September 18, 2018

Rebels of Reason

When I tell college students today that I don’t remember ever knowing the political leanings of any of my professors, they look at me as though I must have gone to school before the Civil War. So far down the rabbit hole has academia gone that not only do students know their professors’ political opinions from Day One, but entire courses are built on those opinions. And if a student wants to pass the class, he or she must regurgitate those opinions, even if those opinions are based on lies.

Moreover, professors’ opinions are restricted to a certain leftist Orthodoxy. Indeed, such a censorious environment has descended upon academia that students and professors fear being labeled “racist” or “fascist” just for asking a question that falls out of the Orthodoxy of Approved Thought.

To essentially save the academy from itself, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at New York University, co-founded Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan nonprofit committed to nurturing viewpoint diversity on college campuses. The members, now more than 2,000 professors and graduate students, are politically diverse with one common belief: The purpose of a university is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

“A small range of socio-political views are communally endorsed as reasonable or valid,” writes co-founder Debra Mashek in a Heterodox mission statement. “Rather than doing the challenging work of thinking through how a novel position might contain a piece of the truth, difference is coded as offense. … Even trace amounts of ideological difference in a classroom can exceed somebody’s threat threshold and get labeled as bigoted or fascist.” 

 A couple of weeks ago, Heterodox held its first Open Mind Conference in New York City. You can see it online. What’s clear is that the situation is worse than we thought. In the first panel, professor Richard Shweder discussed the insanely politicized attempt to get the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions: “It felt like a disturbing political rally rather than an intellectual event.” He was “startled by the number of senior distinguished tenured faculty” who told him that they were very much opposed to a boycott, but to please not quote them publicly. 

These are tenured professors. What were they afraid of? They were afraid of students with baseball bats outside of their offices and classrooms, death threats to their families and vicious social media campaigns. In other words, leftist tantrums.

No, this isn’t social justice at all, but authoritarian adherence to the Orthodoxy — what one panelist called “the new religion.” The university as political pawn; the students as stormtroopers.

Indeed, the atmosphere at many colleges can only be described as mob rule: Students continually disrupt classes, shouting down anyone who doesn’t adhere to the orthodoxy; “non-approved” speakers are completely shut down, often accompanied by rioting; cowardly administrators tell police to “stand down,” leaving speakers, professors and students to fend for themselves. 

The purpose of a university is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

Although many panelists labeled what’s going on a “crisis,” the tone of the conference was optimistic — We can fix this. Why? Because they believe that the majority of professors are not Marxist fanatics who approve of any of this. Rather, the silent majority is waiting for the tide to turn. 

Heterodox’s goal is to increasingly embolden professors and force administrators to put clear guidelines in place about civil discourse: You cannot shut down or shout down anyone else. If you continue to engage in this call-out culture, there will be serious consequences. 

This all sounds great in slowly changing the climate: “Where humility and curiosity replace righteousness and indignation,” as Mashek put it.

But a match needs to be lit on our side: Holding professors and administrators to higher standards. How? Pull your kid from any university that allows any of this. I transferred twice —  it’s much easier than you might think. But don’t just transfer, publicize loudly and clearly why you are transferring. Dwindling endowments and bad PR talk. 

Meanwhile, don’t discourage your kids from being rebels. Rebels have changed the world, time and again. Rebels question orthodoxies. They “follow truth wherever it may lead,” as Thomas Jefferson put it upon founding the University of Virginia. In today’s culture of continual outrage, encourage your kids to be rebels of reason.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.