by Mary Harrington
Monday, 30
November 2020

Academics face a moral dilemma

Is the highest purpose to promote social justice or academic freedom?
by Mary Harrington
Berkeley. Credit: Max Whittaker / Getty

How much do academics care about what’s true, as opposed to what’s morally orthodox? This has become a much-debated question in recent years as the ‘campus wars’ have grown more heated.

To date there has been plenty of opinion on the subject, but little in the way of data. But in 2016, Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology, used an outbreak of ‘campus wars’ at his own university to conduct a study on the association between political outlook and academic values.

He interviewed 117 academics across the US about their sex, political affiliations, personalities, academic subject, and also the relative importance they ascribed to five values: academic freedom, academic rigour, the advancement of knowledge, student emotional wellbeing, and social justice.

The study revealed correlations between academic values and academics’ sex, political orientation, personality traits and subject area. Education academics de-emphasise academic rigour and the advancement of knowledge, for example, in favour of social justice and student wellbeing, as do female academics, while business studies academics prioritise rigour and the advancement of knowledge. The only value shared across all groups was the preference for academic freedom.

Geher argues, with Jonathan Haidt, that the heavy emphasis on social justice as a primary value inevitably comes into conflict with the academy’s ostensible purpose: the pursuit of knowledge. Many recent academic controversies have turned in essence on the question of whether, if something is true but appears to conflict with the aims of social justice, it’s even permissible as a topic of academic discussion. Geher’s study supports the general impression emerging from campus wars, that the academy overall answers ‘no’ to this question — but also that views on the subject aren’t evenly distributed. Women, humanities academics and those with more ‘agreeable’ personality traits are less likely to value the advancement of knowledge.

Tellingly, Geher reports that despite his having published more than 100 research papers and holding tenure since 2004, no peer-reviewed journal was willing to publish this study. The reasons given varied considerably but he wonders whether it simply fell foul of the phenomenon it describes — that is, of a preference for orthodoxy over the pursuit of knowledge. In the end he published the study himself online.

More generally, Geher’s story reveals an academic sector in deep internal disagreement about what it is for. Is its purpose the advancement of objective knowledge, or the promulgation of moral rectitude? Academia seems torn between the Good and the True.

When the ancient English universities were founded, these aspects of knowledge were understood to be fused in the ‘master science’ of theology. It’s only over time that sub-disciplines have spun off into their own domains, with truth eventually coming to seem something that could potentially conflict with morality. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, was hotly contested on religious grounds even by thinkers who accepted the theory’s persuasiveness in the abstract.

Perhaps what we’re seeing now is the pendulum swinging back toward some kind of ‘master science’ that seeks to fuse the Good and the True. If this is so, then the question surely is less whether an abstract notion of ‘Truth’ can hold out against the return of the Good, as which religious framework we’re using to evaluate the point where they meet.

Join the discussion

  • I suppose one would hope that eventually alterative academic institutions would be set up where the pusuit of truth would be valued. Eventually the money,and the students, would follow these, and the corruption of the old universities would be recognised and they would die off – although that might take a hundred years.

  • Starry, I appreciate your comments and want to continue your take on authoritarianism. Up until recent years I’ve considered myself pretty ‘left-leaning’ – everyone should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm anybody – basically ‘a live and let live’ mentality. Over the last fifteen years teaching in academia, liberalism has been gradually replaced by a soft form of totalitarianism pushed through by an overbearing layer of management and control. There is very little debate permitted in higher ed these days. I notice it in things like quality standards, assignment grading, student evaluations, and professional development in particular. I complained about this once to a high-level administrator at my college and for once he let his mask slip and told me that education is not about breeding excellence, but about perpetuating obedience and mediocrity. I’d suspected as such for a long time, but having it so baldly stated to me was an eye-opener.

    Ever since that moment, I’ve looked at Higher Education and the ideologies it’s been churning out in ever-increasing horror. None of these social justice initiatives are actually about remedying racial inequities, but widening the cracks in societal fault lines. They’re also about creating a moralistic mindset among the young, which is giving them the furthest thing from a ‘live and let live’ attitude. I’m actually writing a paper about this at this very moment. Critical Theory is extremely authoritarian in its approach to social reordering – if you study it further, you will find out that it’s against debate and objective research (these are often referred to as the ‘Master’s tools’); it also places mawkish narratives above well-reasoned viewpoints by labelling dissenters as being ‘complicit in a white supremacist system’. Not only is there no nuance to it (the very definition of totalitarianism), but it also contains disturbing genocidal elements.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong per se nor trying to change your mind, but merely explaining to you how, even though I’m pretty liberal in my views, am now considered conservative because I don’t want to get behind a movement that turns people into allies and enemies.

    Thank you for your comments – I’ve enjoyed reading them.

  • Truth based on evidence – research, observation, facts – and then subjected to rational debate, critical challenge. That sort of truth. The sort that doesn’t belong to any faction. Truth that can’t be the subject of the question ‘whose?’. (Also known as the truth.)

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