Academics face a moral dilemma
Is the highest purpose to promote social justice or academic freedom?
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.
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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.
Academia has lost its way and won’t be fixed until colleges make public declarations rejecting social justice in order to pursue truth, which I don’t see happening anytime soon. Critical theory-based social justice is a vehicle through which college administrators can wield moral certitude as a stick to browbeat professors and students into cowed submission. When you fight to end oppression, the means justify the ends. College administrators and ‘woke’ professors won’t willingly give up this power; not only do their careers and salaries depend upon it, they also get the added bonus of deciding which demographic should be ennobled and which should be shamed. Social justice will soon be injected into every cultural and political endeavor. What started off as a form of modern-day shamanism will soon become a state-endorsed religion with a decidedly misandrist bent. Those who fail to fall into line (usually disagreeable old men) will simply be considered persona non grata aka right-wing, and summarily dismissed from key positions and/or targeted for public abuse.
There are several ways to stop this. Critical Theory must be critically examined and repudiated. It is to academia what Scientology is to religion – a nefarious cult looking for believers. Unfortunately, they have a captive audience in college students who are literally paying their salaries. It’s a scam of epic proportions funded by millions of tax dollars and years of study-debt. Many of those in charge of running a college believe that Critical Theory is merely about racial equity, and will do nothing to challenge it until they themselves fall victim to it. Trustees and college presidents need to wake up and examine what is going on right under their noses, but many are afraid of damaging their college brand.
I’m currently pursuing an Education post-doc and hoping to work my way into a position where I can put an end to the hold CT has on current educational policy.
I think the tide is beginning to turn. The book, “Cynical Theories”, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay and out in September, is a popular and critical success. The huge popularity of Jordan Peterson also signals that the general public in the English-speaking world is pretty fed up with the Social Justice Warrior phenomenon, and with the pseudo-academic activism that fuels it. Good luck, though.
‘Social justice’ has always been extremely unpopular, except when it is social justice for oneself and one’s kind. That’s why it keeps on hanging around in spite of its supposed unpopularity. Jordan Peterson is not going to save anybody from this problem.
For example, above, someone disparaged the ‘politics of grievance’, but look at all the grievances you all right-wingers have!
but look at all the grievances you all right-wingers have!
Thank you for your input. I have some questions. What was it about my post that made you think I was a ‘right-winger’ and what particular grievances are you referring to? As a researcher, I’m genuinely interested. Up until now I wasn’t aware that my concern about social justice overreach was a ‘left’ or ‘right-wing’ issue.
I used the plural (‘you all’) to let you individually off the hook. But, please, look at this discussion: endless whining about SJWs and so forth. This is not a grievance? Looks like a grievance to me.
No one seems to notice that the grievance and victimhood industry always takes place in a highly bourgeois context, like big corporations and universities. At least that’s what I see reported.
Why do you want to deny the SJ movement’s opponents the logical space to express their opinions?
I’m not a right-winger, I don’t think. I campaigned for Labour in the last two elections. But the “politics of grievance”, or, in academia, the term “grievance studies”, seems to be an actual phenomenon.
“Critical Theory must be critically examined and repudiated. It is to academia what Scientology is to religion – a nefarious cult looking for believers.”
I think of it as a parasitic infestation.
An article that encapsulates all the insanity of our age. There should not be even the slightest dilemma as to whether one promotes social justice (whatever that is) or academic freedom. The entire purpose of these so-called universities is, or at least should be, academic freedom and inquiry etc.
Sadly, ff course, most of academics these days are nothing more than extremely dim SJWs, and most of the students are even dimmer. Thus there is no hope for academic freedom.
The universities were originally wholly administered by clerics and what could be taught was dictated by Bishops. Knowledge that conflicted with the theology was banned. Are we going back but replacing Christianity with social justice. There are already scientific fields that are too dangerous to research or publish.
The social justice cadre of academia will most probably seek legitimacy under the larger umbrella of a political or (non-Christian) religious tyranny.
Please give a single instance of a mediaeval bishop “banning” innovations in knowledge at a university prior to the Reformation.
The only value shared across all groups was the preference for academic freedom.
These groups have rather an odd way of demonstrating this alleged preference. Instead of freedom, everything that comes from academia reeks of conformity, and enforced conformity at that. The one thing this piece makes clear is that the academy has lost its way with feelings taking priority over facts.
Life is full of malicious truths, but them being malicious does not make them any less true. We have the luxury of marinating in first-world problems without the self-awareness to realize it. If the group truly is of a mind that academic freedom and the search for truth are worthy pursuits, then we would not be perpetually bogged down in the politics of grievance.
