Social-justice ideology is turning higher education into an engine of progressive political advocacy, according to a new report by the National Association of Scholars. Left-wing activists, masquerading as professors, are infiltrating traditional academic departments or creating new ones—departments such as “Solidarity and Social Justice”—to advance their cause. They are entering the highest rung of college administration, from which perch they require students to take social-justice courses, such as “Native Sexualities and Queer Discourse” or “Hip-hop Workshop,” and attend social-justice events—such as a Reparations, Repatriation, and Redress Symposium or a Power and Privilege Symposium—in order to graduate.
But social-justice education is merely a symptom of an even deeper perversion of academic values: the cult of race and gender victimology, otherwise known as “diversity.” The diversity cult is destroying the very foundations of our civilization. It is worth first exploring, however, why social-justice education is an oxymoron.
Why shouldn’t an academic aspire to correcting perceived social ills? The nineteenth-century American land-grant universities and the European research universities were founded, after all, on the premise that knowledge helps society progress. But social justice is a different beast entirely. When a university pursues social justice, it puts aside its traditional claim to authority: the disinterested search for knowledge. We accord universities enormous privileges. Their denizens are sheltered from the hurly-burly of the marketplace on the assumption that they will pursue truth wherever it will take them, unaffected by political or economic pressures. The definition of social justice, however, is deeply political, entailing a large number of contestable claims about the causes of socioeconomic inequality. Social-justice proponents believe that those claims are settled, and woe to anyone who challenges them on a college campus. There are, however, alternative explanations—besides oppression and illegitimate power—for ongoing inequalities, taboo though they may be in academia.
A social-justice agenda, therefore, is a political commitment, and politics is not disinterested. Indeed, it is often tribal. Such tribalism caricatures political opponents and whitewashes political leaders, ignoring facts along the way, as shown both by the frenzied hostility to Donald Trump on the left and by his elevation to the status of wise statesman and paragon of truth-telling by his most enthusiastic supporters, including in the conservative intelligentsia.
In his 1918 lecture, “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber criticized the conflation of intellectual work with political action: “Whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases.” The primary task of a teacher, Weber said, is to help his students recognize what Weber called “inconvenient” facts—inconvenient, that is, to the students’ party opinions. And for every party opinion, Weber observed, some facts are extremely inconvenient. Our political understanding of the world is partial; we will emphasize certain aspects of reality that buttress our values and deemphasize other aspects that contradict those values. According to Weber, when an academic pronounces on how one should act, he becomes a prophet or demagogue, neither of whom belong on the academic platform.
Weber adduced another reason for abjuring politics in the classroom. Amusingly—an adverb that does not usually modify the great sociologist—it has been rendered completely irrelevant by twentieth-century education trends. A professor should not inflict his politics on his students, Weber said, because those students may not challenge his authority: “It is somewhat too convenient to demonstrate one’s courage in taking a stand where the audience and possible opponents are condemned to silence.” To which one can only respond: if only! Leave aside such student abuse of the adults in charge as the scourging of Nicholas Christakis at Yale, of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College, and of Allison Stanger at Middlebury College, among others. The goal of the ordinary classroom today is to get ignorant students babbling about whatever idle thoughts pass through their heads without showing any intellectual deference to their professor. The number of professors who deserve such deference, however, is by now depressingly low, thanks to the triumph of social-justice ideology.
Of course, many people on college campuses today are still “condemned to silence”—not out of any respect for faculty authority but because they disagree with the premises of victim politics. Conservative Harvard law students, a professor there recently told me, refrain from challenging the regnant dogmas in class, terrified that their remarks may end up on social media and thus jeopardize their careers. This unwillingness to air inconvenient facts—facts such as the connection between family breakdown and poverty—is precisely the shrinking of intellectual freedom against which Weber warned. And if a Harvard law student, occupying the closest position to riches, power, and prestige that a university can guarantee, nevertheless feels acutely vulnerable in his dissent from the orthodoxies, what is a lowly undergraduate or even post-doc to do?
