The Academy in Crisis

The humanities departments of America’s universities are dominated by a rigid ideology. Putting a label on this ideology is tricky, but it can be expressed as a complementary blend of political correctness, postmodernism, postcolonialism, Marxism, and intersectional identity politics. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to this blend of ideas as “progressive” ideology. While this ideological domination may be self-evident to students, particularly to those who hold heretical views, there is a growing body of scholarship pointing to an extreme political imbalance in academia. A 2016 study published in Econ Journal Watch gathered data on the political party registration of professors at 40 leading American universities. The results: an 11:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans, with ratios as high as 33:1 in departments like history. A 2014 study (co-authored by Jonathan Haidt) on political leanings of academic social psychologists similarly found that “[b]y 2006… the ratio of Democrats to Republicans had climbed to more than 11:1.” Yes, membership in the Democrat party does not necessarily entail adherence to progressive ideology. But it is safe to assume that there is an overlap, one significant enough to make party registration a useful metric for approximating the prevalence of progressive ideology in the academy. So, do these statistics suggest a tangible problem, a threat to productive intellectual culture on campus?

Suppression of free speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, and trigger warnings: these are examples of the more newsworthy outcomes of progressive domination at American universities. Reporters have made a career out of combing through university community handbooks for draconian speech codes and Kafkaesque sexual assault tribunals. This brand of investigative reporting is undoubtedly important: it exposes the cultural rot of progressive puritanism, a preview of the enlightened repression that occurs when left-wing zealots rule unchallenged.

However, despite the clickbait value of safe spaces and trigger warnings, these stories only demonstrate minor side effects of the disease that plagues the American university. For example, it is true that anti-free speech sentiment continues to proliferate on campuses. But there has been a simultaneous strengthening of the first amendment in court – American students currently enjoy legal protections on free speech that are stronger than ever before in history. Also, most of the insidious “snowflake” policies on American campuses, such as Halloween costume cultural sensitivity rules or safe spaces during lectures by visiting conservatives, are implemented by university administrators. You can think of university administrators as progressive camp counselors. Their job is concerned primarily with managing the university community rather than carrying out any sort of academic work. Certainly, there is a causal link between the petty tyranny of administrators and the ideological dogma of academics. For example, academic social scientists have peddled shoddy research that demonstrates the existence of implicit bias — in short, sexist or racist tendencies that lurk in the unconscious mind and influence decision making. As a result, administrators push for implicit bias training seminars, an attempt to root out and reprogram these purported biases in faculty and students.

The worst consequence of ideological bias in the American university is not campus snowflake culture; it is, in fact, the decline in quality of scholarship and research in the academy. Working within the insulated bubble of progressive academia, professors produce skewed research. The leading academic humanities journals of the 21st century now resemble progressive echo chambers: instead of honest truth-seeking, they incentive pedantic scholarship that reaffirms core tenets of progressive ideology. Acceptable targets of intellectual criticism include white male patriarchy, western civilization, capitalism, the political Right, tradition, and religion. To mount a scholarly critique of progressive dogma would be heresy. As a result, wild and hyperbolic claims, untethered to reality but ostensibly in-line with progressive dogma, are allowed to propagate untouched in academic literature. Consider the Sokal Squared incident, in which a team of dissident academics successfully published hoax articles in leading academic journals. If a tongue-in-cheek study of rape culture in dog parks can survive the peer review process, if it is applauded as “exemplary scholarship” by academic authorities, we must conclude that this corruption exists on a systematic level.

If the purpose of the University is to be a site of rigorous discourse and truth-seeking, free from the economic and political forces of society at large, why has the American university succumbed to such anti-intellectual forces? There are two primary reasons, the first being the ideological history of the American academia. First, the American university of the 21st century can be understood as a progressive stronghold won by force in the academic culture wars of the latter half of the 20th century. Although erased from institutional memory and obscured from the public eye, the culture wars profoundly shaped the destiny of the American academy. In short: starting in the 1960’s radical young professors began to challenge the stodgy traditionalism of humanities departments. By the 1990s, those same academics had risen to prestigious appointments as department heads, and began a process of fortifying their position by chasing out dissenters and hiring like-minded academic talent. The end results: out were the western canon and objective truth, and in were grievance studies and postmodern thought. To understand the modern university as the site of a great ideological battle is to understand that modern professors and department heads view non-progressives as the enemy. To this day they still view themselves as brave revolutionaries, fighting back against the legacy of the white male-dominated academy of old.

This conception of the academy as a conquered battleground, the site of a factional coup, lends crucial context to the current warped state of academia. At the University of Michigan, highly sought-after academic positions such as the LSA Collegiate Fellowship require a “personal statement & diversity commitment” as part of admissions materials. From the Fellowship’s website: “This statement should document your commitment to… advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion goals within academia and beyond.” What is this diversity commitment if not an oath of loyalty to the current ruling regime? What better way to create a stronghold: submitting each potential new member of the academy to an ideological litmus test.

Reason number two explains how progressive zealots have maintained their ideological vice grip over the university without challenge: modern academics are highly intelligent and articulate. To read a leading academic journal in the humanities is to read some of the most skilled rhetoricians and wordsmiths in the world. Arguments are formed with meticulous attention to detail, every angle carefully considered; a thorough understanding of pre-existing literature is used to back up claims with the appearance of authority; the flimsiest claims are obfuscated with academese, a soup of arcane vocabulary and discipline-specific jargon incomprehensible to a non-academic. This rhetorical skill set required of the modern academic allows them to get away with poor quality thinking. Easily refutable ideas are tucked away in dusty journals that can only be understood by other academics; these ideas are then incorporated into the academic canon, to be cited (and thus granted authoritative status) by later academics.

Rhetorical skills also allow the modern academic to deny the existence of an ideological problem at the modern university. Their biases are so artfully woven into the seemingly-neutral methodology of their research, that even they no longer notice them. Adding to this sense of complacency, the Overton Window of the academic humanities has shifted such that ideas once deemed radical are now commonplace. For example, the assertion that ‘white supremacy is ubiquitous in American society’ is now a commonplace fact in the academy, one that does not require rigorous criticism or empirical re-examination.

Ideological bias in the academy is a real and quantifiable issue, one which must be rectified to reorient the university towards truth and honest intellectualism. This cannot be accomplished simply through broad generalizations about the academy, such as those in this article. While guerrilla tactics like those used in the Sokal Squared hoax are highly effective in exposing the most fraudulent enclaves of academia, they mostly address fringe elements of the academy rather than the corrupt center. The only solution that remains, apart from begging universities to change their hiring practices, is to criticize mainstream scholarship directly. In my next article, I will analyze several pieces of scholarship from leading Michigan professors in Political Science, History and English departments. The works I have in mind suffer from blatant ideological biases. I will conduct a close-reading to separate their polished rhetoric from their raw ideas, then extrapolate on the most flagrant errors, exaggerations, and falsehoods that I find. Hopefully, I can refine this methodology into a useful and reusable tool for undermining the progressive behemoth that is the American humanities.

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About Amo Manuel

Amo Manuel is a Junior studying History, Computer Science and English at the University of Michigan. From Boston, Massachusetts, he is a 'political agnostic' and plays jazz bass in his spare time. He can be reached at amory@umich.edu.