On CBC’s Ideas program recently (Friday 8 September), Paul Kennedy interviewed Jonathan Haidt to discuss Haidt’s views on the contemporary university. The program, “The Politics of the Professoriat: Political Diversity on Campus,” can be found here. In the words of the summary on the Ideas webpage, “Haidt describes the monochromatic ideology that permeates many social science departments on North American university campuses.” There is a great deal to admire about Haidt’s presentation. His clear description of the present state of affairs is at once courageous and chilling. It needs to be heard.
His accompanying call for action initially sounds promising enough. He calls for greater openness on university campuses, inclusion of conservative academics, and more debate along left-right divides. Another call for action, however, also attends his analysis, one that is far more chilling for religious people than his description of the state of affairs. Haidt would redouble Enlightenment efforts to purify the university of religious belief. For him, religion amounts to a herd mentality, accompanied by the inability to question. As such, his program repackages Enlightenment ideals. If it did only that, it would be annoyingly misguided, but relatively harmless.
Our context, however, is not that of the Enlightenment, but post-Enlightenment. It is one in which the Enlightenment ideals of universal reason and mutual recognition of a social contract have broken down and proven to be deeply flawed, if not illusory. Religion was blamed in the Enlightenment for contributing to the self-incurred immaturity of European denizens. Now, Haidt is tacitly blaming it for the failure of the Enlightenment project. If his argument gains traction, the circle will tighten around the freedoms of religious people.
There is much to admire in the interview. Haidt, who works in the area of social psychology, relates the story of wanting to gauge the preponderance of left-leaning academics in his discipline at a conference where he was addressing a thousand of his peers. About 80% raised their hands to identify as left or left-leaning. When he asked about those who identified as right or right-leaning, fewer than ten individuals raised their hands. In the more formal research that he and his colleagues have done, evidence indicates that the political balance on American university campuses has gone from approximately 2–1 or 4–1 throughout the twentieth century to 17–1 as of 2016 (9:25–9:40). This imbalance is what Haidt means by a “monochromatic culture” in the social sciences.
That culture has bad effects on scientific research in the discipline. In a compelling illustration, Haidt describes the current approach to the question of poverty in social science research. He relates that it is commonly known in the social sciences that three factors explain the great majority of the variants causing poverty: marital status of parents; a subculture that values education and delayed gratification; and IQ. Having married parents helps one do better financially. Furthermore, even if one starts very low financially, having a family that supports one with belief in the value of education and the importance of delayed gratification is a good predictor of financial betterment.
All three of these factors are politically charged. The notion, for instance, that marriage is a social good is an inherently conservative one. None of these three factors is admitted into the discussion in academic work on strategies for addressing the problem of poverty. In Haidt’s view, academics spend their labour discussing factors that at best account for 10% of the variants for poverty and trying to generalise solutions from them. As a result, the field has made virtually no progress in the last number of decades.
There are other well-known effects of the political monoculture of universities. Talks are increasingly disrupted or blocked altogether by ardent students who side with their professorial masters against politically dissenting speakers. In the same program, Paul Kennedy interviewed Heather Mac Donald, who earlier this year had such an experience at Claremont McKenna College in California. There she had a police escort and gave her invited talk to an almost empty room on her book The War on Cops. Canada has seen similar disruptions, for instance in student actions taken against Jordan Peterson at McMaster University this spring. While Haidt focuses on the professoriat, students as well are stifling debate.
Haidt focuses on the social sciences, but readily says the analysis applies to the humanities as well. The area that does not bear this level of discrepancy is the hard sciences. There one still finds people on both sides of the political left-right divide in more equal numbers. Haidt does not defend a naïve account of the scientist’s activity as disinterested. (He probably doesn’t defend it as much as he should.) Rather, he says that the standards for the exchange of ideas that were established in the coffee shops of Europe during the Enlightenment provide the means for good scientific research to rise to the top. For Haidt, one’s scientific ideas are honed and purged of individual bias and the motivation of “confirmation bias” (39:39) by this exchange. He admits that in those areas in the sciences where research can have immediate political and social value, such as global warming, research is also fraught with the influence of monochromatic culture.
Igor Grossmann, a psychologist from the University of Waterloo, acknowledges the disparity that Haidt identifies. Yet he does not think anything substantive can or ought to be done about it. He imagines a scenario in which a conservative representative might have the voice to say, “This idea is too liberal,” and wonders if we want that (32:30). He wonders too if we want such a thing as a checklist against biases, or what the balance between liberals and conservatives ought to be. Grossman essentially leaves the problem to sort itself out without political interference.
In that regard, the views of all three guests converge. While Haidt takes a more activist approach to enlarging the academic circle, all three imply that what they seek is the free exchange of ideas for the sake of those ideas. Their comments imply the neutrality of knowledge and its ability to emerge on its own and stand on its own two feet. They all imply a commitment to a split between facts and values.
