All posts filed under: Education

The Return of the Canon Wars

Reed College recently announced that it would radically overhaul its core humanities course, Hum 110, in response to months of student protests. In doing so, Reed’s administration was, in effect, adopting the position of the course’s detractors; namely, that a focus on the Western classics “perpetuates white supremacy.”  This decision—which did not go far enough for the students—is in keeping with an era of campus activism marked by a strident and narrow view of ‘inclusion.’ However, the demands of Reedies Against Racism, and their college’s swift capitulation, are far from novel. We are witnessing the return of the Canon Wars, reborn without the value of a credible opposition. And, while it is easy to be disheartened by this, the re-emergence of this academic conflict offers us an opportunity to address much of what ails the modern humanities and, by extension, the wider public discourse. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s (imaginably before most of the Reedies Against Racism were born), the Canon Wars dominated the academy. In its most simplistic understanding, the battle …

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 …

Who Will the Evergreen Mob Target Next?

It’s been almost a year since violent student protests erupted at Evergreen State College—enough time for the “non-traditional” Olympia, WA university to draw useful lessons from a fracas that made it a byword for campus identity politics run amok. Unfortunately, a report from an Independent External Review Panel, tasked by college President George Bridges with finding ways to attain closure on the events of last Spring, provides scant hope this will happen. On April 12, 2017, Evergreen observed a “Day of Absence,” during which white members of the school community were “invited” to leave the campus as part of an exercise designed to “explore issues of race, equality, allyship, inclusion, and privilege.” In the run-up to the event, an Evergreen professor of biology, Bret Weinstein, wrote an email in which he expressed opposition to the idea that self-segregation was a useful exercise. Weinstein became a target of student protestors, and at one point was forced to avoid campus while they searched for him in parked cars. He and his wife, Heather Heying, also a professor …

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

In 1976, the Nobel-prize winning economist, F.A. Hayek, published The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his magnum opus Law, Legislation and Liberty.1 Despite being widely regarded as the definitive critique of social justice, today one would be lucky to find advocates of social justice in the academy who are familiar with the name ‘Hayek’, let alone those who have read him. Among classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, Hayek is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century whose The Road to Serfdom represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism ever written.2 But those in the academy who have perpetuated socialist ideas since the 1980s have practically ignored it. In this article, I will argue that this unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’ is not only endemic in the radical intellectual schools that have overtaken literary studies, but also that it is symptomatic of their entire way of thinking which, being hermetically sealed and basically circular in its argumentation, has no language to deal with critics beyond …

Training the Masculinity Out of Children

With the recent school shootings, the rise of Donald Trump, and the recent exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood and the wider media, articles about something called ‘toxic masculinity’ are doing the rounds once again. ‘Toxic masculinity,’ we are told, takes many forms in contemporary life and discourse. For example, in an (unfortunately serious) article for NBC, Marcie Bianco describes Elon Musk’s groundbreaking rocket launch as evidence of men’s patriarchal entitlement to conquer. (At the Clayman Institute for Gender Reseach, Bianco manages “the only university fellowship in the nation that aims to train students how to become feminist journalists.”) All the menz are freaking out about this article. Mission complete https://t.co/Wf0x80uMvF — Marcie Bianco (@MarcieBianco) February 21, 2018 More subtle but equally specious rhetoric, generally derived from the French postmodern tradition, analyzes the socialization of boys through an analytical prism of dominance or systems of power and knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Examiner reported that a kindergarten teacher named Karen Keller was preventing boys in her class from playing with Lego in an attempt to compensate …

