of 95% left-leaning or leftist. The most ideologically diverse land at roughly the 50-50 mark one might naturally expect in a nonpartisan outfit. Not only this, but one report has showed university administrations to be even more leftist in orientation than the faculty, and this report was considered so dangerous that its author, Samuel J. Abrams, was beset by a tide of vicious attack for having made the information public. This has had the effect of bending certain sectors of the academy, particularly the humanities and much of the social sciences, into the shape of a left-wing political think tank while retaining its nominally nonpartisan appearance and, thus, influence as such.
The Church of Grievance Studies
These features have culminated in a still more serious problem. Having turned the academy into a left-oriented think tank would pose a considerable danger in and of itself, but this particular issue has evolved. Certain sectors of the academy, most notably the “theoretical humanities” along with much passing under the guise of the social sciences, have in a sense returned the academy to its roots by making it into a reinvented seminary to a new deity that calls itself Social Justice. In simplest expression, this means that there are certain ideas that are accepted as capital-T Truths that much, if not all else, must be bent around or at least brought into accordance with. That is, they must be attended to, not questioned, administrated from, and taught as a matter of moral instruction.
Consider, for example, some of the core tenets of “antiracist” activist scholarship, as developed and presented by prominent scholar-activists Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney, and Amie Thurber at the National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University:
- Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.
- Racism is an institutionalized, multilayered, multilevel system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color, as socially identified, and disproportionately benefits whites.
- All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations. All white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions.
- No one chose to be socialized into racism so no-one is bad, but no-one is neutral.
- To not act against racism is to support racism.
- Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No one is ever done.
- The question is not “Did racism take place?” but rather “How did racism manifest in that situation?”
- The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.
- The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged.
- Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.
These points form a creed at the center of contemporary Social Justice education, and to disagree leads to accusations of privilege-borne “fragility” and complicity, which are in turn taken as proofs that the creed is True and needed. This creed is “verified” in the academic canon dedicated to cultural studies.
My colleagues and I are, understandably, best known for our work in what has variously been termed the Grievance Studies Affair or “Sokal Squared,” which arose due to our successful deployment of a score of carefully calibrated (and abysmal) papers aimed at various academic journals servicing and laundering ideas for the theoretical humanities calling themselves “cultural studies.” What we discovered in the process is that the forwarding of prejudice and opinion is sufficient to merit publication and special recognition for excellence so long as the right Social Justice pieties are given due attention. That is, we discovered that the academic record upon which much of Social Justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism work is based is tantamount to the special revelation of holy writ by prophets of a religion that claims to speak on behalf of the nobly oppressed.
Reformation and Revival
This is a bold claim, of course. The conclusion, however, rests on a long and careful analysis of many dimensions of behavior that attend to Social Justice and its colonization of the academy. These range from its beliefs, which mimic religious doctrines such as Original Sin and Total Depravity (in the forms of privilege, systemic injustice, and so on), across unfalsifiable positions (such as doctrines like “white fragility”), to its repeated demands to engage in “lifelong” practices of inward-looking “antiracism” work to dismantle one’s own hidden racism. And these features all go without mentioning the blatantly ecclesiastical administrative structure in the forms of offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which, among much else, insist upon satisfying educational diversity requirements for all degrees. It also neglects mention of the establishment of ominously inquisitorial “Bias Response Teams.” These exist to identify and impose sanctions for incidents of “bias,” which is defined in a broad manner typically consistent with Social Justice Theory.
More than anything, our insights from the Grievance Studies Affair and subsequent research have indicated not only that Social Justice has taken over considerable apparatuses within the academy and many other institutions (vital and not) throughout our society, but also that it has done so bearing every hallmark of an absolutist religion pushing itself by means of generating and exploiting a moral panic ahead of itself. Where once we might have heard from the faithful about God working in mysterious ways and having to resist the ubiquitous temptations of Satan or Sin as Fallen people, now we hear from the differently faithful about systemic societal forces that work in mysterious ways to cause oppression and the need to search within ourselves to resist the immanent temptations of privilege as heteronormative white-supremacist misogynists.
The claims that we live in a system of oppression tend not to be defended through careful or convincing argument, and far less through appealing to carefully generated and analyzed data. They are asserted with unshakable confidence and “proved” through appeals to cherry picked examples or under-examined assumptions like that the existence of any gap in outcomes is proof of discrimination—except when people of color or women dominate. Bigotries like racism are rarefied out of individuals, so any found example of one can be treated as part of a system of bigotry rather than the failure—intentional or not—of an individual. If you disagree, one of two things must be true about you. Either you have failed to engage honestly with this Truth according to Social Justice, or you are in some way too invested in your complicity with these evils to be able to at all. And, to be sure, you will be tested on this eventually, if not frequently, though through less toothsome offerings than the pork-based delights the Spanish Inquisition pressed into its service to rout out Jews and Muslims in their communities.
What is to be done? That’s less clear than the diagnosis. The academy was previously able to assert itself and its best methods to secularize itself, reducing its seminary functions to a distant second among its broader missions. This, no doubt, needs to happen again, bringing all rigor to bear upon the scholarship and as much pressure as can be put against the administration without falling into authoritarian methods ourselves. Sophistry and bullying cannot be the basis of our cultural centers, knowledge production, and educational charges, but those who have seized administrative and educational authority won’t let go of their power easily.
On one level, this can only proceed by summoning all the courage students and faculty can muster to stare down and bear the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations of every sort of identity-based malfeasance imaginable. If that continues to be found lacking, I can see no hope for the future of the academy.