the conservative critique of the academy

The poor university.  Conservatives are always accusing it of teaching students to hate their people and their ancestral culture.  Which is completely a figment of our imagination, of course.  Thus, Prof. Phillips-Fein at The Chronicle of Higher Education sees no point in actually addressing the conservative critique, but merely suggests that others might be less receptive to conservative polemics if universities could be a bit less nakedly financially predatory toward students.

One should always be wary of advice from enemies, but I think the academy should try engaging with the conservative critique.  One must, of course, start by understanding more accurately what the accusation actually is.  To begin with the obvious, the claim is not that open investigation naturally leads those who engage in it to despise Christianity, the white race, patriarchy, etc.  Whether or not this is actually true, conservatives never accuse academia of successfully embodying an ideal of open-minded inquiry.  Although they will sometimes claim that universities indoctrinate students in Marxism, feminism, etc, this is not the heart of the critique either.

The true heart of the conservative critique is that university life is a giant exercise in begging the question.  There is a facade of open inquiry, but the truth of liberalism and the illegitimacy of illiberal practices is always assumed from the outset.  Thus, gender studies never begin with neutral biological facts or measures of social utility and then prove that normative sex roles are bad.  The latter is assumed from the beginning, so the only question to study is what is wrong with traditional cultures that they fail to recognize it, what devious artifices they employ to keep people from recognizing the obvious truth of sex interchangeability.  Racial grievance studies do not begin from a neutral standpoint of group good behavior and then show that the white race engages in X bad behavior Y percent more frequently than the pan-racial median.  Nor is the claim that piety toward ancestors is sinful when practiced by whites argued.  Both the empirical claim of unique white perfidy and the deontological cosmopolitan claim (and its particularist application) are presumed rather than proved.

Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the assumptions were conscious and acknowledged.  There is valuable intellectual work of the form “If one assumes X, then Y follows”.  But liberal academy does not admit that its beliefs are taken on assumption or faith.  Failure to spontaneously hold them is simply presumed to be a moral defect.  Worse yet, anyone who does bring them into question can expect retaliation from both superiors and peers.

That is what I take to the be heart of the conservative critique of academia.  No doubt, like all critiques by hostile outsiders, it is an uncharitable account and can probably be shown to be exaggerated or unfair in various ways.  But it is certainly worth academics’ time to address it, since unrecognized assumptions, unconscious bias, uncontrolled approximations, circular argumentation, etc are regarded as among the greatest dangers in intellectual work, so surely intellectuals would always want to be on the lookout for these things anyway.

Now, if academic studies, Grievance and other, are in a truly healthy, self-critical state, it should be no problem to decisively refute the conservative critique.  I’m not asking them to give a “platform” to “hate”, just to show us the sort of safeguards against epistemic closure and confirmation bias (certainly including the respectful investigation of alternative view) that they must surely already be taking.  Such a demonstration couldn’t be a problem for them, could it?

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