What is a university for? It’s a question that’s been asked with special intensity over the past week as pundits on the right and left have debated the roots of the conservative movement’s intellectual crisis—a crisis that, many have observed, is not unrelated to the virtual absence of right-of-center thinkers in many academic humanities and social science departments.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt—a political moderate who has pioneered the push for ideological integration in the Ivory Tower—recently delivered a lecture at Duke University articulating two different paths the university can take in this era of political upheaval on and off campus: the pursuit of social justice or the pursuit of truth.
Haidt cites Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill as the intellectual forefathers of these two competing visions for the university. “Marx is the patron saint of what I’ll call ‘Social Justice U,’ which is oriented around changing the world in part by overthrowing power structures and privilege,” he writes. “It sees political diversity as an obstacle to action.” The idea of scholarship not as an end in itself but as a means of social change was developed explicitly by postmodern Marxist scholars like Herbert Marcuse.
Mill, meanwhile, is the patron saint of what Haidt calls “Truth U”—an institution that encourages the clash of ideas in pursuit of a fuller and richer understanding of the world. Individual scholars’ biases and prejudices are kept in check not by political commands, but by “institutionalized disconfirmation”—that is, the power of counterarguments from others in the scholarly community.
“At Truth U, there is no such thing as blasphemy,” Haidt says. “Bad ideas get refuted, not punished.” But for a university at which social justice is a “sacred value,” “there are many blasphemy laws—there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use.” Scholarship that is seen as reducing social disparities is promoted and encouraged. Scholarship that is seen as stymieing a social justice agenda is viewed with suspicion, and sometimes subject to official sanction. Moreover, Truth U. is next to impossible to sustain in the absence of intellectual diversity, because homogeneous moral communities can’t resist the temptation to create and marginalize heretics.
None of this means that students and faculty at Truth U. cannot pursue activism aimed at eliminating unequal treatment of minority groups; they can, and they should. Haidt’s argument is that the university as an institution can only have one telos. Because when an institution like Brown formally declares social justice to be its sacred value, it sets itself on a path toward intellectual uniformity and “motivated reasoning” designed to support the political tenets of its dominant ideology.
In a Washington Post op-ed published last Friday, Erika Christakis (the former Yale University lecturer who left her teaching post after the university erupted in outrage over an email she wrote questioning the necessity of the university’s Halloween costume guidance), offers a powerful indictment of a university culture oriented around social justice rather than dispassionate inquiry. “I didn’t leave a rewarding job and campus home on a whim,” she writes. “But I lost confidence that I could continue to teach about vulnerable children in an environment where full discussion of certain topics—such as absent fathers—has become almost taboo.”
The age of Trump has exposed a profound crisis among the right’s intellectual establishment, which has ceded influence to populists and entertainers as it struggles to develop a coherent vision for the GOP. Meanwhile, the eruptions on campus over the past few years have exposed a parallel crisis within the hallowed halls of the liberal intelligentsia, where the pursuit of truth appears to be giving way to social justice as the university’s telos.
These two crises are related. As the professoriate has become intellectually homogeneous, academic social science has developed an increasingly irrational fringe that produces a growing number of papers on subjects like why “pregnancy has been socially gendered as feminine.” Meanwhile, partly in response to the total collapse of academic authority among conservatives, the center of gravity for right-wing ideas has moved toward the world of Drudge and Hannity and Breitbart. In short, both conservative and liberal idea-generating institutions are becoming more and more isolated from one another—and as Megan McArdle observed, “ghettos often develop pathologies.” In this case, the pathologies thrive by feeding on each other’s excesses.
Right-wing media has long tried to weaponize higher education’s leftward tilt as a way to rally the troops. But Haidt’s project is a very different one. Restoring Mill’s vision of the university as a forum for the pursuit of truth, rather than a vehicle for progressive social change, stands to improve the quality of thought in the academy by bringing competing intellectual traditions into contact with one another. And in the long run, it just might help reverse the collapse in confidence in intellectual elites rattling the foundations of the Western order.