Ending Woke Culture Wars: Different Worldviews Require Different Institutions

America is in a grinding civil war that pits critical theory against Enlightenment values. The Enlightenment inspired civil debate, rationality, and science. Critical theory, derivative of neo-Marxism, divides people into oppressor and oppressed groups and portrays “knowledge” as a subjective tool in the struggle for power. Rather than engage in debate, woke critical theorists engage in mob-fueled cancellation campaigns.

We believe that past, seemingly intractable culture wars offer lessons for how to resolve this one by using a key Enlightenment value: personal agency through markets and choice.

As John McWhorter argues in his book Woke Racism, critical theory is essentially a fundamentalist religious faith, intolerant of apostates.

Consider examples of critical theory in action.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially prioritized essential workers for COVID vaccines over the more physically vulnerable elderly because the latter are disproportionately white, as (left-leaning) political scientist Yascha Mounk details in “Why I’m Losing Trust in the Institutions.” Had this policy been implemented, it would have led to thousands more deaths, including more fatalities among minorities. Yet until outsiders noticed, the CDC chose critical theory praxis over saving lives. This near disaster received remarkably little media attention, and no congressional hearings.

[Related: “Faculty-Packing at Ohio State”]

Gender ideology, also based on critical theory, erases biological boundaries between males and females, and exercises enormous power in disputes over who can play women’s sports, use women’s bathrooms, or be confined in women’s prisons. A critical theory newcomer, fat studies, portrays obesity as the invention of oppressive doctors rather than an objective physical condition, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay chronicled in these pages and in their book, Cynical Theories. These approaches may not be completely wrong, but they have not survived scientific testing and should not be considered “knowledge.”

Recent examples of how critical theory enables abuse can be seen in the many colleges and universities giving up the SAT as a criterion for admissions. Dismantling allegedly oppressive merit systems enables educational institutions to base admissions (and hiring) decisions on personal connections, ideological litmus tests, and the demographic quotas demanded by critical theorists, rather than individual achievement. Not surprisingly, this appeals to the rich and well connected, who can pay to game the system through fake credentials, or even bribe their way in through contributions to college endowments.

Increasingly, critical theory controls the institutions—academia, media, and bureaucracies—while supporters of traditional merit systems and Enlightenment values have far more public support, as shown by the results whenever racial and ethnic quotas come up for a vote in deep-blue states like California and Washington.

The stalemate between the public and the bureaucracy means that this culture war could rage for decades. But it doesn’t have to. By analogy, the history of prior religious conflicts may offer lessons for defusing this one.

For over a half-century, Belgians fought over whether their schools would be state run and secular, or state funded but mainly Catholic. The two sides battled through elections, protests, and massive school boycotts. By the early twentieth century, Belgians finally opted for state-funded school choice, enabling parents to choose the schools that best fit their values. The Netherlands reached the same compromise in the same era, in what became known as the 1917 “Pacification” of the school struggle. Today Belgium and the Netherlands host publicly funded educational free markets, with high-quality secular, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim schools serving culturally diverse populations that peacefully coexist.

[Related: “Belling the DIE Cat”]

Given the incompatibility between the values of liberal social justice and critical social justice, it is time for Americans to fashion similar compromises. Those of us who support the former should accept that many elite institutions have been captured by critical theory ideology and that they will not change back any time soon.

One way out resembling the Belgian solution has been advocated by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In “Why Universities Must Choose One: Truth or Social Justice,” Haidt suggested that the incompatibility between the unfettered search for truth (liberal social justice) and critical theory ideology (critical social justice) is so severe that educational institutions should clearly state which of these they support.

For example, the recently established University of Austin clearly states that their mission is aligned with liberal social justice and the search for truth. More private universities should do so as well.

Likewise, public university systems should dedicate some of their campuses to entirely liberal-social-justice values of merit-based admissions and hiring, and clearly state that they prioritize truth-seeking over critical-social-justice indoctrination and activism. These distinct institutions will need distinct accreditors that respect their missions, rather than having to conform to the dictates of existing accreditors, which are largely captured by critical theory.

Such education markets would then enable students, faculty, and donors to vote with their feet and their dollars. Ultimately, through their choice of practitioners, the public can decide which type of institutions should train their doctors and lawyers.

