Education, Free Speech, Top Stories

How to Fight the Enemies of Academic Freedom

According to a 2019 Cato Institute study, 75 percent of immigrants who are American citizens are very proud to be American compared to only 69 percent of native-born Americans. Based on my own experience, I expect the discrepancy to be much greater if you compare the sentiments of all immigrants to those of American-born elites, especially the young.

I escaped communist Romania in 1975 and came to the US to pursue my dream—attracted to the United States, as millions of other immigrants have been, by its reputation as a country that values freedom and rewards hard work and talent. I came with nothing but a strong desire to become a research mathematician, yet have been able to succeed far beyond my expectations. This is the result partly of my own efforts and whatever talent I may have, but a larger part of the credit is due to the sheer good fortune of being able to pursue my career in the US within an academic system which has been, at least until today, the freest, most competitive, and fairest in the world. By “fair” I mean the remarkable ability of this system to reward talent and hard work, with absolutely no regard for ethnicity, religion, race, sex, age, or any other considerations.

All this, however, is now in question. American colleges and universities, as well as many other institutions, are under attack by an ideology that I cannot but describe as insidious. This ideology is built on a combination of “critical theory” (an offspring of Marxism); a weird type of moral-cultural relativism that generates its own opposite, namely, fierce moralistic dogmatism; deconstructionism; and intersectionality. The net result of this stew is to view people as irredeemably divided by race, sex, sexual preferences, etc. into grievance groups, all suffering under various forms of oppression. Having evolved from this noxious mixture of implausible but influential academic theories, the ideology has succeeded in taking over many departments in the humanities and social sciences and is now making inroads into the sciences. By an extraordinary stealth quality, it has continued to move, largely undetected until now, into society at large, producing the “Woke” phenomenon.

In the worldview of the Woke, America has never been that paragon of freedom, justice, and opportunities for all that attracted us immigrants, but rather a terribly unjust, racist, and corrupt society. Its foundation does not begin with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that we proud and patriotic immigrants venerate, but rather, as the New York Times tells us in its 1619 Project, with the date when the first slaves were brought to these shores. American history is no longer taught dialectically, as a constant struggle for improvements made possible by the magnificent founding principles and institutions of the republic, but, rather, statically as a mindless sequence of acts of oppression against various groups. In fact, the founding documents are themselves often deemed to be racist and sexist, as are the historic figures who wrote them. Woke ideology is thus destroying the very foundations on which the American democratic republic was built. By manipulating historical data and misinterpreting current events, it is sowing resentment and self-doubt. Worst of all, it divides us into groups (“oppressors” and “oppressed”) who are at war with each other, thus grievously undermining the national motto “e pluribus unum” and the very concept of American citizenship based on a shared commitment to universal values.

I see this confusion at work in my own university, Princeton. Although there are faculty members and students who resolutely resist Woke ideology, the leaders of our university have been confronted with “demands” for quotas, a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus, and even a faculty committee to “investigat[e] and discipline racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” All this, despite the absence of any visible institutional form of racial discrimination on campus (though there are persistent claims of barely concealed discrimination against “overrepresented minorities,” especially Asian Americans) and with no regard for the potentially destructive effect of such measures. Princeton, as well as most similar US academic institutions, are constantly on the defensive, making great efforts to correct a racism that they themselves know does not exist, as a way of covering themselves against ever expanding accusations of racism. Paradoxically, these institutions are thus fighting the ghost of racism in their middle by abetting the racialist agenda of their accusers.

Nothing I say here is new, and merely lamenting what is going on is no longer appropriate to the gravity of the situation. We are facing something we did not seek and by no means welcome, namely, the moral equivalent of war. This has been clear to the aggressors in the struggle from the beginning. They embraced it in a revolutionary spirit and as a quest for power. Those of us who want nothing more than to preserve traditional ideals of academic freedom, integrity, and civility have been reluctant—and therefore slow—to acknowledge it. Here is a call to action. It should sound familiar except maybe to those who have recently defaced a certain statue in London’s Parliament Square.

