The Perils of Academic Groupthink

I’ve often written of how groupthink has negatively affected the quality of higher education–while, of course, ensuring that those whose views fall within the academic majority have a better chance of success on campus. Ironically, however, what Mark Bauerlein had termed the Common Assumption effect and the law of group polarization also have combined to make scholars of the humanities and social sciences less relevant outside the ivory tower. With fewer and fewer voices to challenge the status quo on campus (and, in the process, to correct obvious errors coming from the academic majority), and extreme articulations of the common beliefs increasingly the norm, groupthink professors are left to…

…preach to the converted, while discrediting themselves outside the academy. Two recent examples of the pattern crossed my desk in the past week. The first involved Rashid Khalidi, the prominent anti-Israel professor from Columbia. In an October 11 post, Martin Kramer explored Khalidi’s claim (expressed in two public addresses last year) that Leon Uris’ Exodus was, in fact, “carefully crafted propaganda”—the “work of seasoned professionals,” most particularly Edward Gottlieb, “one of the founders of the modern public relations industry.” Khalidi asserted that Gottlieb both commissioned the book and “paid for Uris’ research and trip to Israel” to research the book, and “given that many of the basic ideas about Palestine and Israel held by generations of Americans find their origin either in this trite novel or the equally clichéd movie, Gottlieb’s inspiration to send Leon Uris to Israel may have constituted one of the greatest advertising triumphs of the twentieth century.”

This would be quite a tale, if true. Unfortunately for Khalidi, none of what he described appears to have happened. Unlike Khalidi, who (as Jeffrey Goldberg notes) wants to believe that “the book was part of a plot hatched by a secret cabal,” Kramer actually investigated the Exodus claim. He interviewed Uris’ biographers and Gottlieb’s colleagues, and even went through Israeli archives for material relating to Gottlieb’s firm.

Kramer discovered that “Uris’s biographers dismiss [the claim about Gottlieb], Gottlieb’s most knowledgeable associate denies it, and no documents in Uris’s papers or Israeli archives testify to it. It originated as a boast by Gottlieb to another PR man, made almost thirty years after the (non-)fact. And given its origin, it’s precisely the sort of story a serious professional historian would never repeat as fact without first vetting it.”

Of course, if Khalidi operated in an academic environment in which his anti-Israel views were regularly challenged, his factual error might have been caught in a campus seminar or academic conference, before he repeated it publicly and weakened his credibility.

The second example came from a recent Times review by Sheri Berman. Berman was tasked with reviewing Brooklyn professor Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, a volume which, Robin claimed, aimed to “understand the right,” to “get inside its head” and “examine its leading ideas.” The book described conservatism as seeking to maintain the power of elites against the interests of “subordinate” classes.

Berman concluded that Robin had failed, at a basic level, to offer a compelling argument, in large part because he misconstrued (or misunderstood) the goals and origins of right-wing populism. But she also took note of the book’s Common Assumption-like tone: “Driven to distraction by anger at his subject, Robin ends up reproducing many of the pathologies he is trying to criticize. The result is a diatribe that preaches to the converted rather than offering much to general readers sincerely trying to under­stand the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.”

Robin responded with a post listing all the conservative thinkers his book had allegedly analyzed and accusing Berman of having flown “past my argument in pursuit of yet another straw man.” But Berman didn’t back down. In a follow-up post in Dissent, she correctly noted that “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma. If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery.”

Robin’s book, in short, is almost a caricature of what would be expected from a groupthink environment; the volume is filled with overheated rhetoric that almost certainly would alienate anyone not already inclined to agree with his conclusions. In perhaps her most biting comment, Berman observed that “’The Reactionary Mind’ has higher intellectual ambitions than talk radio or the right-wing pulp nonfiction churned out by writers like Ann Coulter or Bernard Goldberg, but it ends up replicating their breathless Manichaean attitude.”

A cynic might argue, I suppose, that society is better served by a process that—however unintentionally—winds up minimizing the influence of ideologues such as Khalidi or Robin. But such an outcome is a high price indeed for the persistence of groupthink on campus.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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