How bad is academic politicization? It is overt and unapologetic. At a recent law school seminar on race and the law, the teacher proudly announced at the beginning of the class session: “We are training social-justice warriors here.” Had the professor said: “We are training justice warriors here,” there would have been no problem. Justice warriors seek to realize one of the great aspirations of Western history: to be ruled by neutral principles, rather than tribal partisanship.
In the courtroom, justice warriors pursue this rule of law through the adversarial process, in which both sides are given equal opportunity to advance facts and arguments in their defense. Social justice, however, is opposed to procedural justice. In a year of ever more strident victim rhetoric, one of the most disturbing auguries for the future was the protests at Harvard and Yale law schools against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Hundreds of students from our most influential legal academies marched under the #MeToo rallying cry: Believe Survivors, meaning: any self-professed victim of sexual assault is entitled to automatic belief before any evidence is presented to, and sifted by, a neutral tribunal.
A disproportionate number of these elite law students will end up as federal judges, including on the Supreme Court. If they carry their “Believe Survivors” commitment to the bench, due process is doomed. Many criminal law professors have given up teaching rape law since female students claim to be traumatized by the very thought of criminal defense in a rape case. Moot court has been similarly constrained; many law students are no longer willing to take on the role of advocate for even an imaginary political incorrect defendant. Harvard’s dean of students, meantime, fired law professor Ronald Sullivan from his job as an undergraduate dorm master this year because of Sullivan’s legal representation of accused sexual assailant Harvey Weinstein. Students and administrators alike deemed this representation an existential threat to the safety of female students in Sullivan’s dorm. We will pass over in silence the maudlin theatrics of such a claim. Its substance is a triumph for social justice, but it is a dagger in the heart of justice. For Harvard’s dean to declare that representing a politically unpopular client renders someone unfit to supervise students betrays the university’s educational mission, which should be to teach students the preciousness of such cultural legacies as the presumption of innocence.
Social-justice pedagogy is driven by one overwhelming reality: the seemingly intractable achievement gap between whites and Asians on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other. Radical feminism, as well as gay and now trans advocacy, are also deeply intertwined with social-justice thinking on campus and off, as we have just seen. But race is the main impetus. Liberal whites are terrified that the achievement and behavior gaps will never close. So they have crafted a totalizing narrative about the racism that allegedly holds back black achievement.
The aforementioned race-and-the-law professor, after announcing the class’s social-justice commitments, added: “We engage in race talk here.” That was an understatement. “We talk about white fragility,” the professor explained. “What is the purpose of white fragility? What does it mean to live in white culture, with white norms and a white power structure? What does it mean that we are in a culture dominated by white folks?”
A more pertinent question would be: What does any of this have to do with legal training? Living in a Western culture dominated by whites simply means that, if one is not white, one is in a minority; conversely, in Uganda, say, someone who is not black is in a minority. If being in a racial minority in a majority-white country is so inimical to one’s flourishing, plenty of places exist where a nonwhite person would be in the racial majority. Non-whites the world over are beating down the doors to get into Western countries, however, with no comparable corresponding traffic moving in the other direction. The very politicians and academics who in the morning denounce America’s lethal white supremacy in the afternoon demand that the country open its borders to every intending Third World immigrant, with no penalty for illegal entry. These two positions are contradictory: The U.S. cannot be at the same time the graveyard for nonwhite people and an essential beacon of freedom and a life-preserving haven from oppression for these same people.
What are the “white norms” and “culture” that “race talk” seeks to deconstruct? Objectivity, a strong work ethic, individualism, a respect for the written word, perfectionism, and promptness, according to legions of diversity trainers and many humanities, social sciences, and even STEM faculty. Any act of self-discipline or deferred gratification that contributes to individual and generational success is now simply a manifestation of white supremacy. The New York Times recently singled out parents who had queued up hours early to visit a sought-after public school in New York City. “Why were white parents at the front of the line for the school tour?” asked the Times headline. The article answered: their white privilege, not their dedication to their children’s schooling.
