Education, Features

The Incentives for Groupthink

In thinking about the extraordinary capitulation of our institutions to the self-avowedly radical, ‘subversive’ and altogether pernicious forces of Marxism and intersectionality, there is a temptation to see this development as the execution of a sinister plan. As anyone who has come into human contact with real academics would surely know, this narrative flatters their competence.

In this article, I wish to caution the reader against this conspiratorial frame of mind, tempting as it might be. To think like this is to attribute a top-down command-and-control explanation for a bottom-up incremental phenomena. In Daniel Dennett’s phrase, it is to construct a ‘skyhook’,1 which is tantamount to the argument from design so famously dismantled by David Hume.2 So the skyhook argument goes: the human eye is so irreducibly complex that it could not have been a chance occurrence – it must have been deliberately designed. And yet, we know that it evolved incrementally over millennia. In The Evolution of Everything (2015), Matt Ridley demonstrates how people are generally now willing to grant Darwin’s insights into the animal world, but when it comes to accepting the more general theory of evolution – the spontaneous order and ‘invisible hand’ of Hume and Adam Smith – they quickly revert back to ‘skyhook’ explanations.3 Rather, as I shall argue, we can analyse what has happened in terms of the incentive structures within the academy, which has a tendency towards rewarding groupthink and the pushing of the status quo in a more extreme direction. I conclude by arguing that the only way to seek greater balance in the academy is to do it from the bottom-up: a real solution can only come organically from students and researchers themselves.

What is groupthink? It is the powerful mechanism through which groups reinforce. It is a well-known phenomenon that groupthink leads to increased polarisation and a tendency to pull towards extremes because views within the group are repeated routinely, and countervailing views are not heard because they have been shut out.4 James Mortimer outlines the eight symptoms of groupthink as follows:

  1. An illusion of invulnerability. This creates excessive optimism that
    encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization. Members of the group discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3.  Belief in inherent morality. Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups. Negative views of ‘enemy’ make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Remember how those who wouldn’t go along with the dot.com bubble were dismissed as simply not getting it?
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters. Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship. Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity. The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. “Mind guards” are appointed. Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group ’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. This is confirmatory bias writ large.5

Each of these symptoms can be observed in many different departments across universities in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Australia. As the Heterodox Academy has noted, between 1995 and 2010 viewpoint diversity practically collapsed in most of our higher educational institutions.6 According to arguably the best-designed survey of American faculty beliefs since the early 1970s, which was carried out in the mid-00s, only 3.6% of humanities faculty members and only 4.9% in the social sciences self-identified as conservatives. In this same report, ‘not a single instructor reported voting for President Bush in 2004’, with that stunning figure of zero in the humanities rising to only 20.4% across all disciplines.7

Studies on the effects of groupthink have until now been focused on areas in which its negative consequences might be most keenly felt such as foreign policy, the courts, and financial investments. In Intellectuals and Society, a book which eviscerates the habitual and embarrassing blind spots of the intelligentsia, Thomas Sowell points out that academics and journalists – unlike army generals, judges or investment portfolio managers – have faced ‘little to no consequential feedback when they are wrong, no matter how wrong or for how long.’ Indeed, they are ‘insulated from material consequences,’ and enjoy ‘immunity from even a loss of reputation from having been demonstrably wrong.’8 It is seldom pointed out that Michel Foucault and many others in the Western radical left supported the Iranian Revolution of 1979.9 I do not expect the women of Iran will be receiving apologies from those in the academy who openly championed the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 any time soon. In fact, from the USSR to Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, it is difficult to find a despotic regime that did not attract the widespread support of supposed ‘intellectuals’ at the time. In 2007, Edinburgh University was forced to revoke an honorary degree awarded to Comrade Mugabe in 1984, back when the true extent of his utopian ideals had not yet had the chance to be fully expressed. But did anyone at Edinburgh University who had supported this at the time suffer in reputation? As people in Venezuela pay for the consequences of economic and social policies championed by people like Owen Jones of The Guardian, Jones himself is not punished for the extent of his error, or fired, or even widely lampooned. Instead, he is rewarded by further exposure and column inches, and given the opportunity to write articles championing politicians who’d like to build their own version of Venezuela in the United Kingdom.10

He feels no embarrassment or even shame, if anything it has strengthened his resolve to say ever more incorrect things in an ever-louder voice. Unlike the people of Venezuela, he pays no price.

