Misunderstanding Intellectual Diversity

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When
critics of higher education complain about a lack of “intellectual diversity,”
mostly what they deplore is the shortage of conservative professors. But there
is much more at stake than that.

Consider
climate change:  As I write this, parts
of the nation have endured sweltering heat, serious drought, and treacherous
storms, at one point leaving millions of people without electricity for
days.  The invocation of “climate change”
as the “cause” of more violent and extreme weather, worse forest fires and
flooding, indeed, of a host of calamities, has been used to assign culpability
to the whole human race, mimicking what irritates defenders of evolution about
the claimants of creation science, that debunking evolutionary theory is an
underhanded way of insinuating religious belief and its claims about the fallen
state of humanity.

It
turns out the wholesale secular embrace of science insinuates its own range of
pious beliefs.  Climate theory pretends
both to the throne of reason and to public policies dictated as if they were
royal decrees.  To question a royal
decree in this case is construed as treason again reason.  But how did reason come to rely more on a
consensus of belief than skepticism about such grand causal claims?  Unlike creation science, the advocates of
social engineering who believe that science is equivalent to policy intimidate
all doubters.  The absence of intellectual
diversity is detrimental to public policy debate, not to mention how the
stranglehold of environmentalism in colleges and universities also steers any
debate toward predetermined conclusions. 
Here the challenge becomes disentangling the science of climate change
from the policies that should follow from that science.

Something even more interesting is at stake in the embrace of a scientific perspective that encourages enormous pessimism about the future of humanity, not to mention all other life.  The historic link of science and progress has always had deep links to Western religious traditions.  Pessimism has come to replace skepticism as the abiding anxiety of elites that view the material improvement of the human condition world-wide as evidence of hubris.  These are elites hardly prepared themselves to “downsize” but perfectly amenable to population control and other strategies of human containment of others.  Whoever rides the hobby-horse of such pessimism already is secure.

Twenty years ago the federal government was “encouraged” to investigate all manner of claims about the efficacy of alternative medicines.  The proposals flooded into the NIH, and numerous of them were funded as legitimate medical studies.  Remember Aunt Polly in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “She was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines and all new-fangled methods of producing health or mending it.  She was an inveterate experimenter in these things.”  The world will always have its Aunt Pollys, but the alleviation of their anxieties ought to be something left to them, not the government.  The anxieties of those concerned about climate change ought to be checked at the door of every college and university, where progress is achieved not by silencing critics but by embracing them.

A pattern exists in the academy today about the role that skepticism plays in addressing any public controversy.  The problem with advocacy from within the temple of reason is not its ambition per se but the righteousness of that ambition, its principled disregard for what should always be the modesty of any use of advocacy in staking out the nature of disagreement.  Debating teams have always been a useful illustration of such modesty.  The debate is governed by carefully defined rules, you might say, of etiquette.  The term “etiquette,” however quaint we may perceive it today, in its absence explains why calls for intellectual diversity go unheeded not only for obvious political reasons but also because nothing about academic freedom today provides for or protects those who stray too far afield from the consensus-based powers of different majorities in different fields, save tenure.

The AAUP was never a very strong force in protecting faculty before conflict arose, but it was once more effectively the judicial branch of university governance, balanced with the executive branch (i.e., administrators) and legislative branch (i.e., the faculty) in ways that defined the rules of academic freedom.  When we say that an issue has been politicized, we mean, I think, that the level of trust in an institution has been severely diminished and that subsequently, the motives of all relevant actors are suspect, concealing more than revealing their real intentions.  The weak adjudications of the AAUP have been supplanted entirely by lawsuits and courts for some time, and nothing suggests a revival of the AAUP’s authority.  If such authority had any usefulness today, its representatives would insist that the liberal and secular bullying in the academy be cited, acknowledged, and condemned.  But this is now too much to ask of people who are determined to be less than honest about their motives as educators.

When some conservatives argue that the solution to the problem of a lack of intellectual diversity in the academy can be solved by hiring more conservative faculty, my simple and respectful response is that who you hire presumably has a mind, and people, we know from experience, change their minds.  Hiring based on conviction is just as dangerous on the right as it is on the left.  Instead, consider the long and tireless work of the National Association of Scholars, by now decades in existence.  What must be considered is how more faculty, other than a few who speak up, can impress on administrators and colleagues why real intellectual debate will keep away whatever version of barbarians at the gate they dread.

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Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

2 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Intellectual Diversity

  1. While simply hiring some people with conservative leaning will not fix the problem, it would be at least a start. The universities that are supposed to be open to intellectual debate are now so stagnant and closed in their intellectual culture that there is really no longer any point to tenure.
    You bring up the climate change debacle. The prevalent opinions on campus today show so little understanding of the scientific method itself that they are unable to see that the basic data has not been made available for a proper review by a skeptical enquirer. In that circumstance there can be no scientific conclusion reached, but the their own reasons, many in authority on campus have ‘deemed’ the ‘science’ as settled.
    Hiring conservative will at least start to open the echo chamber. A real fix would require elimination of tenure to move out the truly doctrinaire, but nobody will stand still for that. Everyone thinks they have an open mind, but until they meet someone who disagrees with them there is no proof. Let the substantive campus debates resume somewhere.

  2. Dr. Imber I enjoyed your essay above and agree that more concervatives are not what is needed on campus. Instead what is needed is more professors eager to engage in the arena of ideas.
    To this end, the Duke lacrosse case is instructive of how pervasive and destructive the group thinking is within academia. As soon as the story broke, over 60 professors signed a petition demanding the expulsion of the accused Duke students. No need to investigate, the seriousness of the charge and the tempate of elitists students assaulting a minority female was all that was needed.
    We all know what happened to the case, but what happened to those professors who threw aside the presumption of innocents to the alter of their ideological template? Nothing. Their approach to this case should certainly bring into question their abilities to teach their courses without bringing in similar biases.
    Unfortuantely concervatives are the ones most seasoned competing in the arena of ideas. They are routinely brandished as stupid, evil, or backwards from casual cocktail parties to faculty lounges as a way of silencing debate.
    For proof one need only look at the reception Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recieved while addressing Columbia University versus Larry Sommers reception at UC Davis or the 2500 signatures of of faculty and students protesting appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as a Hoover fellow. Rumsfeld is routinely tarred as a war criminal and unfit to speak on University campuses.
    There truely is something rotten in Denmark.
    KG

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