McWhorter on the chilling of academia

September 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This new article in The Atlantic by John McWhorter (who will never be allowed to write for any organ with “New York” in the title) also deals with cancel culture, as did an earlier post today, but concentrates on the chilling effect it has on academics. Although I no longer teach, I’d be very careful what I said were I to lecture in the classroom. Click the screenshot to read.

McWhorter mentions two “anecdotal” (or at least “self-selecting”) sets of data suggesting that academics are plenty scared about making missteps in the classroom. One is a survey by the Heterodox Academy. Since they surveyed their own members, this is not a random sample of academics, of course:

For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.

However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.

So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.

McWhorter admits  that these data are hardly scientific, suggesting that a random sample of 3,000 professors would be needed for that. But he adds, “But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.” He would never, ever be allowed to say something like that, even though it’s true, in the New York Times.  And I’ve detected the same fear in colleagues, manifested in other ways that I won’t bother to describe. Let’s just say that McWhorter is on to something.

Here’s an example of the kind of incident that’s made professors leery of teaching and also self-censoring. The words are McWhorter’s or his correspondents’:

  • A statistics professor says:

    I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I’m now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.

  • A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.
  • Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.
  • One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.”

What struck McWhorter, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given what we know, is that most of his correspondents were on the Left side of center. As he says, “Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the ‘circular firing squad’ of the left: It is now no longer ‘Why aren’t you on the left?’ but ‘How dare you not be as left as we are.'”

This trends of increasing fragility of students (real or pretended), and their increasing willingness to damage professors who don’t hew to the preferred narrative, seem unstoppable. For every Leftist and liberal fears above all being called a racist, and yet that’s what you can be called by someone who’s more to the Left than you. This causes those closer to the center to simply keep quiet, creating a ratchet effect that makes the vocal moiety of the Left sound more and more extreme. I can only imagine what this will do to not only American academics, but to American politics.

62 thoughts on “McWhorter on the chilling of academia

  1. I sometimes think this is the inevitable result when we don’t teach history anymore because it’s seen as a useless subject that can’t get your kid into a CEO position upon graduation.

        1. She was just horribly unqualified. Made terrible decisions. Trump of course remarked that she was ugly to him when she ran against him.

  2. I have seen so far that the students where I teach seem ‘behind the curve’ in this trend. I’ve experimentally brought up some terminology that acknowledges that not all women are anatomically female, and so on. This has only gotten very puzzled looks.
    So far.

    A colleague did have a genetic probability question where she said ‘a married man and woman have two children…’, and so on. She did get called out by a student about the mention that the couple were married. And that student glared at her all semester, with arms folded.

    1. How long ago was that? I expected the cavil to be about sex and gender, something on the order of complaining about the use of “woman” rather than saying “a person who menstruates”; cf., the J.K. Rowling controversy, not whether the couple was married. Heck, gay and straight people, and everyone who identifies in-between the two poles, gets married these days. The former Mallory Ortberg (a cis woman),the person writing an advice column in Slate as “Dear Prudence,” had a sex change and morphed into Daniel Ortberg, then to Danny Ortberg Lavery, after the former Ms Mallory married a former cis male who had a sex change and “became” a woman. If that ain’t confusing, I don’t know what is, but I sincerely wish them nothing but happiness and domestic bliss ever afterward.

      1. What’s wrong with mentioning they’re married?? When my kids were little and there were still full-service gas stations, the Shell guy looked at the Ms on my credit card and gave me a lecture about being an unmarried mother!! I was actually married at the time and have always used Ms with my maiden name. I set him straight on a few things. My kids were too young to do the MOM eye-rolling.

        1. It can be embarrassing to make assumptions. When I was substitute teaching in a high school, a particular kid showed up in my class a few times who’s sex or gender was a mystery. Longish hair covering the face, baggy cloths covering other evidence, soft voice. I could not refer to him or her without risking offense, so I just never referred to him/her.