Indeed, since the twin earthquakes of Brexit and Trump in 2016, which the entire expert class predicted wrongly, how many of those who made such predictions have suffered a serious loss of reputation for being so stunningly wrong? Did anyone even lose their job? The economies of Britain and America have not, to my knowledge, collapsed and we are now two years removed from 2016. In fact, unemployment is currently at forty-year-record lows in both countries.11 As someone who voted Remain in 2016, I am fully prepared to eat humble pie and admit that I was taken in by such dire warnings, but I suspect that many of my colleagues will not be prepared to show such humility even if Brexit proves a stunning success. For many, the lure of confirmation bias – to maintain pre-existing narratives despite overwhelming contrary evidence – is more attractive than suffering the costs of cognitive dissonance, which amounts to admitting that you were wrong. And so we have stumbled on the shocking revelation that – as well as being prone to groupthink, hubris, and systematically incorrect assumptions and predictions – academics are also supremely egotistical and would rather try to rip society down and start again than to accept that they were ever incorrect about anything.

So, bearing in mind the fact that the relationship between academic work and empirical reality has virtually no bearing on the reputations of the individuals who produce such work, let us think about the relative costs and benefits of going along with the crowd in the Ivory Tower, as opposed to swimming against the tide.

Action Costs Benefits
Accepting the assumptions of your instructors and supervisors as a student. May make it harder for your work to stand out. May increase your marks.

Works to confirm the bias of your markers putting them in a better frame of mind.

Lessens the risk of being ‘chastened’ for ‘wrongthink’ or otherwise corrected by your markers.

Accepting the assumptions of your peers as an academic. May make it harder for your work to stand out. May make it easier to get hired to a tenured position.

May make it easier for your work to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

May make it easier for your work to be added to university reading lists.

May increase your chances of being invited to speak at international conferences.

Rejecting the assumptions of your instructors and supervisors. May decrease your marks.

Creates cognitive dissonance in your markers putting them in a defensive frame of mind.

Increases the risk of being ‘chastened’ for ‘wrongthink’ or otherwise corrected by your markers.

May decrease your chances of being invited to speak at international conferences.

Your work will stand out.
Rejecting the assumptions of your supervisors and peers. May make it harder to get hired to a tenured position.

May make it harder for your work to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

May make it harder for your work to be added to university reading lists.

You will be a target for attack.

Your work will stand out.

In effect, the only potential benefit of opposing groupthink from a professional point of view – to help you stand out – comes with the cost of making the dissenter a target for vitriol. One such literary scholar guilty of wrongthink in recent years has been Jonathan Gottschall, who has seven authored, co-authored or edited books to his name working with scholars of international reputation such as the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and pioneers of evolutionary approaches to literature Brian Boyd and Joseph Carroll.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of seven books including ‘The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch’

Yet Gottschall cannot find a full-time job. Despite his publishing success, and the originality of his work, he has been forced to be a ‘public intellectual’ and to work as an adjunct for over a decade. By swimming fiercely against the tide, Gottschall admits that he ended up ruining his career before it even started.12 English Departments, it seems, are much too closed-minded to hire such a person. His crime, in this case, is a belief that evolution informs human behaviour.

The idea of a ‘safe space’ has become something of a cultural meme in recent years, but are English Departments really such safe spaces that they cannot hire someone who entertains the apparently controversial prospect that Charles Darwin was right?

