All posts filed under: Education

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy

There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on. In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural …

Refighting the Usage Wars

On November 21, two educators published an article that lamented the declining quality of written work produced by American adolescents. Early in the piece, Temple University professors Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg cite a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics that yielded this disturbing claim: “Only one in four [high school seniors] can construct an essay that is coherent and well structured, with ideas presented clearly and logically.” To bolster their case, Hirsch-Pasek and Steinberg present anecdotal evidence from other university professors privy to what this deficit looks like (literally on paper) at the next level. One, from “a high-ranking state university,” resorted to altering “her syllabus to take two full days to review the idea of a topic sentence.” Illustrating the ubiquity of this trend, another professor, this time from “a highly ranked private college, wrote in a recent Facebook post that he took time out of class to explain how to write, noting that students had no idea what they didn’t know.” Does this sound alarmist? Well, it shouldn’t, …

American Universities’ China Problem

According to a report released last month by a group of distinguished China scholars, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses vague threats to induce US professors and students to avoid topics that might offend Chinese government sensitivities—research or discussions on Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights, and Chinese politics, for example. It denies visas to scholars who criticize the regime, uses Chinese students in the US to inform on one another, and punishes universities for hosting controversial speakers. After a university hosted the Dalai Lama, Beijing retaliated by banning Chinese students and scholars with funding from the Chinese government from attending the university. When the institutions we entrust to pursue the truth start avoiding the truth—particularly academic research that few of us can do on our own—we all suffer. The importance of universities’ truth-seeking role cannot be overstated. Medical researchers produce data on effective and ineffective therapies. Economists measure the impacts of different policy options. Sociologists study how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its outcomes. Political scientists analyze governments. The integrity of American universities …

Denial and the Free Speech Crisis

In a recent article for Quillette, Dan Meegan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, argues that the restriction of freedom of speech we hear about in the news is a rarity in Canada—and that it is certainly not an issue at the University of Guelph. Respectfully, Meegan is absolutely wrong on this latter point. In fact, freedom of speech has been repeatedly repressed at the University of Guelph, and this has been going on for at least a decade. Meegan explains that in his nearly 20 years at the University of Guelph, he can’t recall even one time his students protested the expression of an offensive idea. Not even when he discusses research on gender differences in his evolutionary psychology unit. The only time a student objected to one of his reading materials, she talked to him about it politely. So, he argues, while there is much ado about freedom of speech, it’s not at issue in Guelph. Nevertheless, as a former University of Guelph student, I’ve witnessed the suppression of …

What Happened When We Tried to Debate Immigration

Immigration and diversity politics dominate our political and public debates. Disagreements about these issues lie behind the rise of populist politics on the left and the right, as well as the growing polarization of our societies more widely. Unless we find a way of side-stepping the extremes and debating these issues in an evidence-led, analytical way then the moderate, pluralistic middle will buckle and give way. This is why, as two university professors who work on these issues, we decided to help organize and join a public debate about immigration and ethnic change. The debate, held in London on December 6, was a great success, featuring a nuanced and evidence-based discussion attended by 400 people. It was initially titled, “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?” This was certainly a provocative title, designed to draw in a large audience who might hold strong views on the topic but who would nonetheless be exposed to a moderated and evidence-led debate. Though we would later change the title, we couldn’t escape its powerful logic: On …

Academics’ Mobbing of a Young Scholar Must be Denounced

The latest victim of an academic mobbing is 28-year-old social scientist Noah Carl who has been awarded a Toby Jackman Newton Trust Research Fellowship at St Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge. Rarely has the power asymmetry between the academic mob and its victim been so stark. Dr Carl is a young researcher, just starting out in his career, who is being mobbed for being awarded a prestigious research scholarship on the basis of his peer-reviewed research. While getting a position like this is normally a time for celebration for junior academics, Dr Carl has gone to ground, unable to defend his reputation from libellous attacks, as he has been instructed not to talk to the media. Three hundred academics from around the world, many of them professors, have signed an open letter denouncing Dr Carl and demanding that the University of Cambridge “immediately conduct an investigation into the appointment process” on the grounds that his work is “ethically suspect” and “methodologically flawed.” The letter states: “we are shocked that a body of work …

The New Evolution Deniers

Evolutionary biology has always been controversial. Not controversial among biologists, but controversial among the general public. This is largely because Darwin’s theory directly contradicted the supernatural accounts of human origins rooted in religious tradition and replaced them with fully natural ones. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a sort of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Fearing this corrosive idea, opposition in the US to evolution mainly came from Right-wing evangelical Christians who believed God created life in its present form, as described in Genesis. In the 1990s and 2000s there were repeated attempts by evangelicals to ban evolution in public schools or teach the so-called “controversy” by including Intelligent Design—the belief that life is too complex to have evolved without the aid of some “Intelligent Designer” (i.e. God)—in the biology curriculum alongside evolution. But these attempts failed when scientists demonstrated in court that Intelligent Design was nothing …

Academia’s Case of Stockholm Syndrome

Earlier this year, we launched Researchers.One, a scholarly publication platform open to all researchers in all fields of study. Founded on the principles of academic freedom, researcher autonomy, and scholarly quality, Researchers.One features an innovative author-driven peer review model, which ensures the quality of published work through a self-organized process of public and non-anonymous pre- and post-publication peer review. Believing firmly that researchers can and do uphold the principles of good scholarship on their own, Researchers.One has no editorial boards, gatekeepers, or other barriers to interfere with scholarly discourse. In its first few months, Researchers.One has garnered an overwhelmingly positive reception, both for its emphasis on core principles and its ability to attract high quality publications from a wide range of disciplines, including mathematics, physics, philosophy, probability, and statistics. Despite its promise, many academics worry that leaving peer review up to authors will grind the academic juggernaut to a halt. With nothing to stop authors from recruiting their friends as peer reviewers or from publishing a bunch of nonsense just to pad their CV, how should academic …

Thirty Years After ‘The Closing of the American Mind’

Over thirty years ago, Allan Bloom—the late American philosopher and university professor who was the model for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—published The Closing of the American Mind. He began with a startling declaration: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Relativism, Bloom claimed, “is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.” Students “have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.” What students “fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.” At the end of the opening paragraph, Bloom summarized the result: “The point is not to correct [their] mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.” In the ensuing pages, Bloom argued that modern universities were failing their students in part because postmodern trends …

The Problem with ‘The Journal of Controversial Ideas’

A group of academics recently announced plans to launch a new journal focused on research that its authors fear could lead to a backlash, putting their careers and perhaps even their physical safety in danger. With these concerns in mind, the journal will allow authors to publish their work anonymously, subject to peer review. Some are applauding the launch of what will be titled The Journal of Controversial Ideas. They view it as a needed response to an academic and potentially broader culture that is increasingly afraid to grapple with sensitive topics and seeks to suppress ideas that may have merit but are socially unpopular. However, we think the creation of a journal like this, while serving as a prophetic warning about the new moral culture taking hold of academia and the future of our institutions of higher learning, may be a counterproductive way of dealing with the problems it addresses. First, it is worth asking whether the concerns prompting the creation of this journal are warranted. Some writers and academics claim that stories of …