Is the battle to ensure an intellectually open campus winnable? Many would answer “yes,” but there are reasons for pessimism. To be blunt, the life of the mind, the veneration of truth over falsehood, and the pursuit of truth may not be the default option of human nature. Yes, that idyllic world may exist here and there, but such episodes are brief and, as we know all too well, exceedingly fragile. Even under ideal circumstances, repressive urges abound. Being on the wrong side of history is bad enough; being on the wrong side of human biology is far worse.
The brightest minds are not always appreciated despite their contributions, and this aversion can be top to bottom. Pointy-headed intellectuals may be vital for building A-bombs and the Internet, though this appreciation may not be forever.
Amy Chua’s World on Fire catalogues tales of smart, energetic ethnic groups—notably the Chinese, Arabs, and Indians—being expelled from third-world countries with ruinous, predictable economic outcomes. Recall the 1685 genocidal attack on economically industrious French Huguenots. The history of Jews, whether in 1492 Spain or 1930s Nazi Germany, likewise abounds with such tales. It has been estimated, for example, that Hitler’s decision to rid Germany of all Jewish scientists was nine times more damaging to German science than the physical destruction of scientific facilities resulting from WWII. Pol Pot killed anyone who even remotely appeared “intellectual” on an industrial scale. Those perplexed by that rampant anti-intellectualism sweeping today’s campuses should keep in mind these and dozens of similar examples. In historical context, firing the brilliant cancer researcher for offending the powers that be is perfectly normal. A gene may well exist for shouting down those who tell unwelcome truths.
Those who demand tolerance for unpopular opinions should study the literature on social cohesion. Humans survived for millennia thanks to mechanisms such as ostracism that promoted close group ties—it’s not easy to abandon good survival habits. The angry mob out to kill the heretic is part of the human condition, and that humans continue to thrive suggests that mobocracy may serve a purpose. On a more mundane level, how many people enjoy vigorous intellectual debate versus hearing wisdom handed down from on high? Military units did not defeat invaders by maximizing recruit diversity and tolerating dissenting views. From the perspective of human evolution, the canceled cancer researcher is just a “disruptive troublemaker” who undermines social cohesion, no matter how valuable his research.
Religion has been around forever, and it, too, crushes the unorthodox. “Golden eras” of religious toleration are exceedingly rare. Our banished cancer researcher might find solace in Kai T. Erikson’s account in The Wayward Puritans of Anne Hutchinson’s fate when she confronted the elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony about the existence of sin if, as doctrine stated, salvation was preordained. She was expelled, not thanked, for clarifying Calvinist theology. Yet, as Erikson asserts, Anne Hutchinson’s banishment helped the on-the-edge-of-disaster colony survive by strengthening its collective faith. How many cultures celebrate the deviant? It’s hard to argue with success, and rest assured, these herd-like instincts persist because they bring success.
As for the patent insanity that emanates from today’s leftist faculty (e.g., not all women have vaginas), one should review the hundreds of so-called “Asch experiments.” Here, subjects in an experiment had to make clear-cut choices regarding which two lines were the same length. But thanks to the experimenter adding “stooges” who purposedly gave the wrong answers to the group, many participants rejected plain-to-see reality. Many—though not all—deemed a 6” line the same length as a 12” line, not a 6” alternative. Social pressure and the need to fit in can transform black into white.
Todays’ college campuses often resemble Asch experiments writ large. Don’t believe your eyes, don’t trust statistical data, ignore those outside the university—women are just as mathematically gifted as men. And if you still have doubts, just keep silent if you want a social life or want to attend a top medical school.
From the days when Homo Sapiens learned to walk upright, anything resembling a heresy-friendly agora was an infinitesimally small part of human history. Tribes that celebrated endless debates over truth rather than embracing official dogma were conquered and enslaved. Blind faith can be an advantage. Future historians may recall America’s pre-woke universities as we now nostalgically remember the Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. It was great while it lasted, but it was unique.
Given hard-wired human nature, let me suggest that we are witnessing universities return to an earlier and far longer epoch when these institutions were firmly rooted in religion. Think of the transformation of domesticated pigs into feral boars—after a few years in the wild, liberated porkers revert to form, grow thick hair and tusks, and become highly aggressive. Keep in mind that the modern university began as centers for religious training and indoctrination, not forums for intellectual give-and-take, and so like pigs on the loose, the campus will soon resemble the “Cathedral schools” of the Middle Ages. Today’s woke college president is the spiritual descendant of the fire-and-brimstone Jonathan Edwards who founded Princeton, albeit pushing different dogma. The Bell Curve will soon be locked away in the library’s basement in a case labeled Index Librorum Prohibitorum, available only to the most faithful of the faithful.
This is not speculation. The Church of the Holy Woke flourishes. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is hardly unique when it requires instructors to insert the ideology of diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) into all courses, including the hard sciences. As religious institutions once imposed strict doctrinal standards for teachers, sometimes even requiring religious vows, job applicants must now affirm their commitment to DIE to make the shortlist. Today’s campuses also have their saints (George Floyd) and devils (cis-gendered white men). And, just as students during the 12th century limited their study to a few sacred texts, today’s undergraduates will pore over the tomes issued by the venerated sages of Critical Race Theory. This is truth based upon authority, not science or reason, and, no doubt, after a point, those who dispute the wisdom of Ibram X. Kendi will be investigated by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Church of the Woke and its Bishop of Inclusion and Diversity.
The days when university students had mandatory chapel are long gone, of course, but do not fear—compulsory racial sensitivity training will now suffice, while the newest High Holy Days might include paying Angela Davis $20,000 to lecture the assembled brethren on the link between capitalism and racism. As is true for some religions, the wokenistas love self-flagellation and begging forgiveness for their sins. The Diversity is Our Strength catechism will soon arrive, so stay tuned.
But of all the reincarnations of the once-morbid religious traditions, the most consequential will be training for missionary work. Now, however, the targets of evangelism will not be the “heathens” of Africa or China, and certainly not the destitute of one’s own nation. The new targets are the centers of power in America—corporations, educational institutions, government, churches, the mass media, and philanthropies. Convert the elite, not the peasants. Toiling away in the CIA or the Ford Foundation certainly outshines traveling to Uganda and learning one of its 43 native languages. Just as the saving of souls was endless, preaching CRT, militant feminism, and radical environmentalism is unending. Those marching through the institutions—God willing—will know no rest.
This missionary work is hardly hidden. Ads on the NYC subway from the City College of New York now try to recruit those willing to take vows to uplift the world according to the Gospel of the Woke. Tellingly, however, the phrase “proselytizing the radical faith” never appears. Everything is about a degree in “social justice”—what else can a youngster with such a degree do other than preach the faith? After all, there are only so many small parishes (mistakenly called “liberal arts colleges”) where believers can just reflect on woke theology.
A Google search for college programs in “social justice” produces a cornucopia of results, many of which are at top schools like Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington. Left unsaid but undoubtedly true is that programs in “social justice” are useful, legal ways of attracting black students who now pursue activism (often with sympathetic instructors) rather than navigating more traditional majors. Long gone are the days when college presidents deemed student activists disruptive pests undermining the university’s intellectual mission. The barbarians are within the gates, earning degrees in “Barbarian Studies” and using their degrees to create yet more barbarians. The social justice movement is going critical.
Is there any hope? Perhaps the monastery model is appropriate, where a small group of well-hidden scholars keep the flame alive until the next Enlightenment arrives. But while we wait for that time, we might find a little solace by recognizing that it is not easy to defeat Mother Nature.
Image: Warren Umoh, Public Domain