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Academic Exile, Two Years On

Academia has become an intellectual prison, and many incarcerated professors are compelled to live a dual existence.

· 12 min read
Academic Exile, Two Years On
The poet and writer Dante Alighieri during his exile. 19th century (engraving from "Les grandes infortunes" by Changer et Spont).

Two years ago, I was fired from my job as a professor at a small mid-western college. I was not fired because of poor teacher ratings, student complaints, data fraud, or any other job-related shortcomings. I was fired because I spoke and wrote openly about human psychological variation, and because I maintained that I would continue to speak and write candidly about that subject and about other potentially controversial topics.

At the time, this development left me shocked and bewildered. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable. Today, my overriding feeling is one of profound disappointment that my perception of an academia guided by evidence and argument instead of political ad hominem attacks proved to be illusory. Although I was quite naïve back then, I was never so foolish as to believe that scholarly debates are always cordial affairs between monocled gentleman who decorate their discourse with phrases like “my dear sir” and “I do beg your pardon.” But I did believe that academia encouraged open exploration and argument and discouraged character assassination and scientific censoriousness. I was wrong.

I encountered intimations of the problems that plague modern academia as soon as I began my college career, but I largely dismissed them because I was studying literature, not electrons, atoms, brains, birds, bears, or anything that could be pinned down. Nevertheless, as a sober-minded student, I was surprised by the popularity of implausible but fashionable ideological currents. So, like any curious scholar, I read the work that was celebrated by my professors and other eminent people in the field—Baudrillard, Barthes, Butler, Derrida, Freud, Jung, Kristeva, Foucault, and Lacan. Some of it was sensible and intelligible, but much of it was so obscure, involuted, or risibly unconvincing that I was left perplexed. For a while, I assumed that my brain simply could not apprehend the profundities of postmodern thought.

While wrestling unsuccessfully with poststructuralism, I also read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, both of which offered excellent overviews of Darwinian approaches to animal behavior. After many more books and articles and lively debates, I became persuaded of the general power and plausibility of evolutionary psychology. I was baffled by the persistence of literary criticism that remains uninformed by Darwinian analysis, and that even defies it (e.g., Freudianism). After all, why should we not use the best intellectual tools at our disposal to understand Shakespeare, Dickens, or Faulkner?

I was even more taken aback by the antipathy my professors (and other scholars) expressed toward evolutionary psychology. I had encountered many tendentious and hyperbolic denunciations of evolutionary psychology in the literature, but I figured these were the exaggerated attacks of sophisticated partisans, not manifestations of a widespread attitude. Yet, when I started to include evolutionary analyses in my papers, my arguments were vehemently attacked. Some professors even compared Darwinism to fascism and Nazism. I suspect that in most literature classes at the time, including the concept of penis envy in a paper would have been greeted with more sympathy than including the concept of inclusive fitness.

My love for literature was propelled by a delight in language and a desire to explore the human condition. But many critics and influential professors seemed to be more interested in advancing avant-garde identity politics than in carefully reading texts and discussing the nuances of diction or symbolism. A popular textbook on literary criticism at the time, for example, included sections on Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, deconstruction, postcolonial and multicultural criticism, and eco-criticism. Man is a political animal, so I have no objection to thinking about the political motivations of authors or characters, but I do object to obsessing over these at the expense of other important features of literature. And I especially object to forcing texts onto a procrustean bed of progressive ideological concerns. (A popular critical activity was to search for what was not in the text to illustrate how that revealed the racism or sexism of the author or his society.)  

Disenchanted with literary studies, I became an intellectual vagabond, wandering from subject to subject. I was, I suppose, on a mission to become the most limited kind of scholar—one with a little knowledge about a lot of things. But I was also searching for an academic discipline that was hospitable to Darwinian analyses. Eventually, I settled on social psychology, which (I thought) managed to combine the rigor of science with the humanism of literature and history. On the upside, I had chosen a field which at least pretended to take Darwin seriously. On the downside, I had chosen a field rife with political bias and dubious research practices.