In the other direction, when the fickle tides of fashion change in a discipline, always in a more ‘radical’ direction than the last one, one can spot individual swimmers paddling desperately to demonstrate their credentials in the new faddishness and to place enough distance between themselves and their old allegiances. Witness, for example, the Shakespearean scholar, Peter Erickson, in 1991. Up until that point, he had been a committed feminist in the psychoanalytical tradition, but at this juncture he openly shifted his allegiances to become more ‘new historicist’ and ‘cultural materialist’ for the ostensible reason that his old sisters and brothers had lost institutional power and influence:

My first book was written largely within the tradition of American feminist psychoanalytic criticism of Shakespeare as it existed at the end of the 1970s. The development of which this book is a record can be summarized as a shift away from psychoanalytic criticism toward an intensive engagement with new historicism and cultural materialism for the purpose of strengthening feminist criticism by expanding its bases […] It is too early to speak of a second wave of feminist criticism of Shakespeare, but the first wave, having made its contribution, has lost much of its momentum as a sharply defined entity. The original core group of feminist Shakespeare critics has to some extent dispersed; other critics who do not belong to this group and do not share its purview have decisively entered the field. The result is that disagreements within the original group no longer set and control the agenda.13

What Erickson’s account does not mention is that the first wave of feminist Shakespeare scholars were taken to task by the next generation essentially for not being Marxist enough, not being anti-Western enough, for taking a too-rosy view of women in Shakespeare’s plays, and above all else for the crime of ‘gender essentialism’, which is the belief that men and women behave differently because they are biologically different. It was no longer a case of simply being a feminist Shakespeare scholar, one had to be the right kind of feminist Shakespeare scholar; not simply a sister, but also a comrade.14 Here we can see most of the symptoms of groupthink in action, including purity spiraling and the tendency towards ever more extreme positions.

However, as one can see, this situation has not come about through some clandestine thirty-year plan. It is the direct result of a set of incentive structures which systematically reward groupthink and just as systematically punish those who would oppose it even if they were last year’s flavour of the month. Given such a climate, can anyone blame young scholars for making the decisions they do? Just as in any other walk of life, they must navigate the system to maximise their own potential earnings. Given how difficult it can be to get a job (and how difficult it can be to lose one once tenured), it is scarcely surprising to find that eight in ten university lecturers in the UK are ‘left-wing’.15 In 2016, the numbers that voted for Remain from within the academy would make Vladimir Putin blush, because even the most autocratic regimes struggle to post majorities of 90%.16 Some have advocated for direct action to overturn this sorry state of affairs, for example, by introducing affirmative action for conservative professors.17 This is a stunningly awful idea for the same reason that affirmative action in general is a bad idea, because it has not worked for any reason, at any time, and in any place it has been tried from India to Malaysia to Sri Lanka to Nigeria to the USA.18 Positive discrimination of conservative professors would have the precise opposite of its intended effect: it would lead to conservative colleagues being resented on suspicion of being hired to fulfill the needs of a quota. Not to mention the semantic difficulties of such a formulation – is Jonathan Gottschall a ‘conservative scholar’ for his advocacy of evolution? Am I a ‘conservative’ scholar because I reject radical Marxist ideas that have been proven to fail whenever they have been tried in the real world? I don’t think so. The problem is not one of ‘left-wing versus right-wing’, it is one of institutional capture by groupthink.

Instead of a top-down solution, I would propose that change must come from the bottom-up – from students and current PhD researchers and young academics – to have the courage to challenge your own pre-existing beliefs. You must be smart and strategic and pick your battles —wisely. Know which hills are and which are not worth dying on. It is the only way for the academy once again to become the home of free inquiry, a place in which ideas can be freely contested without the threat of persecution or ideological ghettoization.

 

Neema Parvini is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Surrey. He is the author of five books including Shakespeare and New Historicism Theory (2017) and Shakespeare’s Moral Compass (forthcoming 2018). He also presents a popular podcast series called Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory.