Even though large tracts of our cultural landscape and many old and famous American institutions have fallen or may fall into the grip of this hostile ideology and all the odious apparatus of cancel culture rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in our universities, we shall fight in our schools, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the old media as well as in the social media, we shall defend our culture, reforming what is in need of reform, but preserving our core principles and institutions, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the world of ideas, we shall fight in the low-lands of politics and Hollywood, we shall fight in our religious institutions; we shall never surrender.

We shall have to fight even more fiercely than the British in the last World War because, while they could hope that America would come to their aid, we have no such hope of reinforcements being sent from abroad. Our weapons in this war of ideas are simply the belief in the old ideals of the American revolution: equality under the law, our freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the power of reason and reasoned debate, the scientific method. We academics and educators are facing an uphill battle to reverse the decay of our most badly compromised institutions, schools and universities. We should utterly reject the centerpiece of our adversary’s ideology—the notion that our society is irredeemably racist. This accusation is no longer defined “in terms of recognizable discriminatory actions (which could be identified, measured, and cured) but rather as any manifestation of disparate or unequal outcomes. Differences of any kind—whether in income, education, or life expectancy—are all defined as manifestations of systemic racial animus.”

Woke ideologues are using this notion of structural racism and the justifiable American sense of guilt for the past treatment of our African American citizens as a club to demolish our institutions. By contrast, our banner should be the simple and powerful anti-racist and anti-racialist message of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Judge all humans not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We should reject any attempts from the Right or the Left to politicize our fight, even as we should attempt to form a broad coalition of conservatives, traditional liberals, and civil libertarian progressives supported by our immigrant citizens. Furthermore, we must strive to have members of our most disadvantaged minority groups join us by unmasking the fake promises of the Woke, which may seem well intended but are ultimately destructive to the very groups they claim to champion. We must insist on education as the key to success, and stress that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “promissory note” will continue to be honored within the framework of our constitutional system.

Above all, though, we have to stop being frightened, intimidated, and afraid to fight back. No matter how dangerous the present cancel culture is, it offers no match to the reign of terror of Nazism or of Soviet and Chinese Communism. If truly courageous dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov could oppose the Soviet system, it behooves every one of us to take on this weaker but insidious form of oppression—before it becomes still worse. As a first step we can start by defending each other based on the principle that a woke attack on one is an attack on all.


Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton.

Feature image: Participant holding a sign at a City University of New York (CUNY) protest, 2020/06/27. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images).


  1. Great article. The true battle lies for ascendancy over ways of knowing- Science is unique in its ability to alleviate human suffering by using reason and empirical evidence to improve the human condition. The woke philosophy, with its reliance on lived experience, will always try to tear this edifice down because of sheer envy. Their philosophy can do nothing to improve the human condition because it is not based on evidence, and they know it. The narrative is a tool best left to storytellers and demagogues- thankfully 80% of the American people aren’t buying this trash.

    (Really brave in using Churchill- I imagine that will have the cancel mobs all in a frenzy, by itself.)

  2. This disparate outcomes nonsense is at the heart of woke insanity but the ideology is insidious and will not permit any criticism of its divine knowledge. It’s going to have to be done by force.

    This is an inconsistency in the ideology. Apparently, “systemic racism” keeps blacks down yet pushes Asians and East Indians up.

    You’re obviously an intelligent person and you realize that our urgent problem today is clearly the far Left. Don’t get distracted.

    Actually, this reign of terror is very much like Nazism and Communism. We are in the early stages of a cultural revolution; the gulags and death camps are waiting for us down the road.

    We would all agree with this. One for all and all for one!

    Can we not crowdfund legal teams to sue the Boards of Education and Universities who try to shove this woke garbage down our throats? We have the numbers.

  3. As a first step we can start by defending each other based on the principle that a woke attack on one is an attack on all.

