The Wolves of the Academy

University faculty have been notable for “odd” views, but today’s campuses are manufacturing screwball ideas on an industrial scale. Moreover, these ideas are hardly harmless unlike say, Esperanto.  Rather, they resemble toxic pathogens that have escaped a supposedly secure lab, and now cause untold harm in society more generally.

I am talking about the likes of micro-aggression, the celebration of victimhood, toxic masculinity, wooly-headed multiculturalism, white privilege (which is kept in an invisible knapsack), trigger warnings, intersectionality, proliferating pronouns, the social construction of sex and race, academic specialties such as Whiteness Studies and Departments of Queer Studies, research demonstrating the debilitating impact of implicit bias, the need for campus safe spaces, cultural appropriation, all-encompassing definitions of “hate,” structural racism and on and on and on.

No doubt, there’s more to come.

How can supposedly smart people believe such nonsense? Is this some mass hysteria?

Insight finally arrived when watching a TV documentary about Yellowstone Park. When the program focused on the wolves of Yellowstone, it all clicked—bad ideas that traditional plagued universities were kept in check by “wolves” who killed them off at conception, and when this wolf culture declined, nothing could stop students from hearing that an aversion to cultural Marxism constituted hate, and, furthermore, that this “hate” was tantamount to violence.

Wolves were native to Yellowstone but beginning in the 1920s they were killed off as unwelcome predators. So, by 1926, the gray wolf had become virtually extinct. However, conservationists in the 1970s now recognize the wolf’s ecological role, for example, thinning herds of destructive elk and sick deer. In 1995 a handful of wolves were re-introduced, and, by 2018, there were 104 wolves in 11 packs —  and, according to experts, their presence has greatly helped the Park’s ecological balance.

Who are the campus equivalents of Yellowstone’s wolves? They are those smart, quick-witted professors who relish slicing and dicing mediocrities. They can sniff out ignorance and sloppy logic like the pack tracking lame elk. Their display of aggressive eradication is seldom pleasant since the aim is usually humiliation, not just correcting falsehoods. On the plus side, this mockery helps clear the marketplace of intellectual idiocy, and the threat of public shaming as an ignoramus undoubtedly crushes embryonic stupidities. Thomas Sowell acknowledged this wolf threat when as a graduate student at the University of Chicago he dreaded presenting his research at the Thursday afternoon faculty seminar with its a “murderer’s row” of sharp-tongued Noble Prize winners.

This “wolf style” is particularly prominent where the smartest of the smart congregate. Jennet Conant’s account of the Manhattan Project depicts J. Robert Oppenheimer as an erudite wolf extraordinaire when dressing down fellow scientists and administrators, many of whom were Ph.D.s from top schools. Conant tells how he would frequently interrupt co-workers in mid-sentence saying “Ja, ja, ja” in affected German as if he already knew where the discussion was heading and then rip the argument apart for all to hear. Oppenheimer’s broad knowledge and intellectual agility even impressed Enrico Fermi who was every bit as intellectually sophisticated and quick-witted as Oppenheimer.

You don’t have to be J. Robert Oppenheimer to devastate campus airheads, space cadets, snowflakes, social justice warriors, hare-brained cultural Marxists and others who traffic in comic stupidities. So, when an undergraduate announces to the class that women only earn 57% of what men earn due to the patriarchy, one need only respond with, “Well Ms. Bernstein, let me ask that if you are the CEO of GM, would your fiduciary responsibility to investors, many of whom are women, require you to fire all men (or least as many as possible) and replace them with equally competent cheaper female employees and thus boost the quarterly dividend? And, for good measure, tell us how you would address the many government regulations designed to prevent sexual discrimination in employment? Surely the fired men would sue and how would you instruct the GM legal department to respond? Is social justice a legal defense?”

Clearly, as anybody familiar with today’s campus craziness must know, releasing a few dozen wolves on the campus would bring an intellectual blood bath—so many targets, so little time. And, rest assured, tales of these public humiliations would rapidly spread, and many students (and faculty) currently cowered by the PC crowd would take heart and, hopefully, likewise engage in some wolf-like predatory behavior. Once intimidated wolves would renounce their sheepskin camouflage and rip apart the idiots!