          1. This Shell guy was not embarrassed. He was adamant that Ms. meant I was unmarried, not that any of it was any of his business.

              1. Oh yeah, back when I was a kid in the 70s, the teachers who called themselves “Ms” were considered radicals.

              2. This guy was so ignorant, he thought that Ms=Miss. I didn’t even really ask for any prefix on my Shell card.

              3. I think my bank card from My first account I got when I was 3 or 4 said “Miss”. Only recently did they update it. Because I was a kid in the 70s. They would never think of calling me Ms. So stupid. I usually don’t even want a “title” on my stuff yet some places insist on it, making the field required.

              4. In the late 70s in Toronto I could not get a department store credit card in my name; it had to be in my husband’s with a Mrs. even though I never took his name and even though I was working and he was in med school! I did finally manage to get a MasterCard in my name.

  3. This trends of increasing fragility of students (real or pretended) and increasing willingness to try to damage professors who don’t hew to the preferred narrative, seem unstoppable.

    Hopefully it’ll be like McCarthyism or the ’80s Satanic cult scare and end after a few years. Sadly though, damaging lots of people over a few years and then going away is perhaps the best we can hope for.

  4. When intimidation becomes the standard, the culture for all teachers/instructors, then education is doomed. Living in this kind of world was normal in the Soviet Union for everyone and look where that got them. If the administrations of the schools will not put an end to this, who needs them. Just as well save the money and put the students in charge of the schools. See how long they last then. Is the job, the paycheck more important that why you are there in the first place?

  5. “For every Leftist and liberal fears above all being called a racist”.

    With every day the ground on which one can stand and *not* be called a racist seems to get smaller and smaller. The ratchet effect you mention means the area of allowable words and behaviour (which now mandates required as well as prohibited forms) gets continually smaller, as the woke compete with each other ever more feircely for status. “Not being a racist” is now a small island being eroded on every side by the ever-encroaching sea of “being a racist”.

    Surely what it will take to break this impasse is (if you’ll forgive the change of metaphor) for someone to say the emperor has no clothes. That the current version of “being a racist” has been so arbitrarily and mendaciously enlarged, into such an attenuated and impersonal social force, that it ceases to say anything meaningful about a person’s actual attitudes, views, beliefs, or actions. That to call people “racist” who have spent their whole lives being consciously anti-racist simply renders the word meaningless, and the accusation pointless. But to say those things, at some point people are going to have to lose, or at least overcome, their fear of being called a racist.

    1. Yes you are exactly right. Some people are going to have to call bullshit and when they do they will be attacked mercilessly.

          1. He’s not immune. He has some published books that could be “erased”. Also before COVID19 he regularly travelled the world to give lectures, including on a cruise to the Antarctic. I doubt Jerry would be pleased if all that were taken away, and neither would we since his travels form a core part of the content on this web site – in normal times.

            1. Yes, I thought about the books but decided that the Streisand Effect would make up for any shortfall in book sales. You make a good point about talks and cruises. Still, he might become a sought-after lecturer on Cancel Culture. 😉

              1. Not sure that would have much effect on published works as someone would pick them up. But I suppose refusal to publish his future books would be a problem.

        1. You are not vulnerable as a distinguished Professor Emeritus. Unfortunately, the younger faculty cannot call bullshit so easily. Even tenure is weak protection from being accused as a racist. And “racist” is being defined down now.

          Glad I am old and retired. Never thought I’d say that.

          1. The correct statement is “I am racist and a gatekeeper of white privilege, but I will try harder despite being old and retired” – keep up! 😉

        2. I think your other commenters here have made the appropriate observations. I have always admired your stance on this battle, whether in the context of academia or otherwise. Still you and I are relatively impregnable from these sorts of attacks at this point. But you yourself brought up the point that were you still teaching you’d censor what you said and what you presented. Despite your claim, though, McWorter and especially Loury have found themselves in the crosshairs.