References:

1 Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York and London: Penguin, 1995), p. 74.
2 See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), IX, pp. 76-8.
3 Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (New York: Harper Collins, Publishers, 2015).
4 Elanour C. Main and Thomas G. Walker, ‘Choice Shifts and Extreme Behavior: Judicial Review in the Federal Courts’, Journal of Social Psychology, 91:2 (December 1973), 215-221. See also, Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink; a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
5 James Mortimer, The Little Book of Behavioral Investing: How Not to Be Your Own Worst Enemy (Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2010), pp. 175-6.
6 See: https://heterodoxacademy.org/the-problem/.
7 David Glenn, ‘Few Conservatives But Many Centrists Teach in Academe‘ Chronicle of Higher Education (October 8, 2007):
8 Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, rev ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), pp. 78, 11.
9 See Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender And The Seductions Of Islamism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).
10 Owen Jones, ‘Owen Jones: Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’, The Independent (February 26, 2014).
11 See Will Martin, ‘The Gap has Narrowed: UK Unemployment is Close to a Record low – and wage growth is finally picking up’, Business Insider (December 13, 2017) and Danielle Kurtzleben, ‘FACT CHECK: Trump Touts Low Unemployment Rates For African-Americans, Hispanics’, NPR (January 8, 2010).
12 David Wescott, ‘Survival of the Fittest in the English Department’, The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 1, 2015).
13 Peter Erickson, Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), p. 10.
14 For my own account of this episode see Neema Parvini, Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 97-114.
15 Camilla Turner, ‘Eight in Ten University Lecturers are “Left-Wing”, Survey Finds’, The Telegraph (March 2, 2017).
16EU referendum: nine out of 10 university staff back Remain’, Times Higher Education (June 16, 2016).
17 Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., ‘Do Universities need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors?’, LA Times (March 18, 2016).
18 See Thomas Sowell, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (New Haven, MA: Yale University Press, 2004).

24 Comments

  1. Excellent essay. I’ve been reading Thomas Sowell (whom you cited) recently, and was shocked the first time I read something where he criticised tenure and expansive notions of academic freedom. I support quite a high degree of academic freedom (less convinced about tenure), but it seems to fit with your thesis that these ideas and policies have played a role in the emergence of the more detached-from-reality disciplines.

    Do you think institutionalised nonsense is a small price to pay for the existence of academic freedom and cushy tenured positions?

    I’m more comfortable pushing back in other areas. For example, when my scientific colleagues extol peer review, I prefer to take a sceptical stance on it because I really think it’s way overrated as a core principle of good science. It’s a very very basic quality filter, but a lot of nonsense (or mere reinvention of the wheel) gets through.

    • ga gamba says

      I prefer to take a sceptical stance on it because I really think it’s way overrated as a core principle of good science. It’s a very very basic quality filter, but a lot of nonsense (or mere reinvention of the wheel) gets through.

      Indeed. It ought to be more robust, and journals could do more to set the bar higher, but at this moment it’s pretty much all there is to out the bad and reward the good. Do we understand the consequences of the lag between publication and review, if it happens at all and is done well? And what are the established consequences, if any?

      Two highly public scandals come to mind. The first involves geneticist Dr Hwang Woo-Suk of cloning infamy, and the second by then political science PhD student Michael LaCour of the debunked “When contact changes minds” paper. In Hwang’s case it was his own staff who outed him, and LaCour was sunk when others tried to replicate his findings and asked for his data sets. Yet in each case both time and money were wasted perpetuating the fraud. I recall campaigners for gay rights in Ireland used LaCour’s faked findings in their appeal playbook.

      In 2005 John Ioannidis, now a physician and researcher at Stanford, wrote a blockbuster paper, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, that expressed “increasing concern that most current published research findings are false” and sought to “examine the key factors that influence this problem and some corollaries thereof.” In the years since, Ioannidis has become a prominent science reformer, and his colleagues have debated whether his claim, if it’s correct, reflects the science’s natural, erratic progression, or a deep flaw in modern science, or something in-between.

      Recently the National Association of Scholars published a paper (PDF) re the reproducibility crisis that includes forty measures to a way forward. Further, the US Congress is reviewing legislation that will require proved reproducibility of studies used in support of policies and laws as well as requiring all data be made publicly available. Of course, this is not without dispute.

