Monday, March 27, 2017

The Closing of the American University's Mind

Trinidad - view of Maracas Bay (Linda and I were there in 2015)

One idea of the "university" is that it is a place for the exploration of ideas, where contrary viewpoints are encouraged, welcomed, and discussed, civilly. I had some professors who did this, and for that, I am thankful. They could handle disagreement with grace. I learned a lot from them.

But many professors do not. In fact, the American university has become tyrannical. 

I experienced that, too, when the head of the philosophy department at Northwestern University brought me into his office, and told me that, while he liked my work, he would not support me. The reason, he said, was that I was associated with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which functioned as Northwestern's divinity school. Garrett is United Methodist. The position of the United Methodist Church at the time was disaffirming of same-sex relationships. My philosophy professor was gay. He punished me for the sins of the UMC. 

I ended up finding two Northwestern departments that supported me in my doctoral work - Linguistics, and History and Literature of Religions. But the philosophy department, in their totalitarian righteousness, excommunicated me.  So much for philo - Sophia (the love of wisdom). (In retrospect, I probably could have sued the university for this.)

Such exorcistic behavior is normal, in the university. So says the current Chronicle of Higher Education article by Robert Boyers, "The Academy's Assault on Intellectual Diversity." 

Boyers writes of "the depth or virulence of the opposition to robust discussion within the American professoriate, where many self-described liberals continue to believe that they remain committed to "difference" and debate, even as they countenance a full-scale assault on diversity of outlook and opinion." Which means: If you don't agree with us, then you are to be loathed and despised.

Yes, loathed. The American academy is "a church held together by the hunt for heresies." Boyers writes:

"We do routinely observe that "active and inquiring intellects" are cast out of the community of the righteous by their colleagues and formally "investigated" by witch-hunting faculty committees and threatened with the loss of their jobs. One need only mention the widely debated eruptions at Oberlin College, or Northwestern University, or others, to note that this is by no means a phenomenon limited to a handful of institutions."
"Things have gotten out of hand. The desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission. Shaming, scapegoating, and periodic ritual exorcisms are a prime feature of campus life."
If a professor or student has a belief that challenges the cult, it is best if they keep their mouths shut. 
I thought university professors were open-minded people, seeking wisdom and knowledge, from wherever it comes? I thought the idea was that we were to listen to dissenting voices, perhaps learning from them, maybe even changing our beliefs on account of them?
Not really. That's a fantasy, found only in logic textbooks. Academics engage in Orwellian Groupthink as much as the common person does. Boyers writes:
"Though it must seem odd to those who spend little or no time in the academy to hear that academic intellectuals are notoriously susceptible to groupthink, there are several compelling ways to account for this. For one, as Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012), academics are much like other people in "trying harder to look right than to be right" when they conduct an argument. Within the confines of a community that prides itself on its disciplined commitment to a consensually agreed upon set of "enlightened" views, deviations once regarded as signs of a robustly diverse intellectual culture come more and more to seem intolerable."
Haidt has argued that professors are no more likely to think independently than a lemming. 
"High IQ people like academics "are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side." This is especially troubling — or ought to be especially troubling — in the culture of the university, where diversity of outlook and ideas, and resistance to accredited formulas, is at least theoretically central to the institutional mission.
But academics today are increasingly behaving like members of an interest group..."
And they conduct witch hunts. They abhor the deviants who dare inject contrary ideas. They shame people. 
It's scary.