Have we reached peak woke?

June 26, 2023 • 9:30 am

This article from The Liberal Patriot Substack has been making the rounds, perhaps because it argues, using data, that—regardless of efforts from both the Right and Left to quash free speech and academic freedom— higher education “seems to have turned a corner” on wokeness. (If you don’t like the word, suggest another.) The university culture, says Musa Al-Gharbi, is getting less woke.

Click to read:

As for whether it’s “too late”—that is, have universities and their bureaucracies established wokeness so entrenched that it can’t be reversed, Al-Gharbi thinks not: it’s “not too little, not too late.” (He is, by the way, a graduate student and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.) Note that he blames both the GOP and Democrats (or leftists) for the problem, but also worries that if it’s fixed from within, the GOP will get unearned credit.

First, some of the unwelcome developments Al-Gharbi limns:

Rather than serving as bastions of free exchange of ideas or rollicking debate, most campuses remain significantly more inhibited expressive environments than most other places in society—and have only grown less free in recent decades.

Aspirants who decline to color within the lines can still get admitted to grad school or hired and promoted as faculty (case in point!), but there is evidence that they often face discrimination in committees and as a result often get placed lower on the prestige totem-pole than their comparably qualified peers.

Work that diverges from institutionally-dominant views can be published. It often faces bigger hurdles with respect to institutional review boardspeer review, and garnering citations from other academics, while work that is useful for advancing the preferred narrative often faces insufficient scrutiny. What’s more, there are sometimes politicized calls for retraction when inconvenient findings are published. Meanwhile, there are demonstrable systematic biases published social scientific research analyzing the types of people who are less present in colleges and universities—i.e., the poor and working class, devoutly religious people, rural folks, and Trump voters, among others.

These are very real problems. They undermine the quality and impact of teaching and research. However, they are also longstanding structural issues. The kinds of policies advocated by Republicans today—such as slashing university budgets or banning Critical Race TheoryGender Studies, and DEI programming—would do precisely nothing to address any of the problems described above. Proposed bids to eliminate or weaken tenure protections would probably make many of these problems worse.

. . .It wasn’t just students who grew more radical, though. Faculty and administrators got in on the action, too.

Alongside the student unrest came significant changes in institutional structure and culture. There was a rapid growth in university administrators who often sought to justify their roles by meddling in research and teaching, imposing and enforcing myriad new restrictions on what people could do and say on campus, and significantly undermining academic freedom and faculty governance in the process.

Sex bureaucracies surveilling and policing sexual relations between consenting adults proliferated, often punishing people with little evidence or due process. Bias Response Teams sprouted up, allowing people to anonymously spur investigations against anyone without any substantiation at all. Faculty and students began hijacking these apparatuses to sink competitorspunish exessettle personal vendettas, and much else besides.

So what are the data showing that wokeness has peaking and is heading down? Here are a few graphs.

However, a range of empirical data suggest that the post-2010 “Great Awokening” may be winding down. For instance, Heterodox Academy recently released the results of its 2022 Campus Expression Survey. It shows that students today feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives across a range of topics than they did in previous years.

But look at the data above (there are no error bars or indications of statistical significance. Between 2021 and 2022, reluctance to discuss has dropped only 0.8% for gender (and is higher than in 2019), has risen 1.2% for politics, dropped 4.9% for race, dropped 3.2% for religion, dropped 1.4% for sexual orientation, and dropped 1.6% for “non-controversial topics”.  These are small changes, though they may reflect the beginning of a trend. But beyond the one year, no general trend is evident over time except that general reluctance to discuss controversial topics is higher since 2019. There is a general trend to be more willing to discuss “non-controversial topics,” so any decreases in the other areas might reflect a more general trend, perhaps a willingness to discuss anything.

Nevertheless, the chilling of speech is obvious, as the bars are much higher for the five topics on the left than for “non-controversial topics.” This reflects a general reluctance to speak freely on touchy subjects, something that we should surely be worried about.  It will take a few more years, though, to see if this reluctance is really dropping rather than the 2021-2022 data being a fluke.