    A good principle.
    A tiny, loud minority can intimidate a majority, since the repeated minority ‘message’ (through media, entertainment, social media) promotes the minority message as held more widely than it actually is. This alone can produce self-censorship by majority members (as can the more overt mobbing/cancellations). In other words, majority members self-censor because they mistakenly perceive the minority view/message to be more widely held by others than is true. This is how pluralistic ignorance contributes to the problem by silencing voices that would counter the minority view/message. As more members of the majority voice views that counter the minority view, gradually the pluralistic ignorance is reduced.

    So again—great article, and yes, a woke attack on one is an attack on all, so defending those under attack helps clarify for the wider public that the minority woke view is just that—a minority view.

  4. This is a brave and necessary article. As the author notes, “there are faculty members and students who resolutely resist Woke ideology.” If they remain silent the Woke ideology will win by default. Tenured faculty in particular need to have the courage of their convictions. Although it’s possible to be canceled even if one has tenure, they enjoy protections that employees in other fields (like James Damore and David Shor!) could scarcely imagine.

    I especially appreciated this line: “Princeton, as well as most similar US academic institutions, are constantly on the defensive, making great efforts to correct a racism that they themselves know does not exist, as a way of covering themselves against ever expanding accusations of racism. Paradoxically, these institutions are thus fighting the ghost of racism in their middle by abetting the racialist agenda of their accusers.” When it comes to discrimination against blacks and Latinos, elite colleges are probably the least racist institutions in the history of the world. (The same is not true of their treatment of whites and Asians.) It’s absurd that students of color who attend these universities act as though they’re living in the Jim Crow south. They can only maintain this fiction by pretending that “micro-aggressions” are the emotional equivalent of lynching.

    Traditional liberals need to recognize that they have more in common (on this issue, at least) with principled conservatives and civil libertarians than the Woke. As Klainerman writes, “We should reject any attempts from the Right or the Left to politicize our fight, even as we should attempt to form a broad coalition of conservatives, traditional liberals, and civil libertarian progressives.”

  5. @notorious: I didn’t get that the author wanted to ‘purge institutions from Marxist views or ideas’ from the reading of this article. It sounded to me like he was concerned about how academics face loss of reputation and livelihood for not falling in line with a view that is fast becoming an iron-hard ideology. As a fellow academic I’ve experienced this myself and seen the chaos that results from it. Basically, many who go against this dogma may still keep their jobs, but they can forget being promoted or reaching any kind of acclaim within their institution. Academics are divided into three groups at the moment: those who see Woke ideology as a threat, but are neutralized by work-floor politics; those who are full-time social justice warriors ready to ferret out any heretic they come across; and finally the majority, who are either oblivious to it all or just want to work, collect a salary and go home at the end of the day.

    I’ve witnessed professors face false accusations of racism and the nasty and cowardly reactions of an overzealous administration afraid of being persecuted by students and/or their superiors. The result of this is that many professors now just pass students regardless of the quality of their work. It’s much easier that way and keeps both students and administrators happy. However, it comes at a terrible cost. We are now witnessing the rapid disintegration of our institutions due to the mediocre education of those in charge of them. In our desire not to offend, Higher Education now obsequiously panders to students’ silly conventions rather than challenge and expand upon them. If you don’t believe me just look at how powerful the idea is that a man can be a woman, or that gender is ‘fluid’. This kind of thinking is now seeping into the STEM subjects with Math being the latest casualty as can be evidenced in the disgraceful 2+2=5 movement.

    The goal of Higher Education is to discover the truth no matter where it leads and how uncomfortable it makes us. Currently, it is morphing into a culture of therapy where feeling good about yourself trumps truth.

  6. What veracity? James Lindsay is doing a fine job on dismantling the claims of critical theory all by himself. I understand his paper on the internalized misogyny of dogs at dog parks is a representative example of the excellence of critical theory scholarship. I also understand that Hitler would have been an eminent critical theorist, had he not got some of his vocabulary confused.

    Probably the punctuation. Though I have my doubts there as well.

