In his seminal article analyzing the “groupthink” that pervades the modern academy, my colleague Mark Bauerlein described the effects of the Common Assumption (“that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals”), creating an academy in which “members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions.” Alas, the Common Assumption has its “argumentative hazards”: “academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom . . . a lone dissenter disrupts the process and, merely by posing a question, can show just how cheap such a pat consensus actually is.”
Two recent events involving Penn professor Tom Sugrue illustrate the perils of the Common Assumption; and, more broadly, the manner in which groupthink (unintentionally) limits the ability of “mainstream” academics to influence public discourse. Sugrue’s website lists multiple, prestigious fellowships. His first book, Origins of the Urban Crisis, justifiably won numerous awards; it’s one of the three or four best books currently in print on 20th century American political culture.
Sugrue, in short, is hardly an academic crank, or a caricature of a “tenured radical.” He’s a serious scholar, producing first-class work on important topics.
Nonetheless, two recent items from Sugrue have been, to put it mildly, striking. First was his participation in the “Crying Wolf” project, the scheme to pay graduate students and younger professors to produce “research” that conformed to the Wolfers’ political agenda.
Then came this assertion, at Ta-Neishi Coates’ Atlantic blog: “And more recently, the Roberts Court has struck down even voluntary school integration plans. All but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow from the Brown v. Board days would be pleased.”
Though he didn’t link to the decision, Sugrue presumably was referring to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which the Roberts Court struck down a Seattle school-assignment scheme (which the school board had voluntarily adopted; parents, of course, had no choice but to participate); and a companion case from Kentucky, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. Roberts’ opinion in the Seattle case included one of his most famous lines as Chief Justice: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
People of good faith can, and do, disagree on the merits of the Parents Involved decision. It was, after all, decided by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Kennedy siding with the majority but also penning a narrower opinion than Roberts’. But could any fair-minded observer seriously maintain that the decision would satisfy “all but the most hardcore advocates from the Brown v. Board days“?
The decision upheld the use of racial classifications to overcome past instances of discrimination—an outcome that presumably any “advocate of Jim Crow” (and not just those of a hard-core variety) and lots of other people from the Jim Crow era would have vehemently opposed. And the decision paid lip service to Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed the continued use of racial preferences in college and university admissions, even as it explained why the conclusions of Grutter didn’t apply to a public school assignment plan.
Sugrue’s comment about the Roberts Court, in short, perfectly illustrates how “academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom,” oblivious to “just how cheap such a pat consensus actually is.”
The irony is that as noncontroversial as branding the Roberts Court with a Jim Crow brush might be in most humanities department, Sugrue’s extraordinarily charged rhetoric all but ensured that any neutral reader would recoil from his overall conclusions.