The data below on sanctions imposed on academics is a bit more convincing, as several forms of professorial sanctions have dropped over the last two years, and all dropped in between 2021 and 2022. But they’re still a LOT higher than in 2000.

It may be that contemporary students feel less need to self-censor because the objective conditions have changed at colleges and universities. You can see this, for instance, in data on “cancel culture” events. Incident trackers compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) show marked declines in attempts to punish scholars for their speech or views across all measures (the drop in “targeting incidents” is particularly large—over 30%.

Below are data from three sources on cancel culture incidents. The sources differ considerably in what they count as such an incident, but two of the three sources show a fairly large drop over the two years (2020-2022), though the National Association of Scholars (NAS) show a drop lasting only one year, with incidents rising between 2020 and 2021.

FIRE’s data is not an outlier. We see apparent declines in attempts to censor uncomfortable speech on campus across a range of datasets.

Finally “woke scholarship” is shown below.

And professors, too, seem like they’ve calmed down a bit. The intense scholarly focus on identity-based bias and discrimination seems to have cooled, for instance.

The drop, however, has only occurred over a year in two of the four areas. Again, we see something that is suggestive, but the data aren’t taken over a long enough period to see if we’re on a long-term downhill (i.e. ideologically “uphill”) slide.

Al-Gharbi concludes first that there’s a big ideological gulf between academics and “the rest of America”:

The sociological and ideological distance between academics and the rest of America has always been wide. Since 2010, however, the gulf between highly-educated Americans and everyone else grew much larger—primarily due to asymmetric polarization within the educated class itself. These differences also grew more salient as radicalized professors, students, and college-educated Americans aggressively sought to impose their values and priorities on everyone else and confront, denigrate, marginalize, or sanction those who refused to get with the program.

One core consequence of this radicalization has been reduced public trust in higher ed. Most Republicans today believe that universities, on balance, do more harm than good. A majority of Americans across partisan lines believe higher ed is moving in the wrong direction, and most believe that what they get from attending colleges and universities may not be worth the cost. This is not idle sentiment: enrollment in colleges and universities dropped precipitously during COVID and has not recovered.

Thus the authoritarian Left has, says Al-Gharbi, given Republicans some big impetus to raise funding and win elections (e.g. the governorship of Virginia) by summoning the specter of rising wokeness”.  And even if academic is reforming itself, as Al-Gharbi thinks we are (I don’t really see it), Republicans will take credit for any changes like those described above. This worries him (he seems to be a Leftist), but the first thing to do is admit that a problem exists. Those of us who call attention to it, however, are described as “alt-righters”, racists, or other unsavory names. There are reasons why academics keep their heads down about this. Al-Gharbi:

Colleges and universities are not just capable of reforming themselves; they are already reforming themselves. Positive trends should be recognized, and ongoing efforts should be encouraged and supported.

But doing so would require more in academia and on the left to explicitly admit that there are real problems of bias and parochialism in institutions of higher learning. It undermines our own credibility to dismiss concerns about the culture and operations of educational institutions as an empty moral panic. Ordinary people can see with their own eyes that that’s not the case, and no one will trust us to effectively fix a problem if we won’t even acknowledge it exists. We can’t talk about progress while insisting there’s nothing wrong.

“Nothing to see here” is a non-starter. “There’s something to see here, and it’s a positive trend” is much more promising. Let’s run with that.

Yes, I see the “this is an empty moral panic” stuff constantly coming from those who are woke, but if you look at what’s happened in the last 20 years, and if you value free expression and academic freedom, it’s not in the least “empty”. Something bad has happened to the atmosphere in colleges and universities, something inimical to the very purpose of those institutions.

All it will take to reverse any trends that do exist, however, is one triggering incident—something like the murder of George Floyd. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that we’ve reached “peak woke”, but I generally go by the principle, “a pessimist is never disappointed.” Stay tuned.

26 thoughts on “Have we reached peak woke?

  1. “The data below on sanctions imposed on academics is a bit more convincing,…”

    Actually I think it is most ambiguous and thus, in itself, least convincing part. This is not a metric of wokeness, but a metric of conflicts with wokeness. The reason why it is going down could be decreasing wokeness, but it could as well be a symptom of decreasing resistance. There might be less such conflict simply because more and more academics get into line and self-censor to abide woke rules.

