Woke Colleges Are Assembly Lines for Conformity

Woke Colleges Are Assembly Lines for Conformity, by Charles Lipson.

Don’t be fooled by universities’ incessant chatter about “diversity.” Most are poster children for ideological conformity and proud of it. The faculty, students, and administrators know it. Indeed, many welcome it since their views are so obviously right and other views so obviously wrong. They believe discordant views are so objectionable that no one should express them publicly.

What views are now considered beyond the pale? They almost always involve ordinary political differences. We are not talking here about direct physical threats. Those are already illegal, and universities rightly deal with them. They don’t have to face neo-Nazi marches. Nor is anyone advocating such noxious ideas as genocide, slavery, or child molestation. Speech about those subjects might be legal, but virtually nobody is making the case for them. That is not what the fight for freedom of speech on campus is about.

It is about the freedom to voice — or even hear — unpopular views on topics such as merit-based admissions, affirmative action, transgender competition in women’s sports, abortion, and support for Israel. These are perfectly legitimate topics, and students ought to be free to hear different ideas about them. They are hotly contested topics in America’s body politic. That’s how democracies work.

Not so on college campuses, where the “wrong views” are not just minority opinions. They are verboten, and so are the people who dare express them. Challenging this repressive conformity invites condemnation, severs friendships, and threatens careers. It is hardly surprising that few rise to challenge it.

Worse yet, university leaders seldom do. They have a fundamental responsibility to defend open discourse, and they have largely abdicated it. Shame on them. …

Letting them go uncontested invites intellectual flabbiness. Allowing them to be coerced into silence invites mob rule and ideological uniformity in what should be a bastion of open and vigorous debate. …

Higher education demands this free discourse, including vigorous disagreement, using well-established standards for logical rigor and empirical evidence. Without those standards and spirited debate, instruction degenerates into indoctrination.

That is precisely what has happened at too many universities and too many departments, especially those in the humanities and social sciences. Even faculty and students working in the hard sciences — once presumed to be above the political fray — are increasingly succumbing to demands for ideological conformity. The problem also has spread to K–12 education — mainly in history, social studies, and English — where it is inundating students who are even less prepared to resist it than their older siblings. …

Your civilization and way of life are at stake:

Consider, for instance, the current generally accepted idea that the earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. No one believed that in the early 1800s. They read the family trees in Genesis and agreed it was roughly 4,000 years old, at most. That view changed only because it was challenged by Charles Lyell and other geologists, who overcame fierce religious opposition. … Challenging settled views like this is not just how science works. It is how all systematic research and development works. …

The same pernicious practices that harm education have spread to mainstream news organizations and the tech giants that control online discussion. They are suppressing and thus distorting discussion of important public issues. Search (on Google) and ye shall not find, not if the search engine wants to hide results from sites it doesn’t like.

Major corporations and sports leagues have followed on bended knee for the same reasons they buckled to McCarthyism in the 1950s. These organizations aren’t any more moral now than they were then. They aren’t any less driven to maximize profits. Their abiding belief, then and now, is “duck and cover your behind.” They are simply doing it differently these days because the political environment is different.

Conformity itself is hardly new. It is an age-old social practice, reinforced wherever there are tight social bonds. What’s new, historically, is free debate. That is a unique Western achievement, the product largely of Reformation Christianity’s idea that each believer should read and interpret the Bible for himself and the Enlightenment ideal that all social practices are subject to rational criticism.

The noblest expressions of these ideas are the First Amendment to the US Constitution, its philosophical defense by John Stuart Mill, and its embodiment in the modern research university. These achievements are not just bedrocks of free expression, they are bedrocks of liberal democracy itself. They are precious achievements, hard won and fragile. One mark of that fragility is that it is unpopular now even to speak of these Western achievements.

In today’s universities, far too many are determined to smash those achievements, to close the gates of discussion to block untoward opinions from entering. That’s always the goal of zealots. What’s new and deeply troubling is their dominance inside the ivied walls.

The last two hundred years of freedom is the exception. The West temporarily escaped the stifling static hand of the political class, who rather like things to stay however they are because they are in control and getting more goodies than their fellow men.

In that brief period we escaped the Malthusian condition and made it to the moon. Genius and entrepreneurship flourished, without some bureaucrat or politician squashing it or taking all the benefits.

But now the mob of not-so-bright people newly admitted to universities is being used by the political class to re-exert control again. Conform or perish. In the last few decades technological development and change has slowed dramatically, except in IT where it is increasingly being subverted for control of the population by governments.

Humanity is just back to its millennia-old game of rulers and oppressed, of zero-sum game politics. Freedom was just a short interlude. Conformity is back.