      If one is hyper attentive, you may have noticed I used both replicate and reproduce in my comment. What is the difference, if any, between reproducible and replicable? The language and conceptual framework of “research reproducibility” are nonstandard and unsettled across the sciences. In this Perspective, we review an array of explicit and implicit definitions of reproducibility and related terminology, and discuss how to avoid potential misunderstandings when these terms are used as a surrogate for “truth.”
      If things are “nonstandard and unsettled across the sciences” it seems to me a consequence is reporters and the public drawing erroneous conclusions, accepting flawed policies, funding misconceived projects, etc. At the very least the academe had better get its lexicon in order.
      stm(dot)sciencemag(dot)org/content/8/341/341ps12 and retractionwatch(dot)com/2016/06/01/what-does-reproducibility-mean-new-paper-seeks-to-standardize-the-lexicon/

  2. Mattias Lundberg says

    What a silly and alarmist article. Don’t be frightened by safe spaces and political correctness. Present hypotheses, arguments, and evidence clearly and convincingly, ask difficult questions, and trust your students.

    Most scientists are conservative. They are willing to change their minds, but only after being repeatedly hit in the head by the evidence. This is exactly as it should be.

    This is also why the current “reproducability crisis” is a great thing. Single cute and clever studies may get published, but that should be an invitation to replication, not a new shibboleth. Remember that fads come and go. Fads that hang around for a while, that survive the onslaught of repeated logical or empirical testing, may actually be facts.

    Facts do have a liberal bias. There is rather little evidence that as we learn more, our beliefs become on average more constrained and narrow. Cultural and even religious institutions adapt as our social and political understanding advances. Almost all of us agree today that slavery is bad for people, and that women need not suffer genital mutilation.

    More relevant, perhaps, is Brexit. Yes, most academics voted to Remain. Well, it turns out that Brexit is a stunningly expensive and stupid idea. Most academics looked at the evidence cited to support Brexit and found it unconvincing. They were right. In what sense is that a case of closed-minded leftish prejudice?

    And re the “pernicious forces of Marxism and intersectionality” — get a grip.

    • Capes says

      Your reply demonstrated his point. You assume “facts favour liberals” but this is entirely untrue, as you’d see if you read Sowell. You came across as extremely arrogant in this post.

    • CJG says

      I’m not sure you understand what conservatism really is. At least your reply has demonstrated that “constrained and narrow” views are not the sole province of conservatives.

    • Softclocks says

      Only men need suffer gender mutilation nowadays.

  3. Shannon says

    Aha. Yes. Good Essay. The ol’ monoculture of academia. Courageous individuals go a long way. BUT! That doesn’t address the incentives of the structure – it advocates for courageous agents within it.

    The professors are suffering from an ‘agency problem’ and they need ‘skin in the game’ – to be accountable to the public and not just the students (the people whose future they can affect with a bad grade). How to do that?

    1) Make professors post their lectures online. This way the classroom is (a little) more accessible to the sunlight of citizens not within it that can view the material (and who are not at the mercy of its incentives)

    2) Establish comprehensive ranking system that students rate their profs on. (make incentives for fair rating – somehow) – I know student’s rating profs/courses exists already in varied forms… but this would be different because…

    3) Make it mandatory for schools to make their ratings available to the public – like a good yelp review helps a business …. (bad teachers drag down schools – incentive for institutions to chop the rot) And good schools can advertise! “Come to Stanford! We have an overall 4.3 professor rating!”

    This might simultaneously affect teachers’ unions (hopefully they will be blown sky-high), give leverage to well-rated teachers to get better compensation and perhaps incentivize competence and ideological heterogeneity… Who knows!?

    – blessigstoall

    • CJG says

      Numbers 2 and 3 are already mandated by law in the UK. If anything, this has made the system worse. Now schools compete to coddle students – focus on funding student clubs as opposed to classrooms, grade easier, establish more ‘safe spaces’ and incentives for immaturity – so that they will get good ratings and attract more funding. Turning universities into Burger King (have it your way!) is not the right answer.