The main purpose of the Education Industry, like almost any other, is to obtain and provide a good living and maybe elevated social status for its members. Academics, being mostly good manipulators of verbiage, are going to cast the strategies to obtain these things in idealistic terms suitable for propaganda and public relations, and churn out debates between ‘freedom’ and ‘social justice’ while in fact remaining highly conservative and generally authoritarian within their communities. ‘We’ are bogged down in the ‘politics of grievance’ (and victimhood) because almost everybody else is, and has been for a long time. Surely academics do not want to be left out!
“conservative and generally authoritarian”
Let’s not slip into thinking that ‘conservatism’ and ‘authoritarianism are linked. Conservatism is a disposition not a political theory. Authoritarianism is a political theory (about whose limits discussion is possible). Leftism is far more authoritarian than any conservative point of view, because they regard disagreement as an affront to authority, which would have surprised just about every historical thinker one could think of.
I think you and I define Left differently, so, no use arguing about that. Conservatives are people who dislike change. They could be authoritarian, libertarian, anarchistic, or something else, depending on what state of things they don’t want to change from. So I agree that conservatives are not necessarily authoritarian, although authoritarians, once in power, are certainly likely to become conservative.
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.
I define the left vs right debate as between, respectively, collectivism and individualism. On this basis conservatives, going by your definition which I agree with, certainly can be of the left, i.e. you can dislike change consistently with advocating collectivism over individualism.
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.
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.)
Nobody owns the truth.
Well, this is depressing. Unherd itself has raised the white flag by allowing the SJWs to define the terms of the debate, or, specifically, one term. “Moral” dilemma? There is no moral dilemma, only a debate over whether the primary purpose of the academy is to promote social justice or the search for truth. This may be a dilemma, sadly, for some. But only the SJWs believe it has anything to do with morality — and Unherd is implicitly acknowledging that it agrees.
Some sub-genres of Critical Theory “knowledge production”, such as fat studies, reject science altogether.
One possible positive of Covid might be that a bunch of these evil social justice bigots get the boot as people can’t any longer afford to send their children to pointless universities. Probably not though they will probably be one of the protectected sectors because of their missionary zeal.
The massive increase of people going to university is a major part of this problem. Too few of them are actually academically rigorous or capable enough and so seek advancement elsewhere. Fortunately the spiralling costs of tertiary education will eventually reduce entrants to those with a genuine and compelling reason to go and the hangers-on will fall off.
That’s not what happened in China under the mandarins. The system simply became bigger and more static. It would probably still be the same today had China not been attacked by external powers.
If you have to put the word Social in front of it, its not justice at all.
A bit like putting the word Kangaroo in front of the word Court.
On the contrary, all justice is social in practice — because we don’t have access to absolute knowledge of absolute truth. We make an agreement about what we will consider to be a treat as just. So a term like ‘social justice’ is redundant and one must ask what else is going on.
Define the word ‘social’.
Having to do with, or emanating from, societies. Usually human societies, although there are many highly social animals besides humans.
Disingenuously missing the point.
It was a rather dull point. I don’t like the term ‘social justice’ either, but people probably mean _something_ by it.
You’re still missing the point. It’s not about the term ‘social justice’. It’s about the inanity of the social justice movement.
It’s a basic tenet of Catholicism that the good and the true can never conflict. What we’re talking about here is not “Truth” (capital T) but merely facts, and facts are what they are. If the facts are telling you your theory is wrong, change the theory, not the facts.
Uncle Albert said ‘It is the theory that tells us what we can observe.’ If so, the facts we choose to observe will tend not to tell us our theories are wrong, at least not for a long time. For instance, it was only with great difficulty and the work of many centuries that the Ptolmaic system of celestial mechanics was replaced by that of Copernicus and Newton.
Facts are true, and truth is factual.
If you take the Kings shilling you must wear the uniform. If Academia pay your wages and you choose to take the money then you must wear the academic uniform. Your first duty is to academic freedom and its preservation. To take any actions that adversely strike against academic freedom (like no platforming) is , to continue the military analogy, to be a traitor to your calling.
If you want to change society fine- but dont use the destruction of academic freedom – while taking the academic money- as your vehicle.
— and besides asking ‘What is justice?’ and ‘What is truth?’ we might also have to ask ‘What is freedom?’ Maybe they’re like ‘What is jazz?’ to which Mr. Armstrong answered, ‘If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.’
The first three topics are covered in the 1st year of just about any respectable philosophy degree.
But not very conclusively.
So you think people shouldn’t disagree? There should be no debate between e.g. the respective supporters of correspondence, coherence, and deflationary theories of truth?