For my entire undergraduate and early graduate career, I was not just on the Left, I was on the far-Left. I was never a Marxist because Marx’s views about human nature struck me as erroneous, but I was generally sympathetic to trenchant criticisms of capitalism, corporations, and American foreign policy. I devoured writers like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, and I could be more radical than my progressive professors on a variety of issues.

But I also took Darwinism seriously, and believed that a scholar’s scientific views could—and should—be independent of his political views. Radical political beliefs and goals, it seemed to me, did not require a preference for Kropotkin over Dawkins. I was convinced that the appropriate way to challenge bad (or even “dangerous”) philosophical or scientific hypotheses was through debate, not castigation, moral opprobrium, ostracism, and censorship. I mention my political views back then, not because I am proud of (or embarrassed by) them, but because I want to be clear that my growing concerns about academia were not motivated by some radical conservative agenda.

So, I entered graduate school with progressive political views, but a naïvely optimistic understanding of how academia functions. At the same time, my enthusiasm was tempered by the speeches and writings of several prominent scholars who argued that academia’s leftwing political bias was starting to menace its own self-conceived mission. My prior experiences in the humanities had taught me that political bias could be a problem. When applying for graduate school, mentors even warned me that my keen interest in evolutionary psychology was potentially self-destructive. However, I remained galvanized by the potential of the university as an institute of knowledge, discovery, and learning. The dire warnings I was reading simply did not match my experience as an undergraduate in psychology. It would take only two years of graduate school for me to realize that the alarmists were right.

Just as a man may not recognize that he is in a prison until he tries to break free, a scholar may not understand the taboos that confine him until he transgresses them. I saw the prison, but I did not really feel it until I tried to escape. Academia is much more pleasant than a literal prison, of course, and anybody in a position to complain about the encroachment of political biases on scholarship has lived a charmed life. Nevertheless, academia has become an intellectual prison, and many of the incarcerated professors were therefore compelled to live a dual existence. In public, they either endorsed the prevailing dogmas about race and sex or they kept their thoughts to themselves. In private, they could be more candid, and would sometimes even complain about the more extreme beliefs of their colleagues and pundits who would write about science in the prestige media.

The more I talked privately to professors, the more this depressing abyss between what they were prepared to say in private and in public became apparent. One might counter that civilization requires such a distinction between public and private speech and opinion. Our impulses can be unkind, and so we need to discipline ourselves and self-censor on occasion. And this is correct in a limited sense—speaking freely is not always tactful or wise, and we routinely resist the urge to insult those who annoy us. But I am not talking here about private gossip, salacious rumors, or petty insults—I am talking about the merits of considered, substantive, and scientifically consequential beliefs.

As I spent more time in social psychology—at conferences and other professional meetings—I became disturbed by the degree to which this supposed branch of the human sciences was driven by a progressive political agenda. Many talks, papers, and even departments were (and remain) dedicated to understanding and mitigating or eradicating prejudice and intolerance. This may sound laudable—after all, who could object to eradicating prejudice? But in social psychology, concern about prejudice is selectively applied, and the term is defined so loosely that it is held to be omnipresent and responsible for virtually every social disparity modern societies care about. Furthermore, causal explanations for prejudice that do not include the claim that white men are racist and sexist are often rejected a priori, making prejudice studies less a science and more like a faith-based ideology defended with the kind of zeal usually reserved for religious doctrine.

The line between social psychology and activism, which was never rigid to begin with, has now dissolved entirely, and social psychology has become a form of activism masquerading as a science. Because I was a graduate student who still loved social science and scholarship, I kept most of my concerns to myself, at least for the first few years. But as the steady invasion of politics into the field continued, an increasingly animated and alarmed resistance began to grow, even among some liberal professors. This persuaded me that I should begin to explore and write about these issues.