Individual choice in free markets can help to resolve many seemingly intractable conflicts. But to choose, we need choices. If the current ideological wave continues, critical theory will be the only choice allowed.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Robert Maranto and Michael Mills

    Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Michael Mills is a former chair of the psychology department at Loyola Marymount University. They are among the co-founders of the new Society for Open Inquiry in the Behavioral Sciences.

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3 thoughts on “Ending Woke Culture Wars: Different Worldviews Require Different Institutions

  1. Thanks Dr. Ed, for both comments. State legislation is a great idea. The bigoted history of Blaine amendments should be better known—few colleges teach students about it and it is verboten in ed schools. The scholarly piece cited above which Dirk van Raemdonck and I wrote back in 2018 gets into that in detail ( https://doi.org/10.1080/15582159.2018.1524411). We summarized the argument in Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/robert-maranto-and-dirk-c-van-raemdonck-letting-education-and-religion-overlap-1420761949). I have to credit Charles Glenn for schooling me on all this. His scholarship is amazing.

  2. “Such education markets would then enable students, faculty, and donors to vote with their feet and their dollars. Ultimately, through their choice of practitioners, the public can decide which type of institutions should train their doctors and lawyers.”

    Again I look to history — the Osteopathic Medicine movement. While an OD is considered essentially the same as a MD today, with all 50 states now permitting ODs to practice both medicine and surgery, that was not true a century ago — the American Medical Association labeled Osteopathy a cult that traditional MDs were not permitted to associate with.

    Starting with Vermont in 1896, the Osteopaths went to the state legislatures and got the various states to recognize the OD degree and to issue medical licenses, much to the chagrin of the AMA, with Mississippi being the last state to do so, in 1973.

    This is what we are going to have to do on a larger scale as graduation from an ABA-accredited law school is the prerequisite for the bar exam, graduation from an APA-accredited psych or counseling program is the prerequisite for psych & counseling licensure, et cetera.

    This is what the Jennifer Keeton case was really all about — Augusta State University claimed that it was required to expel Keeton lest the program lose its APA accreditation, with that being a prerequisite for its graduates being able to obtain state licenses. And while the APA is an extreme example, the DIE folks have infiltrated the other professional associations as well.

    This is a point that I think the authors are missing — establishing new accreditors will be a moot point if the professional programs don’t have the approval of the various professional accrediting associations. (The plight of those who graduate from a non-ABA-accredited law school is a quite visible example.)

    We need to go to the state legislatures — many of which would actually be supportive of our cause — and either eliminate the mandate (in state laws) for program accreditation by these professional associations, or make it illegal for institutions to comply with their DIE mandates. Otherwise the public won’t have a choice as to what type of institution trains their doctors and lawyers because only those graduating from DIE institutions will be able to obtain the required state license to practice.

    The State of Arizona has acted in this regard, much to the chagrin of the APA — https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/service-objections and the statute can be found here: https://law.justia.com/codes/arizona/2022/title-15/section-15-1862/

    The relevant sentence is: “A university or community college shall not discipline or discriminate against a student in a counseling, social work or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel a client about goals that conflict with the student’s sincerely held religious belief if the student consults with the supervising instructor or professor to determine the proper course of action to avoid harm to the client.”

    Checkmate — and the APA is worried: https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/conscience-clause-brief

    And what the APA isn’t saying is that state law supersedes their policies, and they’d be looking at a serious legal mess were they to un-accredit a program for complying with state law — particularly when the institution is licensed by the state to begin with.

    This won’t be easy — it took the Osteopaths over eighty years — but the solution is going to have to include enabling legislation.

  3. “For over a half-century, Belgians fought over whether their schools would be state run and secular, or state funded but mainly Catholic.”

    We did something similar in this country during the latter half of the 19th Century, with some 37 states eventually adopting so-called “Blane Amendments” that prohibited public funds from going to Catholic Parochial schools. (The US Supreme Court has recently ruled that such amendments violate the First Amendment to the US Constitution — see: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/supreme-court-rules-maine-tuition-program-violates-first-amendment-excluding-religious-schools)

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaine_Amendment

    Thomas Nash’s 1871 cartoon (on the wiki page above) shows the Catholic Bishops as Crocodiles advancing on American shores is reflective of the attitudes that a still largely Protestant nation had. Note the schoolhouse flag being upside-down — that was a distress signal in the days before radio. (Actually still is.)

    One of the big issues was which translation of the Bible would be used in the public schools, and which version of the Lord’s Prayer would be recited each morning.

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