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Captive Minds: Conformity and Campus Intellectuals

I will always carry a memory of one of my colleagues, a genial and intelligent scholar of Renaissance literature and a tenured professor at a mid-sized prairie university, casting furtive glances around and behind him in order to see how others were voting, his hand mid-way into the air. We were voting in a hiring contest, a contentious one, and my colleague was looking to his friends for direction.

I don’t know the history of the departmental practice of public votes. A friend there once commented that she had always believed we should have courage enough to declare our preferences openly in matters affecting the department. But few did. In those public votes, we raised our hands for a number of reasons -- to form or consolidate alliances, to prove our ideological bona fides, to earn credit to be redeemed in a later decision we hoped to influence -- but rarely to express our rational and considered preference. Most often, we sought, as in the case of my careful colleague, to vote on the winning side.

Working for four years at this prairie college, I had many opportunities to see political correctness in action: in our so-called “equity” hiring practices, in changes to our course offerings to highlight racial and sexual diversity, and in the unfailing faux-reverence with which all aspects of Aboriginal literature and culture were treated, even down to a discussion about whether, in a job advertisement, we should refer to Canada by its indigenous name of Turtle Island.

But this was not a matter of political correctness alone: it was collective thinking in its most blatant form. There were striking parallels to what Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind analyzes as the intellectual’s not-unwilling accommodations to Party orthodoxy. Milosz was interested not only in the compulsions of totalitarianism but in the significant emotional and psychological attractions of the Communist system: the reassurances and rewards of ceding responsibility for judgment, and the manifold reasons why an intellectual could find himself at home in conformity. Can it be that, even free of threat or compulsion, many intellectuals will choose to surrender their independence of thought? C.S. Lewis wrote about the seductive pleasures of belonging in “The Inner Ring,” brilliantly highlighting the desire planted deep in the heart of every human being to be approved, acknowledged as “one of us” by people we admire. To get into that charmed circle, Lewis warned, many of us will assent to nearly anything.

No matter the reigning orthodoxy -- in our department it was, as in the vast majority of English departments across North America, Leftist, anti-Western, feminist, and multiculturalist -- the desire to fall in line, and to compel or outlaw those who do not, seems to be an enduring fact of human nature.

I still remember my surprise at the uniformity of opinion I discovered in that department. Expecting to find open, civil debate -- every one of my colleagues, after all, held a doctorate and was a published author accustomed to defending his or her research in public forums -- I was struck by the timorousness of many of my colleagues in discussion and the aura of the forbidden sacrosanct that seemed to gather around many subjects.

The phenomenon, not surprisingly, reached beyond individual departments. Attending an international conference on the novelist Carol Shields, I noticed how the few male scholars in attendance were so eager to display their feminist badges of membership. One older man, perhaps aware that his age and deportment might identify him with the (now long-defunct) patriarchy still so strenuously “resisted” by the feminist scholars, sought at every opportunity to show his pious solidarity with their cause.

One might object to my implication that there is any bad faith in the ideological fellow-feeling I observed. After all, thinking people may come, quite independently and non-coercively, to agree about such contentious matters as the pervasiveness of hetero-patriarchal oppression, the plight of Palestinian victims, the crimes of the United States, the environmental measures necessary to save the Earth, the nature of Islam as the maligned religion of peace, and so on -- the litany of positions that have become articles of faith in so many departments of English. For a variety of reasons, however, I do not believe that my colleagues came to agreement in such an innocuous way.

First, there is nothing in the study of literature that would necessarily incline those who pursue it to take up Leftist positions. If anything, literature in English -- which brings to vivid life the stories and worldviews of peoples of many different historical periods, cultures, and belief systems -- would seem more likely to appeal to scholars with divergent political convictions and ideals; indeed, it might appeal equally well to those who lack strong convictions, who are curious and impartial.

Second, there is nothing self-evidently reasonable about many of the ideological doctrines of the Left that would make all thinking people ultimately come to agree with them. Some of the doctrines are mutually contradictory -- there are many conflicts between multiculturalism and feminism -- and all are controversial enough in their own right that thinking people should find much to dispute and worry over in their propositions. Leftist doctrines do not find general agreement in the public at large, and it seems unlikely that groups of English professors across the continent, drawn from a variety of ethnicities and classes, would inevitably come to adopt positions held by only a minority of the general public.

Third, my experience of speaking to academic friends confirmed that not all agree with the reigning orthodoxies of English studies; some grumbled angrily in private, some occasionally spoke out and experienced the wrath of their colleagues, and some were simply afraid to say what was so clearly forbidden. Why is it that, amongst such a highly educated and privileged group of professionals, “inner ring” compulsions and longings should hold such marked sway?

Academics are in a number of ways the perfect control group to test the mechanisms of ideological conformity and peer pressure. One would be hard-pressed to find a group more seemingly immune to such dynamics. Full-time academics with tenure have permanent positions from which they cannot be dismissed except for extreme dereliction of duty. A department chair or faculty dean has some but far from total control over their teaching duties and committee assignments, and almost no influence over salary or other aspects of working conditions. In designing their courses and interacting with students, professors tend to work independently of their colleagues, enjoying a good deal of freedom in what and how they teach. They may be absent from their places of work for long stretches of time, may apply for and attain six-month sabbaticals at regular intervals, and can go for weeks during the teaching term without meeting with colleagues if they so choose. In sum, the profession seems tailor-made for the lone wolf or the renegade -- and some, though remarkably few, such independent-minded mavericks do flourish in the academic ranks.