Their.first and main duty is to educate, both imparting knowledge and producing students who can think for themselves. To this end all this no platform thuggery should be met by expulsion or dismissal and those snowflakes demanding
safe spaces should be told that this is not a kindergarten and if they want safe spaces they can go to their rooms.
The first and main duty of the Education Industry is to act as a class filter. The rest of what you say may be true, but it has to fit into that.
How much do academics care about what’s true, as opposed to what’s morally orthodox?
An ‘academic’ asking themselves such a question is clearly in the wrong job. They should consider a role in politics or journalism.
‘student emotional wellbeing, and social justice’ are entirely transient emotional constructs which can be, and are being, manufactured and manipulated. It is completely wrong to assert that either of these is the ‘Good’, or ‘science’ in any form. In fact, it is far more likely that encouraging hysterical over-reaction to minor setbacks or ‘offenses’ is bad for emotional wellbeing.
The woke thugs have taken over our universities and need to be removed/purged. We do not need poorly educated graduates to further damage our society.
In my view, it is not necessarily a competing set of sociopolitical religious frameworks that will determine where the Truth and the Good meet but ones based on sustainability and ecological science.
For example, sustainability, resilience and sufficiency can be analysed and measured as iterations of the Truth whilst still being morally and politically Good.
For example, if a national territory has a particular ecological capacity that can only support a finite number of humans in terms of basic needs then the Truth of that finite limit needs to be established which in terms of sufficiency is a moral Good.
This of course is complicated by the avaliablity of imports so in this case, the Truth establishes the level of imports required and the pursuit of the Good establishes the consequences of these imports in relation to co2 emissions, deforestation, biodiversity losses and ecological degradation for the exporting country.
Hence the pursuit of knowledge can be married with moral implications even within the scientific fields of sustainability, resilience and sufficiency.
Arguably then, egalitarianism or other moral iterations of Equality concerns seek to avoid both the Truth and the Good by decoupling the humanities and the social sciences from the natural sciences.
In other words, is it the case that the humanities and the social sciences are seeking to decouple the individual from wild Nature just as religion has tried to do previously.
Oh well, there goes the UK.
We have been importing food for 150 years as a necessity as well as for pleasure.
Pity, as I am not that keen on Turnips, but I like bananas – and coffee, tea wine etc.
Here we enter in the Truth and Good of import dependancies in relation to the trade balance. Is it Good to be so dependent on global supply chains? And what is driving import dependancies, population growth within a reducing ecological capacity?
“Here we enter in the Truth and Good of import dependancies in relation to the trade balance. “
After you. I’ve suddenly realized I’ve got an appointment, elsewhere.
I tried Google translate on this but it didn’t help 🙁
Is there a definition of ‘social justice’? The meaning seems to be very flexible depending upon the background, affiliations, beliefs and knowledge of the person calling for ‘social justice’.
It’s like ‘truth’. Famously, Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’, but no answer to his question was recorded.
Google “Stanford Encyclopaedia Truth”.
This is a good example of generalisation based on very little evidence. “Academics” and “Universities” are discussed on the basis of what happens in Education, Humanities and Business Studies. What about Engineering, Physics, Biology, Medicine, and so on? These are the areas where the most significant progress has been made, and the most important impact on society has come from.
Business Studies (and I could add Economics), Education, and Humanities are notorious in he so-called replication crisis – results of studies are published that are not replicated independently and are therefore invalid. Economics models based on the Homo Economicus assumption. And so on. These areas are marginal and unimportant, and a a whole lack rigour. Science that s not independently replicable is belief, full stop.
Skimmed the paper. I wonder if the reason it’s not been published is it’s just not very interesting.
Considering the complete nonsense that is published (exhibit A: the grievance studies affair) I suspect it’s more the exposure to a discomforting reality that stopped publication.
Confrontation with the truth is violence. Something like that.
I wonder if the reason that M.Bridgeford didn’t find the paper very interesting is because as ex-Corbynite he didn’t want to find it very interesting.
Academic papers aren’t supposed to be entertaining.
My point is kind of tangential, but I would make the case that this entire debate is moot. Academia is literally fiddling while Rome burns, because I genuinely believe the entire further education sector globally is on the verge of an imminent existential crisis (and I don’t mean the obvious financial one).
The virtual classrooms of the last nine months have highlighted the issue of how technology has completely altered the nature of scaling in education, which the further education sector does not want to face up to, but soon will be forced to. I’m not judging if it’s good or bad, merely stating what looks to me inevitable, and fast.
As a thought experiment, take 5 lecturers at 5 universities delivering similar lectures on, I dunno, the The Poetry of the Romantics, or if you are STEM, say, the Tunneling effect in Solid State Physics. The quality (and some content, emphasis, etc) will vary across all of those, but with significant overlap. Imagine all the students from all 5 heard all the lectures. You might even get a consensus across most of the students that one lecturer was head and shoulders above the others.
