Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When Scholarship Violates Academic Justice

There is a spectre haunting academia – the spectre of academic justice – and while its manifesto, of sorts, may have been penned last month in The Harvard Crimson by Sandra Y. L. Korn, the idea has been present, if not always so explicitly articulated, in our universities for a long time now. Korn is in fact merely a product of her professors – she is hardly the origin of the idea that academic freedom should be jettisoned in favor of what she terms “academic justice.”

In this piece, Korn demonstrates how well she has absorbed the illiberal ideology of her professors by arguing that we need to jettison academic freedom, to be replaced by what she terms “academic justice.” Now, the first thing one might ask is, “what, exactly, is academic justice?” Indeed, one can ask the question Socrates himself once asked: What is justice? Socrates did not receive a satisfactory answer, and over 2000 years of philosophy and jurisprudence has not improved matters in the least. More, ideas of what is just and unjust have changed over time and have varied from culture to culture. And therein lies the problem with Korn’s idea. What idea of justice? Whose? From what period in time?

Let us take an example from Harvard’s own history: the controversy surrounding E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology. In the late 1970s Wilson faced protests of exactly the kind Korn admires. Wilson was called a racist and a sexist for his theory as it applied to humans. After over a decade of such controversy, things began to settle down, and now, almost forty years later, the idea is almost completely uncontroversial. There was, of course, nothing inherently racist or sexist in the theory to begin with, but because some people thought it had such implications – which only they themselves read into the theory – there were attempts to actively prevent the dissemination of his ideas. And it was all done on what Korn no doubt would agree were concerns about “academic justice.”

The history of this episode points to the inherent problem in the very idea of only allowing professors to do work according to a particular political agenda. Had Wilson been fired, it would have been Harvard that looked bad for having fired him, given the uncontroversial nature of sociobiology today. In science, facts trump ideology – or, they should. Yet, we see again and again ideologues attacking certain ideas to only later adapt the ideas to their ideologies once the evidence is overwhelming that the idea is correct. Engaging in dialogue – even to the point of protesting – is part of the discovery process. That is how science is done. But when people who have a theory seek to silence their critics, what we have is hardly science. Rather, we have an ideologically-driven agenda.

 And things have not gotten better since the 1970s, though the issues have changed. For example, in 2012 Nicholas Drapella, who had worked for ten years as a Lecturer of Chemistry at Oregon State University, suddenly found himself fired, despite receiving excellent reviews from students. No official excuse was given by the university, but he had expressed skepticism about global warming just shortly before being fired. What does it say about a theory – any theory – when supporters of the theory cannot and will not stand for anyone to question it? Science advances one skeptic at a time; to silence skeptics is to effectively silence science itself.

Such is increasingly the case in climate studies. For example, in 2012 Nicholas Drapella, a Lecturer of Chemistry at Oregon State University, was fired in the middle of the semester shortly after he had expressed skepticism about global warming. No reason was given to him as to why they were firing him. That same year, UCLA fired James Enstrom,a research professor in UCLA’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, after he exposed fraud and scientific misconduct at the University of California (UC). The fraudulent results of the research being done at UC were being used to push for stronger environmental legislation, while Enstrom’s own work had disproven many myths regarding certain pollutants. Requests by warming skeptics for climate data being denied by promoters of global warming are almost too numerous to list – and should make anyone wonder why they wish to hide their data. But having open data is part of academic freedom, and may undermine academic justice.

Given the history of politically incorrect research – including climate and biological research – resulting in protests and even firings, it should perhaps not be surprising that someone like Korn took things to their logical conclusion. She of course was aided by the prevailing academic philosophy of postmodernism, in which there is no such thing as truth, but only power relations. Having digested a diet of postmodern theory that tells her that everything is always already political and that there is no such thing as objective truth, we should not in the least bit be surprised to hear her argue that we should reject the search for truth – aided as it is by academic freedom – and instead embrace academic justice, which of course is determined by purely political considerations by those with power. Those with power get to determine what can be thought and discovered – and that is whatever conforms to the One True Belief of those in power.

