This is a tough one to answer technically. We have nothing to compare directly with the academia we have today, no alternative system of higher education. Still, it is clear that American academia has fallen far short of this ideal. Worse, in some fields, far from being open to entertaining controversial thought, academics behave more like priests with an orthodoxy to defend.
In the subjects I know most about, I am very skeptical of academics. While often rigorous in their approach and skilled in their technical analysis, they nonetheless shy away from difficult truths (with some rare exceptions). This leaves large holes in their study and analysis, holes that are filled in by more activist-minded professors, distorting the discussion powerfully in their favor. My feeling is backed up (somewhat) by data: We know for a fact that academia is highly skewed politically, heavily left-of-center. The difference between academic fields is merely in the degree of the skew.
Here is an example I’ll give…in June of 2020 academics of all fields endorsed BLM marches after being COVID hawks. The reason was obviously ideological, but there were some statistics papers showing that the marches didn’t have a contagion effect later in the summer. Because these were less infectious forms of COVID and the marches were outside this is not implausible on the face of it (though many of the marches and protests in many areas just masked the reality that people also wanted to party, indoors). A friend of mine who is a statistician at an R1 university looked at the paper a year later and concluded that it was trash; the statistics were crap and they couldn’t draw any conclusion. So why did the paper showing that “the science” proved that the marches weren’t conducive to COVID spread get published and repeated in the press? Because they supported the view that academics wanted to be true, so all the extreme professional skepticism and methodological rigor went out the window. This is obviously a problem. If academics want something to be ideologically true..they now seem to be willing to go along with people just making things up.
Second, I have a friend who is mildly heterodox and plans on staying in academia until tenure so he can “tell academics how they aren’t that smart and wrong a lot.” Generally, I eye-roll at this attitude. Does my friend want collaborators? Does he want his graduate students to have postdoctoral fellowships? Does he want graduate students?
Yes, tenure guarantees your job and a minimum income, but operationally most academic fields are collaborative and you need buy-in and acceptance from the community. And the community does not agree upon error. At least anymore. For whatever reason, in the last few decades, and especially the last ten years, academia has become much more ideologically and culturally conformist, and the room and freedom given to oddballs and heretics has disappeared, and the window of dissent is highly controlled. Academia has a massive culture problem, and I don’t know how they’re going to solve it. Only those who conform to nonconformism are allowed anymore.
The content of the book isn’t what I’m going to post about. Rather, there’s a social media controversy that I want to make a quick comment on as it relates to “academic culture” in the US. If you want details, Jesse Singal is going to do a podcast on the topic, and you can check out the hashtag #brightAgesSoWhite to get a sense.
Here’s the summary.
The Bright Ages gets assigned to be reviewed by a white woke academic (WWA) to a woman of color woke academic (WoCWA).
The review is really really negative. If you look for it online, you can make your own judgment, but I think it is very unfair to the authors. Basically, WoCWA was out to engage in a “hit.”
There is a dispute between the WWA and WoCWA about edits and the former basically rejects the review. The latter is very angry.
Next, accusations of racism etc. fly, and initially the WWA engages in what are now called “white woman tears” in social justice parlance. WWA was being attacked pretty harshly online, so her response was surely sincere, but her attackers responded that her recourse to tears hurt people who were marginalized (nonwhites). The issue here is who/whom. WWA deploying tears against a nonmarginalized person (white male) would have been a winning move.
Part of the issue goes to connections between WWA and the authors of The Bright Ages (they are friendly), as well as between a positive reviewer and the authors. Accusations of nepotism and racism fly.
Eventually, WWA apologizes. She gets attacked for apologizing not vociferously enough, or fast enough. She deactivates her Twitter account.
Other people start to get attacked. People who defended WWA position, or pushed back on WoCWA. The authors of The Bright Ages get attacked as well as privileged white men. Screenshots are made of people who “liked” tweets that WWA or others made defending themselves for later reference to assemble a dossier of “very bad people”.
The authors of The Bright Ages are very woke. In fact, I’m 99% sure David Perry, one of the coauthors, has joined in on one of the periodic online academic-twitter pile-ons on me at some point. The other author doesn’t believe in cancel culture, and is a very smug woke white man.
There are many more details, but that’s the main sketch. The whole incident was brought to my attention by a friend in academia who was at one point criticized as a possible white supremacist (or sympathetic) by WWA for a minor intellectual disagreement (he’s a white male). The point is that WWA and the coauthors of The Bright Ages are very excited and happy to deploy identitarian arguments against people they disagree with, so it’s hard to feel very sad about what’s happening to them now. They are being consumed by the Sandworms that they normally ride.