  7. No ethical violations were committed. Despite the show trial. And it is not and should not be easy to get things published in a truly academic discipline. Peer review used to be a thing. Evidently it’s not anymore. Also, critical theory is not legitimate science. It isn’t even a science.

  8. The whole point was to discredit the peer review process, which it did. Notwithstanding a few genuine academics doing serious work (and swimming against the tide), the Grievance studies are nothing more than ideas laundries, used to legitimise terrible ideas into the mainstream with the forged stamp of academic credentialism.

    Otherwise why do they continue to claim that there are no cognitive differences in interests between women and men? Or that gender is a spectrum? Or how about gender is a social construct (although I will admit on this last score, some gender expression is culturally constructed)?

    All or most of their spurious claims have long since been dismissed by reputable science. Why else are they so intent on getting science to explore other ways of knowing- code for seances and exploring narrative, when the plural of anecdote is not evidence? It’s because they know their field is a crock- and is always torn down when subjected to the scrutiny of scientific analysis- hence their aim to destroy science within, so that their lop-sided edifice can endure that little bit longer, before it collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

    Peggy MacIntosh’s Knapsack is considered scholarship FFS- it’s just a statement of subjective observations (many of which don’t stand up to scrutiny), from one of the most socially advantaged women in history.

  9. Absolutely nothing within the topics of Gender Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies or Race Studies is scientific in ANY way. PERIOD . This can probably expanded to include most psychology, sociology, and political studies.

    The reason peer-review doesn’t work here is because there is nothing to discredit. No facts to debate. Just whatever you want to write down with no possible way to refute it.

  10. Or maybe we understand liberal values better than you do, and have seen the results of your ideology at work in real life. Having emigrated out of the hell hole created by leftist policies once, we’d rather not repeat the experience.

  11. No, it’s the fact that proponents of critical theory seize control of as many institutions as they can, with the goal of suppressing dissenting views. It’s why they cannot tolerate anything which deviates from the party line, with even minor acts of dissent punished with cancellation.

    The message to Stephen Pinker was quite clear- we don’t like you highlighting the five studies which do take into account disparate rates of violent crime by group to show that the narrative of police officers shooting African Americans is largely incorrect. Plus, the message is never targeted at the powerful- it always squarely aimed at people who have yet to reach prominence- with the goal of squeezing the Overton Window down to an arrow slit controlled by the Left.

    That’s why conservatives see critical theory as a threat- along with the fact that it is based upon theories from the Frankfurt school, whose only goal is destroying the most wonderful societies in the history of the world, and replacing them with the rotting carcass of Socialism.

  12. @notorious: Critical Theory is not about the truth. It’s but one of many lenses with which to critique the world. I’m actually being made to study this in my doctorate course and so am pretty familiar with it. I wholeheartedly disagree with it because it looks at human interactions solely through the lens of oppression and victimization. Those who teach it allow no room for argument. Indeed, when I politely questioned my professor whether America really is systemically racist, the department head was made to come in and lecture me in front of my peers. It was quite embarrassing because one student broke down and burst into tears about he had inadvertently used his ‘privilege’ to get ahead in life. My classroom felt like a cult. I have had similar experiences with other peddlers of Critical Theory and Social Justice advocates. One thing they all have in common is that they brook no argument. You either agree wholeheartedly with them or you are labeled some kind of ‘-ist’. I’ve realized that trying to argue with them is like arguing with the most rabid conspiracy theorist - absolutely pointless. Their world view is too limited. Critical Theory has become a religion to them. Much like religious zealots in the medieval era, they gird themselves with righteousness and excuse any bad behavior on their part as ‘saving others’ and fighting evil. Critical theory seeks to endlessly problematize behaviors that are quite normal and beneficial to humans and replace them with a doctrine of victimization, self-loathing and collective guilt. Unlike Christianity there is no grace or forgiveness, just endless accusations and self-abasement.