Another recent example was in December 2010, when tenured law professor Lawrence J. Connell was banned from campus for engaging in microaggressions by using the term “black folk” and using hypothetical scenarios involving the dean. When it was found he could not be suspended for those actions, he was later suspended without pay and required to undergo psychiatric evaluation for “retaliation” which, apparently, involved his defending himself to his students. It seems clear to me, at least, who was really retaliating against whom. When one reads Korn’s article, there is little question that what she means by justice is anything that does not offend her particular ideology. Her very first example of Professor Herrnstein’s work on I.Q. demonstrates this. Her objection is not to whether or not Herrnstein’s work is factually accurate; rather, she objects to the work having ever been done at all. Why? Because she doesn’t like the outcome. Its truth – or even untruth – is completely irrelevant to her. All that matters is that she doesn’t like it. That is enough to suppress the information.

One may wonder what Herrnstein’s, Wilson’s, and Harvey Mansfield’s (whom she also mentions) work all have in common that they could cause people to lash out at them. Is there anything inherently racist in claiming variations in I.Q.? Is there anything inherently racist or sexist in identifying biological foundations to human behavior? Is there anything inherently sexist in claiming there are differences between men and women in the way they behave? Of course not. What they have in common is that someone, somewhere chose to take offense. And when someone takes offense at your work – though taking offense is a choice made by the person taking offense – then the person who did the work to which the other took offense committed a microaggression. Since a microaggression can occur even if you have no earthly idea that what you are doing could possibly be considered offensive, the idea is a particularly insidious one if one is interested in having a healthy academic environment.

But that, of course, is precisely what Korn does not want at Harvard or any other university. No, she wants an academic environment identical in every way to her, that reflects her every value, her value rankings at any given moment, her morals, and her sense of justice. For this to happen, her values, rankings, morals, and sense of justice would have to be forever unchanging, because if they did ever change, then she herself would find herself in violation of her own rules of “academic justice.”

Now, one may wonder exactly where free speech fits into Korn’s idea of justice. She seems to address this question by arguing that the academics she would fire can still publish what they want, just not at any university she is attending. But given that if someone were to publish something that offends her she is clearly of the opinion they should be fired, one has to wonder where the boundaries are going to end. She wants the freedom of speech to criticize, but she doesn’t want you to have the freedom of speech to say anything she might criticize. No, you have to be completely removed from her presence, made invisible to her, so she won’t have to even face any ideas contrary to her own. This is the death of academia itself, of the very notion of a liberal education. But a liberal education is precisely what Korn sees as her enemy.

The purpose of academic freedom is to undermine the idea that there is One True Belief to which everyone must conform so they may be allowed to engage in philosophy and scholarship. In other words, academic freedom is designed to undermine exactly what she wants to establish. She wants to establish The Truth, which cannot ever be questioned. All must conform to The Truth or else one must go before the Inquisition. In this sense Korn is right to object to academic freedom, for academic freedom as such undermines her world view at its very core. That is its purpose; that is its design.

Perhaps the real irony comes at the very end of Korn’s piece. She states that “if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.” But wait . . . how on earth can we consider more thoughtfully what is just unless we have the academic freedom to investigate what is just? This demonstrates the compete incoherence of her views. She wants to cut off any investigations into anything with which she disagrees, then argues that by doing so, we will be able to better investigate what is just. One supposes that what she really means is that by cutting off all investigations into anything with which she disagrees, all investigations into justice will result in answers that support her ideology. Then she won’t have to live with the overwhelming burden of having to consider views other than her own. The point, then, is the same as that at UCLA: to make correction and consideration of ideas other than your own impossible at the university, thus making education itself impossible.

There are two elements to the university: teaching students and creating academic output. The graduate students at UCLA seek to undermine the former under the guise of microaggression. Korn wishes to undermine the latter with essentially the same ideology. More, Korn’s piece in The Harvard Crimson demonstrates that when the university fails at the former, the latter will be negatively affected as well. Clearly Harvard has not taught Korn things like logic, tolerance for views other than her own, the nature of inquiry, or even the nature of justice. The result is someone who seeks to destroy, to strike at the very root of, the very institution which created her. If Harvard wants to destroy itself from the inside out, you may rest assured that other universities will come along to replace it. But if such anti-intellectual, intolerant ideas as Korn’s spreads, that will be the death of academic inquiry itself. More, it will be the death of justice in the world.
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