Academic wolves come in all ideological flavors, and a Left-leaning wolf is just as likely to surgically dismember a muddle-brained Marxist as a Canis lupus who worships Ann Rand. What counts is a target displaying inanity, sloppy thinking, and ignorance, not ideological disagreement. Indeed, a Marxist-inclined wolf might be particularly outraged when a student offers up some cliché-filled comic book version Marx. “All very enlightening but can you tell me, and others in the classroom, what sections of Das Kapital you have in mind when you insist that Marxism would reverse climate change?”

Alas, just as Yellowstone wolves were once exterminated, academic wolves are an endangered species. This is hardly surprising since the traits that define wolf behavior, notably, a sharp mind, exceptional erudition, a healthy measure of smart-assed combativeness and, most of all, an unwillingness to tolerate fools, are hardly a priority on today’s recruitment agenda. Moreover, that these traits are disproportionately associated with white males further encourages eventual extinction. Just imagine if a cis-gendered wolf made the short list and was invited for a job interview and adroitly skewed those who asked how race, class, and gender-informed his research? The audience’s reaction would likely be: “seems like a know-it-all…disrespectful of those who disagree… he made people uncomfortable…always interrupted….” all comments that suggest that a toy poodle was the truly desired hire.

But, the principle reason why academic wolves are going extinct is the existence of students and faculty whose diplomatic immunity-like status shields them from criticism. The parallels are government bans on killing Javan rhinoceroses, mountain gorillas, snow leopards, leatherback sea turtles, the Puerto Rican Sharp-skinned hawk, Oahu tree snails, the Cheetah, and, of course, the Shortnose sturgeon, to mention just a tiny sampling.

Put it this way, the Yellowstone wolves can kill anything they encounter, including children and tourists, and if such event did occur, it would be unlikely that park rangers would again exterminate all resident wolves. In fact, the wolf would be excused since to a wolf, meat is meat, and the victim should have been more careful.

Unfortunately, university standards are much higher regarding predators. If Professor Wolf sarcastically challenged a prospective minority faculty hire over claims regarding the contemporary impact of slavery, it would be Professor Wolf who would be in trouble. His cutting remarks about these claims lacking any scientific validity since they were unfalsifiable would only bring embarrassed silence from colleagues.

Similarly, wolf-like classroom behavior would also be condemned for making students uncomfortable, silencing the marginal and otherwise failing to be 100% inclusive. This is especially likely since in today’s campus environment criticism of any “vulnerable” student is often construed as an attack on every vulnerable student which today means just about everyone. Thus, to ask a gay student to document that gays are currently treated in the US as Jews were under Hitler is tantamount attacking women, blacks, Hispanics, the inter-sex, the disabled and every other student who feels oppressed.

What’s a good wolf to do? Seek therapy? The answer is simple: they must be retrained and learn to attack new evils. After all, we can’t let the wolves starve. Using biting mockery and knack for demolishing lame arguments can now be re-deployed to discredit Charles Murray’s pseudo-science or ridicule fools who insist that there are biological differences in men and women. In a pinch, mock devout Christians but steer clear of Islam. Lots of safe targets and, rest assured, you will be venerated for your intellectual brilliance. Sort of like re-educating Yellowstone wolves to be vegans—they can howl and track down wild tofu, so nobody fears for little Bambi unable to find Mom. An entire new species–woke wolves (Canis lupus wokus).                      

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

4 thoughts on “The Wolves of the Academy

  1. “Put it this way, the Yellowstone wolves can kill anything they encounter, including children and tourists, and if such event did occur, it would be unlikely that park rangers would again exterminate all resident wolves. In fact, the wolf would be excused since to a wolf, meat is meat, and the victim should have been more careful.”

    No…..

    The Yellowstone website states that rangers have already killed two wolves who merely “became habituated to humans” and that speaks loudly to what the rangers would do were wolves to start devouring tourists and children. Or they would simply close the park, much like the Cape Cod beaches were closed last summer after a Great White Sharks killed a tourist.

    They would either exterminate the threat or they would place barriers to protect humans from the threat — that’s what society does….

    And there is a difference between a rigorous pursuit of truth and bullying, there is a difference between not suffering fools lightly and being a total A-hole. To the extent there once were wolves in academia, what we’re dealing with now may well be, in part, the consequences of that. The wolf would employ the ad hominem and there really is no place for that in academia.

      1. Why do you say that?

        If anything, I am the exact opposite — I take a “free market” approach to higher education — it exists to provide a service in exchange for compensation.

        There is no place for predators in higher education — be they psychological or sexual predators. Academic rigor, yes — but not predation.

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