I decided to write about human variation, a subject that had interested me for many years, but which I had avoided because I was worried that it might ruin my career. “Just wait until you have tenure” was the most popular advice I received. Wise counsel, as it turned out, that I ignored. I was becoming increasingly weary of submitting to moral intimidation. My job, as I saw it, was to write with candor and care about human nature and social behavior, and to promote scientific dialogue and debate. It was certainly not my job to surrender to the prevailing political wisdom of the scholarly community, or to avoid writing and talking about important topics simply because they offended the moral sensibilities of progressives.

I cannot be certain, but I suspect that my essays and articles about these topics had begun to damage my career even before I was fired. My curriculum vitae was impressive by any objective standard—my teaching evaluations were always well above average and I decided to apply to small universities and colleges because I wanted to avoid the stifling politics and expectations of large research universities. Even so, I struggled to secure interviews. I submitted more than 100 applications and received just four phone interviews and one campus interview. (It is perfectly possible that I am bad at phone interviews, but four out of 100 is an exceptionally low success rate, even in a field as competitive as psychology.)

I am not trying to excuse or lament my poor performance on the job market. Rather, my point is that the fear that deters many graduate students from writing candidly about controversial topics or from questioning the biases of the field is entirely justified. Writing about the wrong thing can extinguish a potentially bright career before it begins because some of the professors who sit on hiring committees pay particular attention to the political views and ideas of applicants. An especially ardent political opponent on a hiring committee is often the end of one’s chances. Administrations understand the prevailing political climate, and even if they are not filled with true believers, they want desperately to avoid the controversy—internal and external—that a heterodox scholar can bring.

In the end, I managed to secure a job in a small mid-western town in Ohio, and I was excited. Although the college was not especially prestigious, it would allow me to focus on teaching and scholarship, and I thought I would remain insulated from the scrutiny that is inevitable at a more august institution. I was wrong about that, too.

I have written about my firing before, so I will only discuss it briefly here. Despite being a small college in a small town, my new institution was beset by the same political biases that I saw at other universities. Conservative professors complained quietly. Students did the same. I got on with my job, writing articles and teaching classes. Although I wrote openly about my views, I never brought politics into the classroom, nor did I discuss human population variation (which I thought too incendiary to teach). My first year passed largely without incident, and my end-of-year evaluations were quite good.

My second year, however, was full of tumult. It began with a lecture about human variation that I delivered at the University of Alabama. Professors and students there had discovered my profile at RationalWiki, a deceptively named website full of inflammatory rhetoric and tendentious accusations. Instead of discussing the profile with me, the professors and students who had invited me simply refused to meet with me at all. They did not, however, cancel my lecture. Many attended, pelting me with accusations of racism and phrenology. (I remain astonished by the popularity of the ludicrous claim that Noah Carl and I are believers in the pseudoscience of phrenology—if the progressive writers at Mother Jones were able to understand what we were talking about, surely any good-faith critic of our arguments could do the same?)

As a believer in vibrant and robust debate, I tried to answer all their claims and questions, and stayed behind for an hour after the Q&A to talk to students individually. They were not impressed. The school newspaper published an article about the debacle in which the group that invited me disavowed my views and apologized to anyone who might have been hurt or offended by my appearance. (This group also claimed that my talk was “non-scientific” even though it was pre-approved and entirely based on peer-reviewed articles.)

Unsurprisingly, that article irked the administration at my college. Institutions do not want to attract unnecessary controversy. But, to my college’s credit, they seemed committed to defending my right to academic freedom and did not reprimand me. A few months later, however, a pseudonymous individual who claimed to work for a (nonexistent) group exposing “race science” began emailing my department and my bosses. Although these emails were filled with deceit and defamation, my bosses took them seriously. This time, I was reprimanded.

Nevertheless, after a meeting with my provost, I thought that my job was secure. I acknowledged that I had not worded every tweet and article as well as I could have done. But I also argued that my job required me to be intellectually honest and to pursue the truth to the best of my fallible abilities. I said that I would continue to do so. I also pointed out that, while I had occasionally tweeted carelessly (just like anyone else), I had never insulted or mocked others, and that I had always promoted charitable dialogue and debate. Nobody at that meeting disputed my claims, and I left satisfied that I had placated the authorities without capitulating to my anonymous accuser.

