By Jonathan B. Imber
When critics of higher education complain about a lack of "intellectual diversity," mostly what they deplore is the shortage of conservative professors. But there is much more at stake than that.
Consider climate change: As I write this, parts of the nation have endured sweltering heat, serious drought, and treacherous storms, at one point leaving millions of people without electricity for days. The invocation of "climate change" as the "cause" of more violent and extreme weather, worse forest fires and flooding, indeed, of a host of calamities, has been used to assign culpability to the whole human race, mimicking what irritates defenders of evolution about the claimants of creation science, that debunking evolutionary theory is an underhanded way of insinuating religious belief and its claims about the fallen state of humanity.
It turns out the wholesale secular embrace of science insinuates its own range of pious beliefs. Climate theory pretends both to the throne of reason and to public policies dictated as if they were royal decrees. To question a royal decree in this case is construed as treason again reason. But how did reason come to rely more on a consensus of belief than skepticism about such grand causal claims? Unlike creation science, the advocates of social engineering who believe that science is equivalent to policy intimidate all doubters. The absence of intellectual diversity is detrimental to public policy debate, not to mention how the stranglehold of environmentalism in colleges and universities also steers any debate toward predetermined conclusions. Here the challenge becomes disentangling the science of climate change from the policies that should follow from that science.
Something even more interesting is at stake in the embrace of a scientific perspective that encourages enormous pessimism about the future of humanity, not to mention all other life. The historic link of science and progress has always had deep links to Western religious traditions. Pessimism has come to replace skepticism as the abiding anxiety of elites that view the material improvement of the human condition world-wide as evidence of hubris. These are elites hardly prepared themselves to "downsize" but perfectly amenable to population control and other strategies of human containment of others. Whoever rides the hobby-horse of such pessimism already is secure.
Twenty years ago the federal government was "encouraged" to investigate all manner of claims about the efficacy of alternative medicines. The proposals flooded into the NIH, and numerous of them were funded as legitimate medical studies. Remember Aunt Polly in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "She was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines and all new-fangled methods of producing health or mending it. She was an inveterate experimenter in these things." The world will always have its Aunt Pollys, but the alleviation of their anxieties ought to be something left to them, not the government. The anxieties of those concerned about climate change ought to be checked at the door of every college and university, where progress is achieved not by silencing critics but by embracing them.
A pattern exists in the academy today about the role that skepticism plays in addressing any public controversy. The problem with advocacy from within the temple of reason is not its ambition per se but the righteousness of that ambition, its principled disregard for what should always be the modesty of any use of advocacy in staking out the nature of disagreement. Debating teams have always been a useful illustration of such modesty. The debate is governed by carefully defined rules, you might say, of etiquette. The term "etiquette," however quaint we may perceive it today, in its absence explains why calls for intellectual diversity go unheeded not only for obvious political reasons but also because nothing about academic freedom today provides for or protects those who stray too far afield from the consensus-based powers of different majorities in different fields, save tenure.
The AAUP was never a very strong force in protecting faculty before conflict arose, but it was once more effectively the judicial branch of university governance, balanced with the executive branch (i.e., administrators) and legislative branch (i.e., the faculty) in ways that defined the rules of academic freedom. When we say that an issue has been politicized, we mean, I think, that the level of trust in an institution has been severely diminished and that subsequently, the motives of all relevant actors are suspect, concealing more than revealing their real intentions. The weak adjudications of the AAUP have been supplanted entirely by lawsuits and courts for some time, and nothing suggests a revival of the AAUP's authority. If such authority had any usefulness today, its representatives would insist that the liberal and secular bullying in the academy be cited, acknowledged, and condemned. But this is now too much to ask of people who are determined to be less than honest about their motives as educators.
When some conservatives argue that the solution to the problem of a lack of intellectual diversity in the academy can be solved by hiring more conservative faculty, my simple and respectful response is that who you hire presumably has a mind, and people, we know from experience, change their minds. Hiring based on conviction is just as dangerous on the right as it is on the left. Instead, consider the long and tireless work of the National Association of Scholars, by now decades in existence. What must be considered is how more faculty, other than a few who speak up, can impress on administrators and colleagues why real intellectual debate will keep away whatever version of barbarians at the gate they dread.
Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.