How the Science Wars Ruined the Mother of Anthropology

Part I: Margaret Mead’s Original Sin When I was about 23, I embarked on a lone trip around the Vanuatu Islands. I eventually wound up on the isolated Maskelyne Island, quite a few days away from civilization in the Western sense of the word. A man had just died and many suspected that witchcraft was involved in cursing his food. For a week I attended the extensive funeral ceremonies, dove on the reef in my spare time, and drank kava with the locals at night. It all sounds very romantic, but the truth is that there was something quite off-putting about being surrounded by hundreds of people from a different culture; an unusual state of loneliness begins to creep in, accompanied by a deep desire to connect with something – anything – from Western culture. Climbing aboard the cargo vessel Big Sista to hitch a ride to Espiritu Santo, I remember hearing a Taylor Swift song on the radio. I’ve never appreciated Taylor Swift so much. However, my journey did leave me with a newfound and abiding …

Academia’s Consilience Crisis

The term ‘consilience’ has the enigmatic ring of some arcane secret quarantined in Ivory Towers, accessible only to the ghosts of wizened sages haunting cloistered halls. This is true in some sense – it was first conceptualized by the now-quite-dead William Whewell, a 19th-century natural philosopher, linguistic sorcerer, and polymath also credited with coining terms such as scientist and physicist, among other esoterica. Whewell made contributions to many budding fields of inquiry, a fact key to appreciating the definition of ‘consilience’ offered by gold-star biologist E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge: …literally a “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. Consilience makes the case for epistemological inter-relation, put into practice by the congregation of diverse fields of inquiry; it seeks to complete a magnificent chimera composed of illuminating ideas, seamlessly woven together. Wilson’s definition speaks to the vision of thought-leaders who foresaw hubris in forbidding different streams of knowledge from intermingling in our reservoirs of truth and …

Lost Down Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

The popularisation of ‘social constructionism’ is widely agreed to be traceable to the publication of The Social Construction of Reality by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In subsequent years, this concept attracted a large number of young, mostly left-leaning academics to the humanities departments of French universities, where social construction became an ideological tool useful to those engaged in the Parisian youth rebellion of 1968. From there, it spread rapidly though humanities departments in Europe and America, and into the social sciences. The changes in intellectual thinking that this development catalysed reverberate across the West’s academic institutions to this day. What transpired in the late sixties was nothing short of a cultural revolution, riding a wave of academic trends referred to as ‘social constructionism,’  ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘poststructuralism,’ although it never became entirely clear if or how these concepts differ from one another. While foreign to some, social constructionist jargon is now routinely invoked by the young academics who successfully conquered the humanities over the ensuing 40 years. These developments have not gone unnoticed …

In Social Research Fields, Conservatives Are the Most Underrepresented Group

There is general social agreement that discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality or race is wrong – and that increasing diversity along these lines is good. Ideological diversity? Not so much. In fact, while noteworthy progress has been made since the 90s in terms of representation for women and ethnic or racial minority groups, the ideological underrepresentation problem is actually growing worse. These trends have had significant negative impacts on the quality and impact of social research. Yet, even for those who recognize that the lack of ideological diversity is a problem – many are unsure how the scale of this challenge compares to, say, (under)representation of racial, sexual or gender minorities. This is both an empirical question and a normative question. Here, I will address the former dimension by comparing rates of faculty identification across different identity measures (for interested readers, my thoughts on the moral and practical aspects of the question are available in a new essay for the Times Higher Education). Overrepresented Groups With regards to race, research has shown that …

The Privilege Paradox

Check your privilege. This is a phrase that many of us, especially from the college-educated class, have heard or read with increasing frequency in recent years. It is sometimes used to counter the views put forward by an opponent belonging to a supposedly ‘privileged’ social group, without necessarily having to refute them. It is also just one of a series of comparatively new phrases using the word ‘privilege’ that have proliferated in current social and political commentary. A quick search of the headlines on a single given Sunday in February shows the word appearing in large print in the New York Times (“Black With (Some) White Privilege”), the Seattle Times (“White Privilege Diminishes Our Humanity”), and Teen Vogue (“Kylie Jenner’s Privilege Helped Her Avoid the Stigma Other Pregnant People Can’t Escape”). Even this cursory glance reveals two important facts about the usage of the word ‘privilege’ today: first, it is usually paired with an adjective linking it to the putative advantages of a particular racial, sexual, or other identity group, especially ‘white privilege’; second, it …