So, when my provost informed me a month or so later that I was being fired, it was a kick in the guts. My goal had been to write and speak about human variation and other controversial topics without suffering severe consequences. Others, I hoped, would see my example and realize that they too could discuss such issues honestly. Instead, my truncated career, like a public execution, became another warning pour encourager les autres—do not tread this path or you too may suffer this fate. The person who precipitated my firing with his inflammatory email campaign celebrated with a final message that read, “I win.”

Academia is supposed to promote free inquiry and debate. It is supposed to be full of contentious discourse, controversial claims, bold hypotheses, and rigorous argument. And, certainly, it remains full of scientists and philosophers who believe themselves to be modern Socratic truth-seekers, pursuing knowledge with implacable dedication while challenging the ignorance and bigotry of the establishment. The truth about academia is less inspiring. It currently functions as the very thing it claims to oppose: the protector and promoter of doctrine, which it defends with moral intimidation and threats of professional ruin.

Many professors and scientists are devoted to pursuing the truth, and many are admirable people who think that censoring ideas and punishing unorthodox scholars is repugnant. However, these people must survive in an institution that has been commandeered by an ardent minority of progressive activists. They fear losing their jobs. They fear losing their professional status. They fear injuring the careers of their graduate students. And so, they generally remain silent. I could lament their cowardice, but I also sympathize with their predicament. It takes many years of preparation and training to secure a position as a professor, and it is not an easy job to recover once lost. Dismissal from one university for expressing forbidden opinions makes it exceedingly difficult to get rehired at another. For the academic pariah, years of often tedious and expensive training are suddenly redundant.

Since I was fired in 2020, the problem in academia has become even worse. The trends that began in the 1960s, and that were already apparent to me by the late-1990s, accelerated after the post-Floyd BLM protests in the Summer of 2020. Prestigious journals rushed to declare their allegiance to radical progressive political agendas, no matter how quixotic, and many universities publicly flagellated themselves for their complicity in a supposedly white supremacist system. Graduate students with whom I have spoken remain terrified of speaking or writing openly about their views, or of contradicting received wisdom about the alleged causes of racial or sexual disparities. Many older professors seem to have resigned themselves to the obstinate reality that universities are no longer hospitable to free inquiry.

Although I have become much more conservative as I have aged, this should not be about politics. I do not lament the execrable state of the university system primarily because it is full of leftwing professors and administrators. I lament it because it has quashed the spirit of free inquiry that enthralled me as a young scholar. I lament it because it has expelled so many important ideas and debates. I lament it because it is no longer devoted to understanding human nature. Instead, universities exist to promote ideas that advance a particular policy agenda and to suppress those that do not. The social sciences have not yet been destroyed by the rot of postmodernism and become post-truth. But they are post-dispassionate-exploration-of-human-nature. And we should all lament this whatever our political preferences.

Undoubtedly, many of the ideas I explored in my brief academic career are controversial and challenging. But that is the nature of science, which has a long record of undermining cherished beliefs. Since the scientific revolution, we have discovered that the Earth is not at the center of the universe; humans are merely one species of evolved creature, of no greater cosmic importance than the transient housefly who is born to breed and die. We might yet discover that our most hallowed ethical convictions are based on errors in need of adjustment to a new and more complicated moral world.

But whatever its potential destructiveness or its disregard for our sense of the sacred, science remains the most effective instrument for understanding the world that we have yet devised. Understanding the world, and its predictable chains of cause-and-effect, remains the best way to promote human flourishing. If our universities continue to pander to political sensitivities, replacing a fearless pursuit of knowledge with a craven capitulation to dogma, then our loss will be immense. We will have robbed posterity of our single greatest resource: knowledge.

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