The test for whether a norm is white and thus illegitimate is whether it has a disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics. Given the behavioral and academic skills gaps, every colorblind standard of achievement will have a disparate impact. The average black 12th-grader currently reads at the level of the average white eighth-grader. Math levels are similarly skewed. Truancy rates for black students are often four times as high as for white students. Inner-city teachers, if they are being honest, will describe the barely controlled anarchy in their classrooms—anarchy exacerbated by the phony conceit that school discipline is racist. In light of such disparities, it is absurd to attribute the absence of proportional representation in the STEM fields, say, to bias. And yet, STEM deans, faculty, and Silicon Valley tech firms claim that only implicit bias explains why 13 percent of engineering professors are not black. The solution to this lack of proportional representation is no greater effort on the part of students, according to social justice and diversity proponents. Instead, it is watering down meritocratic standards. Professors are now taught about “inclusive grading” and how to assess writing without judging its quality since such quality judgments maintain white language supremacy.
It is impossible to overstate how fierce and sweeping the attack on meritocracy is: every mainstream institution is either furiously revising its standards or finds itself in the crosshairs for failing to do so. STEM professional organizations decry traditional means of testing knowledge. Diverse students should be able to get credit for participation in a group project or for putting together a presentation for their family and friends on a scientific concept, say these STEM professionals. Faculty hiring criteria are also under pressure. A decade or so ago, the demand was to give credit toward tenure for editing an anthology. Substitutes for scholarship have only gotten more creative. At Bucknell University, a minority faculty member suggested that participating in an expletive-filled faculty list-serve discussion denouncing Amy Wax, an embattled University of Pennsylvania law professor, should count toward the “intellectual labor” of minority faculty and be included in the faculty merit review.
The most sweeping solution to the lack of racial diversity on the faculty is to get rid of departmental gatekeepers entirely, some of whom remain stubbornly wedded to traditional notions of accomplishment. The University of California at Davis has handed hiring decisions in several STEM fields over to a committee dominated by the university’s head diversity official and other bureaucrats. These bureaucrats have no idea how to assess scientific research. They are good, however, at diversity bean-counting.
The social-justice diversity bureaucracy has constructed a perpetual-motion machine that guarantees it eternal life. Minority students who have been catapulted by racial preferences into schools for which they are not academically prepared frequently struggle in their classes. The cause of those struggles, according to the social-justice diversity bureaucracy, is not academic mismatch; it is the lack of a critical mass of other minority students and faculty to provide refuge from the school’s overwhelming bigotry. And so, the school admits more minority students to create such a critical mass. Rather than raising minority performance, however, this new influx of diverse students lowers it, since the school has had to dig deeper into the applicant pool. The academic struggles and alienation of minority students will increase, along with the demand for more diversity bureaucrats, more segregated safe spaces, more victimology courses, more mental health workers, more diverse faculty, more lowered standards, and of course, more diversity student admits. And the cycle will start all over again.
Due to the diversity imperative, medical schools admit black students with MCAT scores that would be automatically disqualifying if presented by a white or Asian student. Their academic performance is just what one would expect. Time to lower standards further. An oncology professor at an Ivy League medical school was berated by a supervisor for giving an exam in pharmacology that was too “fact-based.” A cancer patient presumably wants his doctor to know the facts about drug interactions, however.
This same process of de-norming is happening in law enforcement. Across the country, district attorneys are refusing to enforce misdemeanor laws and judges are releasing convicted felons early because virtually every criminal-justice practice has a disparate impact on blacks. That disparate impact is due not to criminal-justice racism, but to blacks’ exponentially higher crime rates. This ongoing push for decriminalization and deincarceration will result in more black lives being lost to violent street crime. The liberal elites seemingly don’t give a damn, however, since black street-crime victims are killed overwhelmingly by other blacks, not by racist cops or white supremacists.
The ultimate social-justice solution to the skills and behavior gap is to remove the competition entirely. From the moment children enter school, they are berated for their white heteronormative patriarchal privilege if they fall outside a favored victim group. Any success that they enjoy is not due to their own efforts, they are told; it is due, rather, to the unfair advantages of a system deliberately designed to handicap minorities. Teachers are now advised to ignore white male students since asking or answering questions in class is another mark of male supremacy.