In other ways, however, academics are quite vulnerable to their colleagues and peers, even if they need rarely see them.

Nearly all elements of academic advancement, from initial hiring to the awarding of grants and honors, invitations to conferences, decisions about publishing, and elections to administrative positions, are determined by peers. In a world in which standing brings many career-related opportunities, reputation is not something to be lightly sacrificed. The very aspect of academic life that cushions it from the rigors of the outside world -- the lack of a market imperative, insulation from a financial bottom line -- also creates an environment in which colleagues can invest tremendous time and energy monitoring one another’s beliefs, smarting over minor ideological differences, and jockeying for position. This may be one reason why one finds in many departments a pecking order as visible and rigid as in any high school, with its factions and cliques, its unelected but acknowledged leaders, and its few iconoclasts with nothing left to lose.

Those attempting to build a career by publishing in literary journals or with academic presses recognize early on the frustrations of thinking what is not approved. The practice of peer review means that even when such review is “double blind” (both author and reviewers’ identities obscured), unorthodox approaches and unfashionable subjects are penalized. It is in the very nature of humanities scholarship as it is now practiced to reward conformity and marginalize independence of mind. In my discipline, for example, it is difficult to avoid two decades of scholarship in postcolonial theory, an ideological approach that severely limits the kinds of literary readings one can pursue. What counts as a valid line of questioning, as appropriate literary evidence, as relevant socio-historical context, and as reasonable conclusions all have been pre-determined by this tendentiously politicized theory that stresses colonial violence as a fundamental condition of every text. One might, with great difficulty and in the face of significant resistance, oppose certain postcolonial presuppositions and conclusions, but simply to ignore them because one’s interests lie elsewhere is to invite charges of irrelevance or inadequacy.

At the end of his bracing Save the World On Your Own Time, Stanley Fish rejects the use of the classroom for the purpose of political indoctrination, arguing that professors’ academic duty is to teach their discipline, not to lay the groundwork for a revolution or any other political agenda. But his sensible proposal fails to take into account the problem of a discipline that has been so thoroughly politicized that to teach it responsibly requires engagement with political presuppositions often quite peripheral at best -- and more often directly opposed -- to one’s own scholarly purposes.

I have said that Leftist thought and political correctness are not the sole issues here, that conformist pressures would operate regardless of the reigning orthodoxy simply because of the conditions of academic work and our inveterate human tendencies. But Leftism is far from irrelevant to the current situation and has magnified and exacerbated it. What proclaimed itself in the beginning a movement for full equality and a refusal of cultural arrogance has become, and likely always was, an aggressive ideology that prohibits skepticism or demurral. The question of how such an ideology came to take over the universities cannot be adequately addressed here except to acknowledge that most conservative commentators see the 1960s as the decisive decade when the professoriate acceded to the demands of radical students, unable to withstand the denunciations poured upon those who resisted. For Allan Bloom and others, the 1960s was the time when the intellectual class as a whole lost confidence in the worth of academic subjects, finding, as Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, that the rallying cry of ending racism and elitism “possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide.” In other words, the imperative to promote a social cause was overwhelming in the absence of any other value believed worthy of defense, and meant the end of the university as an institution dedicated to the objective pursuit of truth.

Since then, justice for the oppressed as the raison d’être of the university has become a secular faith embraced with fervor by some and acquiesced in by others; those who oppose the faith are denounced with the passion once reserved for witches and apostates. A non-feminist who expresses doubts about affirmative action hiring, a conservative who objects to Israeli Apartheid Week, a traditional scholar who speaks against his colleagues’ plan to radicalize the department’s course offerings -- all are made plainly aware of their heresy. The discomfort of the shunning is more than most of us, social beings as we are, can bear, especially if we are worn down by the ideological barrage and uncertain whether our positions are merely old-fashioned and mean. On the other hand, the politically correct can seek to impose their mandate with zeal and intolerance because its utopian dimensions justify extreme measures. The manifold pressures and inducements to conform, combined with the evangelical dedication of Leftist crusaders, make it rare and difficult for anyone to refuse orthodoxy.

And this is a great shame because it means that in the place above all others ostensibly set aside for the challenging of received ideas and the unfettered pursuit of truth, one finds instead conformity and caution, self-righteous declaration rather than reasoned debate. Post-secondary education should provide a space for learning unlike any other -- uniquely protected, though not divorced from, the rest of the world and prizing above all else the practice of intellectual freedom. When the approved thought is clearly marked off from the disreputable and the despised, however, free inquiry is quashed. And the intellectual blinders that students inherit from their professors soon infect the arenas traditionally shaped by university graduates: government, the media, and the judiciary.

The result, in our public discourse as a whole, is a widening of what is deemed unthinkable, and the replacement of reasoned judgment about the good with unthinking collective piety. Under such circumstances, the cornerstone of liberal democracy -- freedom of expression -- is profoundly threatened, perhaps already lost. That it has been willingly and even enthusiastically surrendered may be the greatest shame of all.