The Catechism of the Woke: A Cautionary Tale

Thomas Ricks’ First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (2020) uses brief biographies of our first four presidents to explain how their studies of the classics shaped the system of checks and balances central to American democracy. One could create a similar narrative for American higher education’s first principles. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is foundational to both academic freedom and freedom of speech. Oliver Wendell Homes’ “great dissent” (Abrams, 1919) established a broad obligation for due process promised in the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

However, most of the credit for organizing, articulating, and advocating for the first principles of American higher education belongs to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  These principles helped establish American higher education as the envy of the modern world and can be found here. The AAUP linked academic freedom to administrative processes related to tenure and promotion. In Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, Stanley Fish (2014) argues that the most narrow definition of academic freedom is the most appropriate. Academic freedom is an essential tool that provides scholars with the freedom necessary to achieve their most basic professional function: the pursuit the truth.

Similarly, we may identify in recent works the concatenation of notions and fantasies within Wokeness. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt trace much of the current negative effects of this movement to several false beliefs drawn from neo-socialism. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (2020) emphasizes the influence of postmodernism and intersectionality on the movement. Regardless of its origins, many who’ve experienced cancel culture’s bite will recognize its essence in the following catechism: Do you identify with straights, males, or whites? If so, then just accept you have no rights.

The majority of academics identify as “liberal,” but those who support cancel culture explicitly are a minority. However, when amalgamated with institutional administrations lacking either competence, commitment, or character, even a small mob of Woke activists can dispose of adversaries and chill higher learning across a campus. My experience was one of many examples.

Ironically, my crime was seeking to gather evidence relevant to the issues described above. In particular, my students and I sought to collect information about identity, beliefs, perceptions, and judgments related to academic freedom and hostile work environments. The students in my class were enthusiastically supportive. I believed open conversations about these issues would help dissipate and ameliorate some of the misinformation and misunderstandings which had marred the local Title IX program.

Psychology is sometimes criticized for creating unrealistic tasks that lack validity in the real world. One way to reduce the effects of this lack of generalizability is to draw from real-life situations. This is how the survey scenarios were created. The essential “fact patterns” were drawn from real events both at Berea and elsewhere, stripped of identifying information and turned into hypothetical situations that posed plausibly challenging situations. The survey contained twenty such events, and respondents rated the hostility of each situation using a 6-point Likert scale. The following question was whether the words or behaviors that had created the situation described would be protected by academic freedom. Drafts of the survey were sent to a dozen senior faculty members, and we received written feedback from half of them. Those returning reviews included my department chair, my academic division chair, and the chair of the Institutional Review Board, among others. No one had expressed concerns about ethics, “confidentiality,” or potential harm to participants. The survey was made available to all students and faculty online with rewards offered for participation.

Two presentations of the results are available at https://davesfsc.com. The aim of this study was to learn about the socio-dynamics of the Berea College campus in particular, rather than acquire generalizable knowledge. This was intended to be a classroom exercise rather than publishable research. Nonetheless, the study provided information and insights relevant to many post-secondary campuses. Here are some of the most significant findings:

Political belief can be predicted by demographic characteristics: heterosexual males are much less liberal than other individuals on campus.

Respondents’ political identity together with their other beliefs predicted their beliefs about activism, hostile environments, and academic freedom.

All respondents expressed support for protection from hostile learning environments as well as freedom of speech. However, those who expressed support for suppressing potentially hurtful speech (nearly all of whom identified as being “very liberal”) were less likely to support freedom of speech.

Most of the variance in sensitivity to environmental hostility was predicted by the combination of gender (female) and politics (liberal), and those who expressed support for activism and hostile environment protection all were more likely to rate hypothetical scenarios as being hostile.

Although those who expressed support for freedom of speech were more likely to judge that academic freedom would protect the contested speech in the given scenarios, by far the greatest influence on these judgments was respondents’ perception of environmental hostility. Those who perceived the situation described as being hostile were much less likely to allow academic freedom to protect the speech that created the situation.

The implications of these findings are important. There was no clear distinction between environments which were deemed to be hostile and those which were not, with nearly a third of the scenarios receiving average ratings between “slightly agree” and “slightly disagree.” The use of even mild or moderate punishment under such ambiguous conditions is likely to be ineffective as well as inappropriate.

In fact, the relationship across the 20 scenarios was itself very negative (r = -.87). Thus, to the extent Title IX training effectively sensitizes individuals to hostile environments, it is likely to diminish their support for academic freedom.

The chilling effects of Title IX training (especially if it appears to be indoctrination) will undoubtedly interfere with the quality of higher learning in college classrooms. This study also provided evidence from institutional research of the negative quantitative effects on conservatives and heterosexual males.

It is time to pause the philosophical arguments and gather data from every campus concerning hostile environments and academic freedom. Proceeding without such assessment and information would be like trying to fight a fire while blindfolded. Our institutions and our students deserve better.


Image: IMCBerea College, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

David B. Porter

David B. Porter, DPhil, Col, USAF (Ret), is a professor in exile in Berea, KY. He may be reached at dave.porter.berea@gmail.com.

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