The pariahs are getting the message. A mother in Connecticut recently asked her son why he was not making more of an effort in college. He answered that doing so would be a function of white privilege. Such an answer can simply be an excuse for laziness. But the relentless attack on any achievement that is not proportionally distributed among different identity groups cannot help but dampen some students’ willingness to compete. Journalist George Packer recently wrote a controversial article in The Atlantic agonizing over the racial-justice crusade that has engulfed the New York City school system. Packer family politics are such that his fourth-grade son “sobbed inconsolably” when Trump was elected president, and Packer sympathizes with the broad goals of the school system’s racial-justice crusade. But even he worries about the fanatical leveling of academic excellence in the name of racial equity. Packer’s daughter proclaimed that she wishes she weren’t white so as not to have slavery on her conscience. One way to atone for being white is to stop conforming to allegedly white norms of accomplishment. Some alpha males will continue striving anyway, and certainly, when it comes to college, admissions mania on the part of white elites has not abated yet. But over time, expect a subtle deflation of effort among those who have fully internalized social-justice guilt.
The only precedent for our current resentment-driven war on the West’s magnificent achievements is the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and that didn’t turn out well. The Cultural Revolution, however, was waged mostly by the less educated against the more educated. The oddest feature of today’s social-justice crusade is that it is being prosecuted by the elites against themselves. Every college president, law firm managing partner, and Fortune 500 CEO would rather theatrically blame himself and his colleagues for phantom bigotry than speak honestly about the real causes of ongoing racial inequality: family breakdown and an underclass culture that mocks learning and the conformity to bourgeois values as acting “white.” Anti-racism has become the national religion, with the search for instances of racism to back up that religion becoming ever more desperate. Over the last year alone, ladies’ flats, sweaters, keychains, and Adidas and Nike sneakers have been purged from the marketplace for their imaginary connection to racist symbols. Innocent schoolboys have been tarred as bigots by the national media, and a robust traffic in hate-crime hoaxes has thrived.
In fact, America is among the least racist countries on the planet. There is not a single mainstream institution not trying to hire and promote as many underrepresented minorities as possible. Conservative philanthropists and corporations spend billions each year on social-uplift programs to close the achievement gap. Taxpayer dollars are as liberally distributed from government coffers. We so take these efforts for granted that we don’t even see them; they have no effect on the dominant narrative about white indifference and exploitation.
We are in uncharted territory. How a civilization survives with so much contempt for itself is an open question. It is not wholly fanciful to see America’s drug-addicted malaise and rising mortality rates as a consequence, in part, of the nonstop denunciation of the white-male patriarchy. White identity politics is the inevitable result of this nonstop attack, and a logical one: if every other group celebrates its racial identity, why shouldn’t whites, if only as a matter of self-defense?
The claim that every feature of our world rests on racial oppression—the thesis not just of social-justice education, but of the entire Democratic presidential primary field and of the New York Times’ high school-destined 1619 project—undermines the moral legitimacy of our country. All accumulation of wealth is suspect; every technological breakthrough and business success becomes nothing more than rank exploitation.
Even Max Weber might not have foreseen where the politicization of education would land us. He would certainly have been astounded that the hard sciences are now worrying about microaggressions and heteronormativity. We are jeopardizing the creation of new knowledge. But the most important function of schooling is to pass on an inheritance, as Michael Oakeshott explained, and that function is now all but obliterated. Serious humanistic learning has been decimated. When I speak at college campuses, I ask students what their majors are and what their favorite classes have been. Their answers are profoundly depressing: a shallow stew of communications studies, psychology, presidential debate-scoring masking as political science, and syllabi featuring comic books and the young adult literature of dysfunction. The focus of student attention is relentlessly presentist.
Our cultural past is full of wonderful mysteries, however: how, for example, did Western literature evolve from Medieval romance to the realistic novel—the romance peopled by allegorical figures who roam Classical landscapes, the novel showing acute attention to individual character and the details of everyday life? What did such a change mean for how human beings think of themselves in the world? The evolution of form, whether in literature, art, or music, is a grand adventure story, whereby we trace the ever-changing reflection of human experience in the mirror of human imagination. The greatest sin of the social-justice and diversity crusade is to teach students to hate this cultural inheritance. The social-justice crusaders are stripping the future of everything that gives human life meaning: beauty, sublimity, and wit.
This speech, which originally ran in City Journal, is published with permission.