In the past, it was a physical and geographical necessity that you needed all 5 lecturers, because the best one couldn’t deliver to everyone. But as the lockdowns have perforce proved, technology largely solves that problem. In which case, what justifies the existence of the other lecturers?
Extending the thought experiment: say 5 universities offering very similar 5 course pooled together, and all 5 lecturers across the institutions recorded their entire lecture sets for a module for a term, and all of the sets were made available for all the students to sample and pick which lecturer they liked, and they could pick the one they found most to their taste. Based on who was selected and whose content was the most highly rated by the students, the lecturers get payed. I bet a couple would earn a living and the remaining ones would soon be looking for a supplementary job at Starbucks.
The instant objection the further education sector would make, is that content is dynamic, always changing, different everywhere etc. And sure: no one is saying lecturers don’t change content, of course they do. I’m saying though, that the delta is typically small month on month. Changes, especially in the Humanities are a slow burn. Faster in STEM, but the basics undergrads have to learn are relatively static. Much more dynamic at Postgrad level but that’s an altogether smaller, more cutting edge market. A lecturer deemed excellent might typically deliver their lectures to, say, a hall of 150. What prevents that same content delivered to 150K students via technology? In which case, if that can be done, why would students at other universities not prefer the best lecturers and best content across Universities, over their own local lecturers, and what then justifies the salaries of the peers of the best ones at all the other Universities?
I thought this was an interesting take on the Truth and the Good of different worldviews, universalism vs particularism, and what truly underlies universalism.
If academia doesn’t pursue truth then I cannot see the point in supporting its continued existence.
the topic is interesting but it is hard to take seriously anyone who refers to “sex” when they obviously mean gender. Plus who are the people being interviewed. If we have no idea about this the generalizations are pretty meaningless.
I have just gone to the original article that is being summarized here, and while I am happy to see that the author used the term gender and not sex, I am disappointed that the author in UnHerd quoted him incorrectly. Major boo boo.
“Academia seems torn between the Good and the True.” fr. article
More accurately they are committed to accepting only what they regard as good, true. Increasingly ideological values are taught as unassailable truths. To challenge the value/ truth is to be declared a heretic and banished. Reason is replaced with the tyranny of an elite liberal mono-culture that ‘mans’ (politically incorrect) the ivy covered walls of the university keeping the barbarians out.
This is extending beyond academia – see NASDAQ’s proposal to require the boards of listed companies to have a woman and a minority. How does this fit their mission?
if an academic writes impartially, giving no hints where her opinions lie, that makes the reader concentrate on content.
And I thought houses of worship were the places most concerned with moral rectitude. silly me. Universities are now the secular moral equivalent of churches, with all the same historic sense of self-righteousness and moral certitude that characterized churches, but armed with modern means of communicating heresy instantaneously.
The truth is good no matter where you find it. There are wide ranging opinions about what is true and what is good many of which do not recognize the significance of the whole systems approach. Academia has a long history of failing to consider the larger context of the claims it makes about what is true and what is good. There is no such thing as an isolated truth.
Why does academia ignore the whole systems approach? It was designed by authoritarians to restrict humanity’s ability to think comprehensively because subjects who understand “too much” are hard to rule..
For instance, in order to protect their authority the Roman Empire attempted to destroy the Alexandrine library in 47 BCE.
This library is reported to have more than 700,000 manuscripts.
The Romans burned 40,000 volumes during a siege in the war between Caesar and Pompey.
The second burning of this library by another Roman emperor occurred in 272 CE. In 391 CE the Roman and religious authorities merged to form the Holy Roman Empire. They burned the library for the third time and in 529 CE they closed all universities.Then in 642 CE the final and complete burning of the Alexandrine library was accomplished by Muslims.
A combination of these assaults forced the 1700 year Dark Age upon humanity. All this was done to make it easier to control the population.
Fortunately the discovery of the cipher gave humanity the ability to calculate its way out of the darkness.
In the 17th century a new empire was forming. The supranational
East India Company invented what was called the British Empire. Like the Romans, this new empire understood that in order to maintain control it must limit the knowledge available to those it wished to subjugate. They invented a university system that forced
people to specialize. A student could choose between metallurgy and mathematics but not both. Comprehensive understanding was limited to the ruling class. The modern universities continue to force specialization on their students. Academia has inherited a system that it does not understand.
Today’s students are beginning to think more comprehensively. Instead of learning biology or chemistry or physics they study biophysics and biochemistry.
Narrow minded specialization is transforming into open minded comprehension. If our species is to survive we must learn to think comprehensively. Truth does not exist in isolation.
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