      My personal belief is that *fewer* people need to go to university. Most jobs (and that includes well-paid ones like software developer) do not really need their practitioners to have gone to university to get training – as evidenced by the fact that Google hires many music and other humanities grads as programmers after they have self-taught how to write software. So why are people funnelled into universities? It’s completely useless for the majority of people. Universities should be about the furtherance of human knowledge – truly *academic* research institutions, not another 3-4 years of high school or a free jobs programme for industry. That would solve the vast majority of the problems addressed in this article.

      • Chris says

        We went to university for free – the ‘price to pay’ a failure rate of ca. 80% (not all that many were willing to go); Now: life long dept, a useless degree and maybe low paying jobs await the graduates – but everyone is willing ‘afford’ it.

        most people go to universities for the same reason they always have; to get a better paying job.
        And of course, there is still a sentiment of entitlement and privilege – garbage collector is an honest, important, well paying job – without them we would suffer more disease than without any medical doctors!
        since more want those ‘better’ jobs and the majority of simple/good paying manufacturing jobs moved to Asia, many believe more education is the solution.

        and how good is that costly education in “xyz-studies”? Most of those GRADUATES would fail high school 30-40 years ago.
        Cattle producers seem to care more about their product then many universities nowadays.

    • Softclocks says

      A student rating system strikes you as the best tool for this? It has been tried and has failed in high schools across the world. Somehow math and PE teachers tend to rate much lowee than those from the humanities.

  4. jason kennedy says

    “Instead, he [Owen Jones] is rewarded by further exposure and column inches, and given the opportunity to write articles championing politicians who’d like to build their own version of Venezuela in the United Kingdom.”

    No evidence is provided for the claim that concludes this quotation. The article is, for me, undermined somewhat by hyperbole that would equate a social democrat, Corbyn, with a Latin American strongman.

  5. Joaquim C says

    I’m not a group thinking fan but the discussion is absolutly overwhelming to me… and this article some how, jumps into to my mind the Arrow’s impossibility theorem:
    ————-
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem
    .
    .

    Statement of the theorem
    The need to aggregate preferences occurs in many disciplines: in welfare economics, where one attempts to find an economic outcome which would be acceptable and stable; in decision theory, where a person has to make a rational choice based on several criteria; and most naturally in electoral systems, which are mechanisms for extracting a decision from a multitude of voters’ preferences.

    The framework for Arrow’s theorem assumes that we need to extract a preference order on a given set of options (outcomes). Each individual in the society (or equivalently, each decision criterion) gives a particular order of preferences on the set of outcomes. We are searching for a ranked voting electoral system, called a social welfare function (preference aggregation rule), which transforms the set of preferences (profile of preferences) into a single global societal preference order. Arrow’s theorem says that if the decision-making body has at least two members and at least three options to decide among, then it is impossible to design a social welfare function that satisfies all these conditions (assumed to be a reasonable requirement of a fair electoral system) at once:
    .
    .
    —————-

  6. Shannon says

    In response to CJG: Agreed that fewer people should need to go – especially for BAs … As Charles Murray says: the BA is the work of the devil.

    I see your point that students’ ranking power COULD – and maybe does – turn schools into the BK lounge …Granted. But! Surely we could wire the incentives right to reward students to grade teachers fairly regarding their competence AND their ideological possession – more rigorously.

    And schools wouldn’t just be mandated to make them publicly available but mandated to publicize* them – on the front page of their website for example.

    … OR you could have ‘school duty’ – similar to jury duty – where impartial citizens audit classes (professors don’t know who they are) to report on their experience … Individuals outside the incentive structure of the university… a little out there, I know.

    These are just ideas/// fewer students works too – but it still doesn’t address incentive structure…

  7. MeToo to CJC. Nailed it. Additionally, I wonder haw many academics have had to contend with “You can’t fail me, I’ve paid for my degree”.’ And “No you haven’t. You’ve paid to attend classes and be assessed,” being met with a reaction that suggests that the claim has had a more sympathetic response from others.