    1. And the more wrong-thinkers you drive out and replace with properly woke academics, the less conflict there will be between the professors. If there is a trend at all, I see it as far more likely to be the result of the decades-long march toward homogenization of political thought, by both the means you suggest and my own.

  2. “… wokeness. (If you don’t like the word, suggest another.) ”

    I’m fine with “woke”, as extensively discussed here, but consider (have any commenters said this before, I’m not sure?):


    That would account for the central role of faith/hope, and religion-oid nature as McWhorter wrote about in Woke Racism.

    Because Marx’ writings are clearly religious, with Marx playing theologian. I’m going by the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, at the moment.

    The woke think they discovered something new by their gnosis, but all they did was rediscover a delusion in human nature Marx already wrote about, which ancient Gnosticism already practiced in antiquity.

    Or, Gnosticism.

    “Woke” is marketing to be appealing as being New, like a New Life Church.

    It ain’t new.

    1. The problem with Marxism as a name, that it would cause confusion. Although the woke belief system indeed has strong roots in Marxism, but that word is taken for the original movement, and it is possible to be a Marxist without being woke. In fact there are communists in the USA who are anti-woke. Because they see the racial and gender focus of the woke as a distraction from the fundamental conflict of economic inequality (and they actually have a point).

      Gnosticism is very on point for a movement that, in its philosophical core, denies the existence of a material world with rules and facts that are independent from human perspective. However this term grasps a very abstract and somewhat occult aspect of the phenomenon and too distant from many practical aspects that are up front. I mean there is no necessary chain of logic between gnostic thinking and the racial hierarchy of victimhood for example.

      1. I appreciate those points.

        The victims of the woke religion were indoctrinated in Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed since 1985 – a pedagogy explicitly designed to bring about Marx’s prophecy through conscientization (and more!). This was at least in public schools in the United States.

        I think that is a good reason to call it Marxism – to show the lineage. The timing appears to match. The means of knowledge production is the objective, in this case.

        I only started reading about this a few weeks ago, so I can’t quite believe it /trying to understand it myself, thus my ramblings on this website.

  3. I share the skepticism that wokeness is receding. The slight decline in “students’ reported reluctance” could, for instance, be explained entirely by marginally more students being in line with the new campus orthodoxy. The woke are seldom reluctant to speak on campus. Similarly, the decline in attempts to punish professors for their speech or views could be explained by an increase in self-censorship among faculty.

    ”Something bad has happened to the atmosphere in colleges and universities, something inimical to the very purpose of those institutions.”

    A culture of emotional “support and affirm” seems ascendant over one of intellectual “challenge and critique.” This is not suitable for the mission of a university; they can coexist, in theory, but if you only get to choose one, then choose wisely. A focus on team work and collegiality has seemingly morphed into outward intellectual conformity, with reputation destruction the fate of many who publicly refuse to get on board. The ethos of the “helping professions”—with its paramount concern for people and their overall well-being—seems to be penetrating even the more technical fields.

    What I am about to ask is going to be very controversial; please accept that I ask it in good faith. Can anything that we have been seeing over the last ten to twenty years or so in the university be explained by the huge increase in female representation in administration, faculty, and student bodies? Are we seeing a shift to a more stereotypically feminine culture, long established in some disciplines, more recently moving that way in others? (A stereotypical culture that could resonate with a sizeable number of men and repulse a not-insignificant number of women.) As the culture changes, are we now seeing a different type of both men and women who are attracted to university life—both as students and as faculty? If so, what are the potential implications relative to the historically-defined mission of a university?

    Please note that when the universities were predominately male, they suffered from some defects of that predominately masculine culture. We all readily acknowledge that. But they also derived strengths from that culture. All I am asking is whether a massive shift to the feminine can bring with it some new strengths but also some weaknesses relative to the historical mission of the university. If, in the face of a massive demographic change, we are not allowed to question even the possibility of a consequent culture shift or the possibility that such a shift could have both strengths and weaknesses, well, that in itself would be part of a culture shift.