  13. It’s because there it is almost impossible to quantify systemic racism. It’s the secular version of sin and much of it is anecdotal. Certainly there is inequality, but there always will be. My wife, who is highly placed in HR at her company, says that tall good-looking people are the most privileged in society. They are more likely to be believed and listened to over others less attractive. I’m sure most people can testify to that from their days at high school when someone better looking than them got the girl or guy they liked.

    If systemic racism really existed in the West how do you explain the successful careers of Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Beyonce and numerous others of similar complexion? If America truly is systemically racist why do hundreds of thousands of people try to emigrate there every year? It’s a theory that truly doesn’t hold water when examined thoroughly.

    Sure, the world isn’t fair and I don’t deny that racism exists. Things can certainly be better in many ways, but the problem with Critical Theory is that it endlessly critiques. Its adherents want to tear systems down without really thinking about what to replace them with. It contains glaringly obvious internal contradiction that require some form of blind faith to overlook. I think that cognitive dissonance alone is why so many who lecture on it tend to suffer from fear and mental anxiety. They hold themselves to an almost impossible standard of virtue and, because of that, consider themselves to be living in a higher plane than the ‘lowly’ uneducated masses.

    Apart from all that my biggest critique of Critical Theory is that it seeks to control the natural behaviors and interactions of others through work policies, censorious cancel culture and now rioting in the streets. Equality is an almost impossible goal that can only be fully achieved by totalitarian measures. You mention intergenerational privilege, but what’s so privileged about a family working hard so that their offspring can enjoy a better life? Do we take the fruits of their labor and pass them on to those who have no desire to work or better themselves? We already kind of do that through the tax system.

    I realize I’m going off on one so I will stop here for now. I enjoy debating with you, notorious, and hope you don’t feel that I’m personally attacking you :slight_smile: I work in Higher Ed and am familiar with much of what you mention. I’m very conscious of waxing lyrical on some of these topics too.

  14. I guess you had us all figured out, haven’t you? So, this guy escapes from hell on Earth (I can vouch for that, I’m a Romanian myself and got the chance to reap the benefits of Communism fully), builds a successful career in a highly competitive environment and warns, decades later, about the perils of free thought suppression and all you can come up is this shallow idea that his mind is tainted by him merely being Eastern European? Damn, notorius, you really showed us.

    Sad that after all the horrors inflicted by Communism, after all these years we’re too late for the party. I thought, for a long time, that Fukuyama was on to something - that we’re gonna settle the matter once and for all and that democracy and freedom - the West, in a nutshell - is gonna win, quietly, the clash between ideas. It now seems that the West, with all its great ideas is hell-bent on eating itself from the inside and tearing down all that it struggled to distill from centuries of hate and suffering.

    Also, you’re wrong about calling Critical Theory science. It can’t be science because it’s not falsifiable, so it’s just an opinion based on ridiculous assumptions and you asking others to disprove it shows how little you understand what reasoning is. The onus is on you, bud.

  15. Critical theory does not value truth. You apparently don’t understand what it is you’re defending.

    Critical theory is about accumulating and exerting power over other people. It uses stereotypes of people according to sex, sexuality, and skin color and lumps them into categories of oppressed and oppressor (good and bad respectively). It frames philosophy, history, sociology, and society in general in these terms. Not because they are “true” but because people who actually do believe in truth think they are in a fight with rational people who are attacking their ideas and become confused when they present these ideas only to have them preemptively dismissed and replaced with a new idea set. One that isn’t rational, doesn’t value truth or individuality, or science, or math. This new idea set isn’t cohesive or well formulated. It doesn’t have to be because it’s only meant to work for one side to one purpose.

    Critical theory does not have better arguments, ideas, or more truth to it. It’s proponents choose to sidestep all of the “masters tools” because in a debate they will look like fools and soninstead they assume a position of authority. All they see is power. All they want is to accumulate it. All they will do with it has been done before and the graves of millions of innocents already wiped out by this ideology mean nothing to these people. This is the ideology of idiots at best, and monsters at worst.

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