You needn’t tell me that the title is grammatically incorrect; it’s on purpose. While Steve Pinker is known for documenting material and moral progress in our species over the last five centuries, and analyzing why it’s happened, there’s one area where he’s not so optimistic. And that’s the increasing “illiberalism” on American college campuses.
Pinker’s pessimism, based on events that you’ve seen documented repeatedly on this site, was expressed in a new interview in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper of Brown University. (Brown is known as a “woke school”.)
Click on the screenshot to read.
Much of this you’ve heard before, like the fracases at The Evergreen State College and Middlebury College, but some stuff is new. For example:
A) Pinker dates the beginning of “political correctness and cancel culture” to the publication of Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, which inspired a lot of pushback from those who thought Wilson’s views on human behavior (i.e., it has a genetic/evolutionary component) were retrograde and right-wing. I was at Harvard at the time and witnessed some of that, though I wasn’t there when a protestor threw a cup of water on Wilson and shouted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”
B) The “cancellation” trend is increasing. The article cites data from FIRE’s “disinvitation database” showing that the last five years have witnessed a 36% increase in these disinvitations over the five years before that. I’ve also documented that this increase has been accompanied by an rise in the proportion of disinvitations and shouting-down events coming from the Left. In the earliest data coming from 1998 and the subsequent ten years, there was a roughly equal number of cancel-culture things from the Right and Left, but now they’re heavily from the Left.
C) Pinker gives two reasons for the increase. First, “a backlash on the left against Donald Trump.” That is, people have supposedly realized that Enlightenment ideals have failed to rescue us from tyrants like Trump and his minions, and so resort to “some fairly radical responses.” I don’t think this is all that plausible, for wokeness has not obviously diminished—indeed, it’s increased—since Biden took office. It’s early days, but I see the storm clouds gathering.
His second explanation is that it comes from “several generations of professors having indoctrinated their students in an ideological mixture of postmodernism and Marxist critical theory”, which has now reached the tipping point into college insanity. This seems more likely to me. And then there’s my own theory, which is probably not mine, that the pandemic got a lot of people restive, and they took this out by policing others, as well as by trying to control their environment by gaining power.
One take by Pinker on this mess:
It’s not that every college administrator or professor shares these views, though, Pinker says. But few are daring enough to express their opposition. When faced with an issue of this sort, colleges too often choose flight over fight. Groveling has become the default setting. “It’s rather disturbing to see the people in charge of our institutions of higher learning repeating clichés and slogans,” Pinker said. “For university administrators, (acquiescence) is often the path of least resistance since a small number of noisy student protestors can make a university president’s life miserable.”
Student activists have learned how to game the system. Claims of mental and physical harm are used to advance political agendas. Statues are taken down. Disfavored speaking events are shut down, and those opposing such moves are treated as though they agree with the content of the speech rather than the principle of free speech itself. But it’s mostly a tactic, Pinker says. “It’s not that we have a generation of snowflakes. Although, there may be some of that. But it’s not so much being wounded but it’s the pretext of being wounded,” which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming to the ideology.
And, contrary to those who say this is a tempest in a teapot, and that the kids will settle down when they get into the “real world,” well, we already know that’s a bogus claim. Newly hatched Wokies are infesting mainstream media, corporations, and academia itself, and bringing their college views with them.
From the article:
The result is that fringe student activists can and do wield an inordinate amount of power on campus. Universities have become political in the extreme, and we should be worried.
“Contrary to the cliché sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger that ‘academic disputes are so fierce because so little is at stake,’ I think a lot is at stake,” Pinker says. “Not only (because) it’s college graduates who populate and control all of our institutions … but the entire academic ecosystem is at stake.”
Steve, the eternal optimist, says that there are some solutions. The first one I really like, because it’s the abandonment of my own University’s principles, currently in progress, that will eventually bring us down—maybe to the level of Princeton, but I hope not to the level of Smith:
But there are some slam-dunk moves universities and students can take to improve the culture, Pinker says. The number one priority of each and every campus bureaucracy must be to advance the mission of the university. Administrators must also continuously reiterate “the principles that underlie the existence of the university, namely acquisition of knowledge where knowledge inherently involves humility and skepticism.”
Part of the mission of the University of Chicago is to foster not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of the ability to evaluate knowledge and arrive at positions through free and open inquiry. That too requires humility and skepticism. In this view of life, one must cling tenaciously to the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.
While I’m not sure how many students at a place like Smith are “unwoke” and appalled by its balkanization, the last sentence below is vitally important. We have to speak up against the dying of the light, no matter how many people hurl insults like “racist” or “bigot” at us. Saying what you feel might not make you popular, but, like atheism, rationality spreads faster the more people are willing to speak out against irrationality.
On the student side, Pinker is optimistic. “I’ve been surprised by how many students are actually appalled by the stifling of debate and the deplatforming of speakers.” But, by and large, these students have watched the battles on campus from a safe distance. “(They) aren’t bringing in the bureaucrats to shut down those they disagree with, they’re not protesting, they’re not setting off fire alarms during lectures,” so we don’t really know how prevalent these views are. But repairing the culture requires that they be more vocal.
Whether these kinds of changes are coming anytime soon, Pinker is unsure. But he rejects the notion that the pendulum will swing back from gravity alone.
“I think it could happen and will happen but only if we make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.”