All posts filed under: Education

Freedom of Expression and the Flight from Reason

The last few years have seen acrimonious public clashes about the value of free speech, with activists both on the Left and the Right accusing the other side of trying to silence them. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are, admittedly, not particularly informative terms, since there are significant differences within each camp. But each is concerned that the other is trying to silence it, whether by means of censorship or intimidation. It is hard to be sure of the true extent of this hostility to free speech, since much of the evidence is anecdotal and, of course, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘compelling data.’ For example, much of the conflict about free speech is focused on university campuses. I have taught thousands of students in the UK, including, more recently, American students studying in London, and I have rarely encountered petulant ‘snowflakes’ crying out to be protected from offence. Nevertheless, there is plenty of credible evidence that my experience is not wholly representative. There is reason to believe that an increasing number of young people regard …

On the Benefits of Philosophical Instruction

The average scores of philosophy majors on the LSAT and other standardized tests are regularly presented as reasons for university students to major in philosophy.  In an age of increasing pressure to compete for student enrollments, data of this sort are important for the discipline of professional philosophy. Tenure lines are partly justified on the basis of student enrollments, and students are encouraged to enroll in philosophy partly on the basis of the impact that philosophical instruction has on cognitive ability, these claims are part of the mechanism by which academic philosophers hope to secure university funding for their departments.  Given these institutional arrangements, the profession of academic philosophy has an interest in determining whether these statements about the beneficial cognitive impact of the study of philosophy are justified. In an essay published at Quillette in July of last year, Neven Sesardić critically examined the evidence for these statements and found them wanting. He wrote: In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher test scores after studying philosophy does not show …

Defending Humanities Scholarship from its Defenders

University of Toronto academic and literary scholar Ira Wells recently wrote a defence of humanist academics for The Walrus magazine. But Wells’s characterization of humanist scholarship, and its purpose, is itself problematic. Wells claims that the majority of humanities courses are committed to fostering critical thinking. But, as Uri Harris has already pointed out elsewhere at Quillette, Wells’s definition of critical thinking, “to read against the grain of accepted wisdom and to question the inherited power hierarchies that structure human relations,” is in fact applied critical theory, aka Frankfurt School-style leftist politics. To be critical with the tools of critical theory means analyzing an institution, an event, a work of art, in order to reveal the unequal allocation of power. Within this mode of inquiry, the unequal ‘power dynamics,’ especially within ‘traditional hierarchies,’ are not facts needing explication but roadblocks to social justice, or as Herbert Marcuse put it, “a world without fear and misery.” This form of criticism is primarily about finding oppressors and their victims, not weighing evidence or assessing contending explanations. It …

Why No One Cares About Feminist Theory

Let’s be real about something important: nobody actually cares what feminist scholars think or why they think it. Truth be told, this isn’t surprising. Feminist scholarship is a peculiar academic backwater that nobody should pay any attention to—and it’s probable that nobody would if it weren’t becoming so painfully influential. That outsized influence is also unsurprising. People care very much about gender equality and about women’s rights — in both the US and the UK, gender equality enjoys the support of roughly four out of five people. This sets up a problem. With the exception of other feminists, more or less the entire world completely ignores feminist theory, and they have done so for decades, which has let it go quite far down its own self-referential rabbit holes. That this scholarship has gone ignored while developing what looks like a storied academic pedigree is why feminist theory endures and exerts so much control over academia and society, which is to say it’s a rather huge problem. You may think I’m exaggerating to say that it’s a …

It’s Time to Marginalize the University and Revive the Café

It’s time to marginalize the university. Universities have come to play an outsize, unwarranted, and often malign role in American life. But their influence and prestige doesn’t stem from any recent intellectual accomplishment or even insidious political agenda. Instead it comes down to “power” to use a word much in vogue among academics. And this power, more than anything else, is economic. Without this power, why would people take academics’ more ridiculous pronouncements so seriously, or seriously at all in the case of communication studies departments? The limitations and drawbacks of North American academia are obvious. This goes beyond the intolerance, irrationality, illiberalism, even violence associated with some “studies” or other departments that see advocacy as their primary mission. Less remarked upon are the catastrophic intellectual failures of the social sciences. This includes the complete inability of foreign policy researchers to forecast the demise of the Soviet Union; the failure of political scientists, with few exceptions, to predict the rise of Trump; and the deeply embarrassing record of macro-economists in terms of warning about the …

Reason and Reality in an Era of Conspiracy

Did Nelson Mandela die in prison or did he die years later? Many people reading this probably lived through such recent history, and know perfectly well that he died decades after his release. Many of our students, however, do not know this because they didn’t live through it, and they haven’t been taught it. That is trivially true, and not particularly worrisome. But in 2010 a quirky blogger named Fiona Broome noticed that many people she met – people who should know better – incorrectly believed that Mandela had died in prison. She dubbed this kind of widespread collective false memory the “Mandela Effect” and began gathering more cases, inspiring others to contribute examples to a growing online database. Ask your students if they’ve heard of the Mandela Effect and you will find that 95 percent are familiar with it. They are fascinated by it because it is a highly successful topic of countless YouTube videos and memes. Examples of the Mandela Effect are amusing and easy to find online. Everyone thinks that Darth Vader …

How Activists Took Control of a University: The Case Study of Evergreen State

The student protests that took place at Evergreen State College earlier this year were remarkable, drawing international coverage and substantial analysis here and elsewhere. Video recordings of students screaming at biology professor Bret Weinstein are iconic, as are those of a faculty member telling two other faculty members “you are now those motherfuckers that we’re pushing against.” The most memorable scenes, though, are those that involved college president George Bridges. The scenes of Bridges meekly acquiescing to students’ demands for delayed homework after they occupy his office and hurl insults at him, telling him to “Get to work” and to “Get the fuck out of here”, and of him later standing up in front of students as a focal point as they scream at him, nodding as a student tells him “We had civilisation way before you ever had, coming out your caves” are surreal. Throughout these scenes, Bridges repeatedly apologises to the students. On several occasions, he’s admonished for raising his hands while speaking, which he immediately accommodates by lowering them or putting them …