  6. As I’ve pointed out before, the climate of intimidation on US campuses today summarized by professor McWhorter is much worse than the climate during the reputedly terrifying “McCarthyite” 1950s. I know, I was there.

    As one who has spent 6 decades involved to varying extents with leftish activities, I have to acknowledge and think a little about the contrast between these two periods. The obvious difference is that today’s pressure for forced conformism comes from the Left. And a very significant difference, to my mind, is that in the 1950s, influential voices of the center-Right disavowed and censured their own opportunists and scam artists like Senator Joe McCarthy.

    Today, I am still waiting for counterpart voices on the center-Left to do likewise. If voices like, say, Barack Obama, or what the NYT used to represent, do not issue a strong rejection of Left MaoCarthyism (thanks for that word, Rik G.), and of overreaching by the Diversity Consultant hustlers, the outcome will be lamentable: either an entire culture becoming like that of the former east Germany, or, more likely, a virulent general reaction in which the worst, Trumpish tendencies on the Right will predominate.

    1. The silence of the Obamas is noteworthy. I tend to think (though I don’t know) that Barack and especially Michelle are believers in Critical Race Theory which underlies much of the intellectual structure of what’s going on. On a tactical level, the Cultural Revolution has come to America. Also silent have been the Clintons, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and such possible “acceptable” Republicans as the Bushes and Romney. I know you cringe from the realization that the only major political figure standing up to the tideland pushing back is…yes, that’s right.
      I had failed to realize how far the rot had spread…not only in academia but in the media and even (through the HR departments) corporate America. But I had really failed to realize how feckless and cowardly most decent white liberals had become.

        1. Good comments by Obama, of which I was unaware. One trouble, it appears, is that comments like this are underplayed by the liberal media, perhaps because of wokies at the news desks and editorial offices. All the more reason why it is crucial that people with Obama’s stature express themselves on these matters forcefully and more often.

  7. “progressive” orthodoxies should always have “progressive” in quotes because the effect of puritanism based on those orthodoxies is to hand Trump a 2nd term, something decidedly not progressive.

  8. The behaviour of some students in American universities, especially those who demand that their professors make self-humiliating declarations, is more reminiscent of the Red Guard of China’s Cultural Revolution than the McCarthy era.

  9. I think this is clearly meant to be a unifying ideology, one that even harkens back to the days of America’s unapologetic moral realism, before worries about residual colonial attitudes. I saw this article today, for example – Black Lives Matter pushes Japan to confront racism – and was struck by how exceedingly rare it is for the US to have enough moral certainty on a topic to be ok with insisting other cultures need to follow suit. On almost any other topic, insisting another culture needs to follow the US way of thinking would be considered colonialism – but anti-racism seems to be an exception to this rule. In that sense, I think it is the moral realism the atheist and, until recently, somewhat nihilistic Left was looking for (as this is an atheist site, let me clarify that I’m not criticizing atheism there – it’s just that by definition it does not provide a framework for moral realism.)

    How oppressive this is compared to moral realisms of the past is hard to say. I know when my parents went to college, a lot of this strict chaperoning of women was going on, so I imagine professors lived in at least some fear of being accused of teaching any kind of sexually untoward material (and I’m not sure how liberal universities were then, but I imagine hints that one was homosexual could also land one in hot water in at least some places.) Not long before that, saying something unChristian or unAmerican likely would have been truly scandalous.

    What I think may be different in this case, however, is that the general theme of ‘Wokeness’ as a tribal unifier seems more artificial than the more organically grown human taboos that show up time and time again since civilization began. To my mind this will make its staying power much weaker – but then, I’m probably not the best person to make that prediction, as I can’t really grok why it resonated with people to begin with. (To clarify, btw, when I rail against ‘Wokeness’, I am not of course talking about basic human decency, like not being racist. That we should all agree on. I’m talking about bizarre codes of conduct where things like not knowing the en vogue language of the day merits accusations of being a ‘white supremacist’ and so on.)

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