Haidt wants action taken in the form of outreach, discussion, and removing obstacles to the inclusion of varying points of view. He doesn’t want interference in the form of affirmative action. While he would like to see more conservatives in the academy, he distinguishes between applying differing standards in hiring practices (bad) and fostering a willingness in the academy to listen to those with opposing viewpoints (good) (36:30). He would like to see academics have a greater willingness to work with such people in the acknowledgement, where applicable, that they have well-reasoned positions, even if one disagrees with them. He imagines reclaiming an academic community that includes both left and right, but not the far left or the far right.
The culture of the monochromatic academy is a culture of orthodoxy. People on the far left and the far right are similarly guilty of orthodoxy. The site that Haidt and his colleagues have established to discuss and combat the problem of monoculture is at heterodoxacademy.org.
One might think that “heterodoxy” has a supple and capacious meaning. In the context of Haidt’s concerns, it makes sense that any idea or commitment that disrupts the monochromatic logic of the academy could qualify as heterodox. In such an environment, religiosity is heterodox. Many conservative ideas find their impetus in religious commitments. For instance, marriage (seen above to be a bulwark against poverty) is an institution with strong religious associations. Many liberal ideas also derive from a religious outlook. The secular commitment to progress derives from a religiously inflected understanding of human perfectibility. Additionally, liberalism’s commitment to the individual is indebted to a historical understanding of the person as bearing the divine image.
Yet Haidt would exclude religion from the academy. He is explicit about this point near the end of the interview: “there’s really no role for religion on campus…or in intellectual matters” (48:50). He excludes religion on the grounds of a very narrow definition of religion backed by a thin account of its beginnings. The definition amounts to the following description of what religious people do: “We’re really good at making something sacred, making something a god and then circling it and when we circle it we trust each other” (47:35). The opposite impulse, the scientific impulse, is “healthy scepticism,” with everyone “free to voice their scepticism” (46:05). This accompanying narrative is similarly slender: humans encounter something they don’t understand and invent gods to explain it. The goal is to expunge the sacred, at least from communities of learning: “We need communities in which nothing is sacred” (49:05).
On the basis of this thinking, Haidt calls for the absolute exclusion of religion from the academy. Here’s a rival scenario. The university developed in the West because of religious commitments. One might cite here the iconoclasm controversy of the eighth century. The iconoclasts of the day were the equivalent of the orthodox in Haidt’s thinking. They thought that the making of images to represent divine realities was forbidden on the grounds that the divine could have nothing to do with material reality. They had the backing of certain scriptural passages. They also had ecclesiastical and political sanction. John Damascene opposed this position on the basis of the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation. He argued that if God had taken the form of created being, how could the material world be off limits for expressing divine realities.
By the Middle Ages, Christian affirmation of the implications of the incarnation had taken hold as a firm commitment to the study of nature and the power of reason, which was seen as God-given. Humanism was Christian before it was secular. Secularity itself began as a Christian concept entailed by the understanding that God created in freedom.
There is much more to tell, but to be brief: the Christian religion has simultaneously acknowledged the presence and the otherness of God, with the implication that all religiously inspired notions of the divine need to be understood as limited. In the starkest possible terms, Christianity has always recognised its need for “purification by atheism.” This posture includes an openness to learning from other religions. The life of the Christian community, beyond the flannel graph of secular accounts like Haidt’s, is the life of ongoing communal responsiveness to a generous and self-sacrificial Creator.
Haidt’s privileging of the scientific method rests on massive assumptions. In isolation, that method cannot account for the givenness of things; it cannot begin to explain why any account rooted in naturalism should be able to rise to the status of having authoritative explanatory power; it cannot give any reason why progress should matter or be meaningful at all; it cannot define and oversee a neutral space where competing versions of reality that do not conform to it either in methodology or in content are allowed to be. Tellingly, his prescription isolates and polarises science and religion. The humanities cannot be accommodated in his construct (without reducing them to social sciences). A ubiquitous wrestling with the sacred marks the artefacts to which the liberal arts attend.
Haidt’s modest proposal for restoring balance in the academy is impoverished. Yet it could succeed precisely because of the environment he describes. If it does take hold, religious people will have less and less of a voice in academic and public life. (This is already an issue.) The nature of the problem of monoculture is so intractable that anger about the dysfunctionality of the institution and the desire for purgation will be directed at scapegoated religion. This too is already a problem, one of new intensity against a backdrop of new levels of dysfunctionality.
Perhaps most tragic of all, academic endeavour will only continue to spin its wheels (in the way that Haidt laments), and the mysterious handiwork of God will remain inaccessible both as mystery and as handiwork. The disciplines, all of which have a contribution to make to our recognition of both (mystery and handiwork), will continue their descent into confusion and barbarism.
Unfortunately, at that stage that stage will no longer be recognisable. This won’t be because people have become slobbering idiots ripping chunks of meat off of dead animals. It will be because supreme technological functionality has set it and the very notion of a meaningful life has been obviated. If that happens, to whom will we be able to listen, and how will we be able to hear them? How are we to know that hasn’t already happened?
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