    Discussion of academia these days should to be viewed within the context of an increasing interest and activity around developing totally online education. The material is already out there for many disciplines. What’s needed is a good system for assessment. A global system involving blind assessment to eliminate favouritism (personal attraction, class, gender, etc.) combined with consistency and rigour – initially two independent assessments, and if they differ by some set amount another assessment is added until a meaningful consensus is achieved.

    Years ago as a tutor, I and a few others each graded a set of reports. The results differed by over 20%. Transparent assessment (with actor anonymity if wished) can lead to fairer assessment, which can potentially give online assessment a great advantage over current practices, which vary widely between individuals and institutions. An assessment of the assessors could be built up over time.

    The system could be bootstrapped using voluntary contributions, with the incentive that those whose assessments were seen to be valid and consistent could share in future monetisation.

    As someone who started teaching wandering about student laboratories helping face to face with experimental work, I stress that there are some areas where conventional practices should be maintained. I’d like to think that the sciences are not yet undermined by the rot, but they are already in the sights of humanities progressives.

    dai

  8. Shannon says

    But the problem is – who decides which “assessments” are “seen to be valid and consistent”…

    We’re having two conservations: How to make profs’ assessments of students more rigorous (avoid the fast-food degree) & how to disincentivize ‘groupthink’…

    I agree that more online education would help in both regards – it would hopefully make profs more independent (while sticking to rigour in assessment) and less agents of a monoculture & hopefully help minimize assessment biases…

    But the ‘groupthink’ of academia can be solved only by making them accountable to the public at large – not to their peers or their students…

    Perhaps the content will be available to all (lectures online) – but only students who demonstrate mastery get accredited – this way businesses can see precisely what calibre of individual they’re hiring

  9. David J says

    There’s a lot of value in this article and the dynamics of groupthink it outlines may aid understanding. But I think there’s a problem too…

    Neema Parvini says: “Given such a climate, can anyone blame young scholars for making the decisions they do? Just as in any other walk of life, they must navigate the system to maximise their own potential earnings.”

    The problem is the way this is framed. It appears to me to imply young scholars make such decisions consciously and after weighing up the alternatives, as self-protection, for approval from their peers and to improve their prospects. Some may do this consciously. But I don’t believe most do. So the important thing is not how they are influenced to be left wing (by all the various things mentioned by Parvini), but *why* they are influenced by left wing ideas. Why does their mind work in that way? Why – for all intents and purposes – does this happen automatically, or subconsciously? How does it benefit such individuals in a way that can only be understood on a deeper psychological and emotional level, rather than merely saying it makes it easier for them to get hired, and to improve and maintain their academic status, etc. That appears to provide few or any interesting insights into the real drivers behind their beliefs and assumptions about the world, treating them as mere dispassionate calculating machines.

  10. Shannon,

    As you say, a key to breaking down groupthink is public transparency – clean air and sunlight. The worst groupthink festers in isolated silos.

    Naturally, assessment varies greatly across disciplines. Maths problems usually have one correct answer. Physics usually has a correct application of the underlying theory to a practical problem, though I think it is helpful to have science students write essays such as presenting the full debate on unresolved issues.

    Extending that to other disciplines, groupthink can be reduced by expecting students to present multiple views on a topic, to be assessed on the breadth and depth of their research of the topic and their presentation skills.

    As for course material, some could be prepared lecture notes, but the internet provides ample and varied resources for most topics. To make life easier for all, a specific set could be specified as the foundation of a course.

    One thing I didn’t go into, because I am wary about straying too far off topic, is that in the kind of online course I have in mind the role of lecturer would largely be replaced by tutors who could develop reputations much as I suggested for assessors. There are also many excellent lectures, panel discussions, and such like online. Overall, as a retiree myself, I have in mind drawing on the resources that the expertise of this group can provide.

    dai

  11. TarsTarkas says

    You can only have intellectual diversity in academia when there is significant negative consequences for those would suppress it, i.e. loss of position, pay, tenure, research opportunities, etc. Currently ideological uniformity is not just rewarded but wildly celebrated whereas bucking the system is career suicide.