If you look through #brightAgesSoWhite you see many people acting horribly and being bullies. If you know some history you know that this isn’t surprising, and these people think they are being righteous. The targets of the bullying themselves actually are self-righteous bullies from what I can tell, so lots of bad apples here.
Some of the criticisms of academic culture and the way the review process worked aren’t totally offbase. Academics in most disciplines are incestuous and engage in a lot of back-scratching. Academia is an archipelago of “communities” with various social norms, and despite all the talk about “equity and inclusion” the dominant players are still upper-middle-class white people who often have a family connection to the institution (academics are more likely to spawn other academics than almost any other field). Weirdly (or not), many white academics I’m privately friendly with have told me of instances of casual anti-Asian prejudice and racism from “woke” white people, assuming that my friend (nonwoke) would agree.
The loudest promoters of DEI in performance are probably white academics from these connected backgrounds who live in white college towns and are totally personally unacquainted with “diversity” and “inclusion.” Look at the racial breakdown of the Census Tract that WWA lives in, for example. That doesn’t look like America. Some of the angriest attacks on me on Twitter get triggered when I point out this hypocrisy since there’s an “honor among thieves” code where people don’t point these things out too much lest comfy sinecures get disturbed.
What to think about the controversy and The Bright Ages? I am old-fashioned. What is true? What is right? What is illuminating our understanding of the past in all its complexity? The identity and feelings of academics are secondary because humans are secondary to the knowledge they engage with and produce. We will always miss the mark, and we will always be hypocrites, and never really live up to the standards that the quest for truth demands of us, but we should keep trying.
But this quest is no longer in the sights of many academics online. Rather, they are focused on feelings, identity and politics. When you make academia more about social justice than the truth, this is what you get. I am pessimistic about American academia being able to reverse gears on this, because when a young nonwhite woman sees a white woman advancing in her career by savaging a white male academic on identitarian grounds, why shouldn’t the nonwhite woman do unto the white woman what she’d have done unto her? The shared ethos for truth is gone, and all is now power. It’s sad.
I myself have defended people who are white males who were attacked unfairly, who later on denounced me because it was the expedient thing to do. People are weak individually, so I am not surprised. But in the aggregate, there’s a rot in the institution. Do these people know it? I don’t really know. I think most are not that self-aware.
Addendum: some of my “best” informants are white people who are not American or are from working to lower class backgrounds. They often see the hypocrisies because they are outside of the charmed pedigree networks of the genuinely privileged white people despite their race. The paradox of academia is that it mouths egalitarianism, but practices a hierarchical system with a prestige caste system of institutions and pedigreed-networks.
Over the past few years, I have been telling my friends in academia that the Republicans are going to turn on the whole institution. Because my friends don’t know any Republicans personally (well, except for me) it has all seemed abstract and kind of vague. Pew now is reporting that over the past few years Republican are getting “woke” to higher education. My own personal impression is that the bleeding edge of academic activists have become much more abrasively Left-wing, even if there is a silent moderate majority.
This is not going to end well for an institution which relies in large part upon public monies (even private universities focused on research rely on public grants to fund laboratories and fellowships). I see the 2020s as being a decade when the USA will actually start to tighten its belt due to excessive fiscal obligations (entitlements and our military empire).
Sociologist James Coleman, perhaps the world’s leading scholar of educational policy, recalls that in 1976 the president and a number of prominent memembers of the American Sociological Association (ASA) tried to have him censured for the “crime” of discovering, and announcing, that citywide busing for school desegregation purposes caused White flight. This claim had been denied for years prior to Coleman’s research, and far reaching social policies had been erected on the presumption that it was not true.
40 years later the same attitude is prevalent in much of sociology and has spread to anthropology and other fields. The reality is that the idea of objective scholarship is an illusion. We all know that “think tanks” exist to promote certain ideas and viewpoints, often due to funding strings attached. I know of people who have changed their views, and so have had to change their affiliation (or, simply not published in areas that they knew would not be well received by their institution).
Academia, with the freedom of tenure should be different. But it’s not. The reason it’s not is that it is a social enterprise, and the esteem of one’s colleagues is more important than the abstract idea of freedom to explore what you want. There are strong incentives in many disciplines to toe a particular line, and humans are conformists and they do as they’re expected to.
If all debates come down to politics and power, then putting them in the domain of think tanks makes it more honest and clean.