The Vanity of the Ivory Tower

This year’s most important academic paper, at least according to Steven Pinker,  has just been published in Behavior and Brain Sciences: Political Diversity Will (still) Improve Social Psychological Science. The inimitable Jonathan Haidt strikes again, this time complementing the banal observation that academia is overwhelmingly progressive with the profound conclusion that this progressive bias is indeed having harmful consequences to the development of the field.

To quote Haidt’s abstract, the paper has four main points:

  1. Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years.
  2. This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science.
  3.  Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science.
  4. The under-representation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.

All of which are backed by copious sources and examples. All points are devastating and should, if fully heeded, shake America’s perceptions of the academy to the core. As the British might say, it’s a fair knock out.

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

At this point I should make a rather obvious confession. Sure enough Haidt’s paper is timely and well-researched, but it nonetheless told me nothing that I didn’t already believe. I make no claim of objectively on this subject. I have, since my first encounter with it, found the modern academic approach to social science to be a corrupt. The culture seemed too vain to grapple with its critics and too slothful to address new and interesting questions. It was like an echo chamber useful only in flattering the ideological preconceptions of its tenured participants.

In fact, it seemed impossible that the insulated self-assurance of modern social science departments would be able to endure in the long run. The bubble would eventually have to pop. The center would not hold.

But, of course, my predictions about the fate of academic culture were entirely wrong. When I first arrived at college shortly after September 11th 2001, I was convinced that the relativistic and paranoid multiculturalism preached breathlessly to the incoming freshmen was entering its twilight, destined to be destroyed in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. Instead, that relativism thrived and expanded through all areas of academic life. I was convinced after leaving my undergraduate education, that the petty and hyper-sensitive campus culture would remain consigned to dorm rooms and the peripheries of small college towns. However, it was not many years before I heard “homophobia” being ascribed to anyone who held to traditional beliefs on marriage and broad discussion of “hetero-normativity” and “male-privilege” on prime time network television.

Conservatives make much about the “liberal media” but I noticed relatively little time is spent on the even more left-wing culture in academia. I have never understood this. To the extent that America is becoming a progressive culture, and to the extent that the media is a De Facto progressive institution, they are because they are downstream of ideas and training developed in academia. Academics matter, and the culture that rules those academics matter even more. Conservative or moderate Americans alarmed by progressive victories, might put more time into the study of Aristotle.

I suppose what’s most interesting is that we have put so little investment into understanding academic culture itself and how it might effect the outlook of those we elect as our teachers. Part of this might be a question of privilege. The only people who could perform this research would be academics themselves and who wants to really put their own bias under a microscope? Haidt is doing yeoman’s work broaching this topic, but perhaps the biggest problem with the ideological uniformity he describes is that academia has been unable to ask serious questions about itself. It is possible to live in an echo chamber and still not know the sound of one’s own voice. Similarly, the vanity of the ivory tower might be the greatest obstacle in producing serious research regarding its own true nature.

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