  12. Bill says

    Why not a more simplistic set of measures? For each school/degree, list the median income/employment-in-field status at 1 year, 5 years, 10 years like they do mutual funds? Just spit-balling here, but having seen the “they paid to attend, we have to pass them” and “students grade the professors” result in the simplification of material and admissions criteria i’m more supportive of ideas (perhaps out of the box, mine is still inside) of outcomes based measures. Granted, it isn’t really clear how to bring this down to the level of the professors, but at least make it so that John Smith knows he’s going to pay $120,000 for a degree where at 5 years only 1% of people are working in field and 99% are making minimum wage. Those metric types won’t stop someone who really wants a PhD in art history from pursuing it, but at least they know going in that the jobs are few and far between. I started as a EE major with dreams of creating CPUs but my undergrad profs quickly dispelled that by explaining the CPU creation was a handful of people who had oodles of experience and not something i’d likely ever do with my BS EE.

  13. Laura says

    I find group think in academia frustrating, but a couple of issues: first, admitting I haven’t read Sowell, I have to disagree that group think is a particularly academic problem, and that others in the “real world” are held to account. Soft landings after epic screw-ups happen in industry and politics as well. It is the privileged generally who are protected. Academics are just a particular sub-species.
    Group think is a social problem and a human weakness. Perhaps we can think of it’s particular forms in the academy as one manifestation of this.
    Humanities, arts and social sciences folks would also be quick to point out that group think exists in all disciplines, and that there is a dominant ideology reflected in the prioritization of STEM and business reflected in where universities allocate their funding. If you follow the money, leftists (a crude category but that’s another matter) bark but don’t bite.

  14. Kay says

    Great essay. There is no intellectual diversity on American college campuses (I can’t speak for the UK or elsewhere). Those of us who work in and among academia well know that drinking the ideological Kool-aid is the pathway to an academic career in the Humanities or Social Sciences, and the doctoral student has to get on board before he/she even chooses a dissertation committee. By the time the PhD is complete, you are, by the “tone” of your work, either In or Out. The pushback against anything even remotely dubbed as “conservative” or “traditional” or, god forbid, Darwinian or capitalist, can be acutely hostile. The process is anti-intellectual at its core.

    I am not insinuating that other industries/sectors of the economy don’t have their own playbooks by which potential and existing members must either conform or accept the risks therein. Groupspeak is singularly heinous in academia, however, because the University is meant to be an environment in which thoughtful discourse, the exchange of rational ideas, and the opening of the human mind are the very raisons d’être.

    • Laura Servage says

      Kay I still find myself drawn to that ideal you describe in your last sentence there. But I’m more circumspect than I used to be because that liberal ideal has historically been so exclusionary. The American liberal arts education really was an elite WASP thing until campuses became diverse post WW2. We have yet to master liberal discourse ideals in the mass higher ed era. I’d like to think we could get there.

      • Kay says

        Laura, I disagree that liberal humanism is merely the purview of elite WASPs. Yes, certainly, the university was born for a very different socio-demographic population of students than we see in the post-WW2 era. However, you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The *tenets* (those are asterisks, not, quotation marks) of liberal humanism do not change with a broader student body, and yet that’s exactly what has occurred. University is not job-training. If you want job-training, enroll in a trade school or begin an apprenticeship (secondary school guidance counselors are doing a huge disservice to students in pushing the ill-conceived project that everyone needs a B.A.) I’d like to think we can get there too, but the political correctness/demands for a “safe space” need to be reigned in by more sensical leadership.

  15. Shannon says

    Bill: Great point. Maybe the conversation shouldn’t be ‘how to get teachers more ideologically diverse’ but on how to expose students to the outcomes of pursuing such a degree (the humanities, i’m looking at you).

    If 1% of graduates in a particular discipline have jobs in the field and 99% make minimum wage – AND every prospective student knew that when applying, surely that’d be positive thing! (I’m assuming it would cause a drastic drop in BA matriculants)

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