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A Tower of Babel, Not a Marketplace of Ideas

The proliferation of identity politics on our campuses is destroying intellectual vitality.

By Robert Weissberg

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March 28, 2014

Paul Gottfried’s recent Pope Center essay The Academy Now and Then raises important issues regarding whether today’s campus permits the expression of unpopular ideas. He argues that campus life was far more open when he began his academic career in the 1960s than it is in today’s PC-dominated world. But he tells of a younger colleague who insists the very opposite. 

In effect, this colleague implies that the increased presence of people of color, more women, gay and lesbian groups, Native Americans, varied international students, and the disabled enhances the university’s intellectual climate. He might have also added the multi-culturally themed courses and departments, a far cry from the monolithic white-male-dominated past. And let’s not forget the Internet-facilitated openness: e-mail lists, blogs and on-line journals that open once parochial campuses to worldwide forums. 

Thus depicted, Gottfried appears to have a weak hand. Who could possibly deny today’s cornucopia of divergent views?

Not so fast, however. I think Gottfried has it right, although for reasons that he understates. Just cataloguing these “voices,” no matter how numerous, varied and outspoken, misses the larger picture when calculating openness. We must not conflate the greater variety of expression per se with intellectual vitality. 

Facilitating the expression of multiple voices is but a means to an end; that end is the discovery of truth and that discovery requires vigorous unfettered debate. Absent candor, campus intellectual life is more akin to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where untold orators prattle on to largely silent onlookers. As my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s mission statement put it, the University ”should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

That means/ends relationship understood, viewpoint diversity is not the issue. Instead, the question is one of being able to challenge these viewpoints so as to pursue truth. It is that last element, not some modern Tower of Intellectual Babel, that Gottfried’s upbeat colleague ignores, and in my estimation is the part of the intellectual equation that has atrophied on today’s campus. A million soapbox speakers can be a cacophony of noise, not a marketplace of ideas.  

This decline of intellectual vitality has multiple roots but let me highlight just one: the proliferation of campus identity politics.  

Identity politics are about ethnic/racial groups, religious sects, people who share a common sexual orientation, or some other collective trait that has been deemed worthy of attention. That attention is formally represented in black studies, women’s studies, Latino/a studies, Jewish studies, queer studies and so on. In principle, these new fields are no different from traditional departments like anthropology—their aim purports to be finding truth using discipline-determined methods of inquiry.  

In practice, however, expertise often comes from the researcher’s very identity: “I know Hispanic politics since I’m Hispanic.” Now, subjective feelings are legitimate and must be treated as scientific data collected according to strict disciplinary guidelines. Thus, a gay instructor might tell his students that he, as a gay man, knows about homophobia personally. Self-reflection replaces developing a research design that will empirically define and measure homophobia. This is an easy, time-saving approach to knowledge—no need to seek funding, wrestle with defining complicated terms, and all else that bedevils serious academic endeavors. 

Unfortunately, disputing such self-reflected knowledge is not just a scholarly argument, but is often taken as an attack on identity as a source of knowledge. Imagine confronting the gay instructor by citing the paucity of anti-gay hate crimes according to the FBI uniform crime reports. The likely response would not be the usual “academic” disputation over statistical evidence or research design. Instead, the disagreement is treated as a personal assault on the instructor’s gay persona. 

Such “personalization” of academic give-and-take can erupt almost anywhere, save perhaps the hard sciences and engineering. 

I have long taught American electoral politics and I occasionally cover topics relating to African Americans. As a white male, I’m walking on eggshells. The last thing I want is to debate a black student over, say, election fraud involving blacks. I can easily see the black student insisting that by virtue of his race he possesses special expertise on black politics, and all my cited research suggesting pervasive fraud is factually incorrect since it was conducted by racist whites unfamiliar with black politics. What can I say? The student enjoys what might be called intellectual diplomatic immunity.    

Arguing can make things worse. If the race-infused classroom debate escalates, the instructor risks being accused of racial hostility, a verdict that wholly depends on personal feelings, not hard evidence. The usual standards of intellectual debate are irrelevant and if the administration is contacted about this putative hostility, the defenseless instructor might receive an official reprimand or worse. Again, better to meekly agree with this “personal knowledge,” no matter how incorrect, and quickly move on.

This is not crying wolf. Read George Leef’s account of Mary Lefkowitz’s tangle with Tony Martin, a black professor in Wellesley’s Department of Africana Studies Department. Lefkowitz had the audacity to challenge Martin’s claim that ancient Greek philosophy and culture were “stolen” from blacks in Africa. That is a historically preposterous assertion but no matter. Martin attacked Lefkowitz on the grounds that as a white Jew she was unqualified to dispute his interpretation. 

Meanwhile, the Wellesley administration avoided the quest for truth altogether with a “He has his view of ancient history and you have yours” position. Martin also then filed a lawsuit against Lefkowitz claiming that she had previously slandered him. This is a complicated story but the bottom line is clear: never, never dispute identity-based assertions offered by “protected” minorities. This is “hate” and only a few well-publicized incidents suffice as powerful lessons. 

A more recent example was a sit-in by students of color at UCLA where black students insisted that they, as students of color, and not their instructor (Professor Val Rust) or experts in grammatical usage, should be permitted to set their own rules when issues of race were involved—for example, whether “indigenous” should be capitalized or lower case. For the professor (or other whites) to impose standard “white” grammatical conventions on non-whites was thus a form of micro-aggression. 

In the “bad” old days, this dispute would have ended with “rules are the same for everyone” but not in today’s campus where identity in and of itself bestows competence. The incident quickly escalated and put Rust in the hot seat. The dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies announced the he and others in the department were “developing a plan of work to address all the relevant issues—issues that have a long history that antecede” the sit-in. What’s next? A style manual for each and every campus racial/ethnic/sexual group?

In sum, today’s campus more closely resembles a museum of diverse views, less a forum for the sifting and winnowing of good arguments from bad ones in search of truth. Matters will not improve so long as personal identity is judged as an authentic source of knowledge.

 


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