    1. The UW School of Medicine Office of Faculty Affairs posts the following statement: “The mission of the UW School of Medicine Office of Faculty Affairs is to foster a thriving community of faculty by helping individuals develop as clinicians, educators, scientists, and leaders over the course of their career; promoting a climate of inclusion, support, and collaboration; and advocating for equity and courageous innovation.” The Office’s website lists a Vice Dean, an Associate Dean, three Assistant Deans, an Executive Director, two Managers, and an Executive Assistant— all of whom are women, thus representing a female to male ratio of 9:0 in that UW Office.

      Nobody, to my knowledge, has complained about this in terms of “gender bias” or male “underrepresentation”. Its existence probably reflects sex-based differences among academics in preferences and emphases regarding work-culture. But, of course, merely postulating such psychological differences exposes one to the risk of being cancelled—as Larry Summers discovered at Harvard in 2006, right at the beginning of the Scholars Under Fire graph above. In any case, the sex ratio of the Faculty Affairs Office illustrates
      the trend Doug brings up.

        1. Washington. The stated concerns of the Office I described, as well as the very
          existence of an “Associate Dean for Well-Being”, implies that the academic culture is changing in the ways Doug described.

    2. There’s certainly an element of what could be called “mothering’ running through a culture of Victimhood, in which the self-identified weak demand help from a benevolent authority focused on their emotional well-being.

      1. An element that might be call “mothering” runs through more than just the culture of Victimhood among students. The School of Medicine at the U. Washington actually has an Associate Dean for Well-Being. I inquired whether there might be openings for additional Associate Deans for Restful Sleep, for Healthful Diet, and for Regular Bowel Movements, inasmuch as I am strongly qualified for at least the first such position.

    3. “Can anything that we have been seeing over the last ten to twenty years or so in the university be explained by the huge increase in female representation in administration, faculty, and student bodies? ”

      1. Correlation is not causation.
      2. Show the evidence.

    4. Hello Doug,
      In seeking to answer your question, it would be good to remember the similar cultural divides between, say, Cambridge and Oxford in the early 20th century. And the battles between the scientists and the humanists for control of Harvard in the early 20th c in the USA. Are universities educating for public service or for scientific advancement? Educating ministers or scientists?
      When looked at with a wide historical angle, what we are seeing in universities today isn’t all that new.

  4. Hope springs eternal, but we shall see over the next few years whether things noticeably improve or not.

  5. No question that things are shifting in my university world. Haven’t heard Di Angelo, Kendi, or their type of jargon mentioned in quite a while. Instead the focus of most DEI activities has turned to inclusive teaching practices and such. It’s becoming more mainstream and much less radical.

    1. Susan, has this inclusive teaching practice had any tangible effect on teaching or learning (sincere question)? At my university it all seems to be posturing by faculty members and ignored by students. No measurable changes to ability or knowledge in either group. More like a face-saving gesture on both sides. Possibly things are different in the humanities or social science departments.

      1. It’s a lot of interactive learning, clear setting of expectations, less reliance on lectures and high-stakes tests, efforts to relate the course material to the students’ experiences (when possible), and so forth. I don’t know whether there’s much evidence that this helps diversity, but it seems like a decent way to modernize teaching.

    1. The inclusive practices are things like more active learning, more specific course goals, less reliance on lectures and high-stakes exams, more effort to connect the material to the students’ lives (when possible), etc. The faculty who are doing it are quite passionate about it. Students’ responses vary, and I haven’t heard of evidence that these practices actually boost diversity. But it seems like a reasonable way to modernize teaching.

      1. Oops, sorry for the repetition — thought my ‘reply’ above had vanished in the inter-ether.

  6. “(If you don’t like the word, suggest another.)”

    Critical Social Justice.

    That is not my result. It sounds like nothing. But it follows precisely from Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s definition in their 2012 education manual Is Everyone Really Equal?.

    James A. Lindsay analyzes it in this piece with an off-putting title :


    I find it satisfies all the needs of a word for “it” — especially with the intent of reasoning with the woke at all — besides enlightening the deep formula for the superficial crap that can be observed.

    But of course, I do not argue to replace woke, nor I think does Lindsay.

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