About Intellectual Diversity: A Reply to Knibbs

April 20, 2017

I had not previously heard of the website known as The Ringer, but today I encountered an article there by an author named Kate Knibbs. It came up in a Google search, not far from the top, so I guessed that others were probably seeing it too. At first, I didn’t see any comments in response to the article, so I thought I would write one. I got drawn into it more than intended; I wound up writing a sort of introduction to some of my own worst experiences in higher ed. I wasn’t sure whether the Ringer’s moderator would allow my links, but I felt they were important. So I have decided to copy my comment here, complete with links. [Update: a day later, they appear not to have published my comment.]

There is, of course, no way of knowing how long a webpage will endure. At present, the Internet Archive does not appear to have a copy of the Knibbs article. Copyright law prevents me from reproducing its contents in full here. Hopefully the reader can get a sense of Knibbs’s article from the quotes I have used, if it comes to that. Basically, her point was that “intellectual diversity” is a “buzzword” that stands “at the panicked heart of a college controversy,” in which “[c]ritics worry that left-wing academia” has transmogrified campuses into “hives of hissy-fit intolerance.” “The general argument,” she says, “is that campuses have become stiflingly homogeneous in their thought, and that they are now hostile to right-wing thinkers in a way that damages the learning environment.”

In my view, Knibbs was politicizing a more fundamental issue, one that deserves attention regardless of politics. Here’s what I submitted as my response to her article on the Ringer website.

* * * * *

Kate, I’m afraid you underestimate the strangeness and narrowness of the dominant mindset on campuses. In a previous era, we had “boys will be boys.” Now we have you downplaying the fact that, as you put it, “sometimes the young people on campuses take concepts they have learned and apply them in half-baked and silly ways.” Let’s not pass it off as mere immaturity on the part of the kids. From somewhere, they got the idea that they are on the right track.

More precisely, from you, among others. Your standard for what should be discussed on campus: when one feels that one is “taking a reasonable stand against legitimizing hurtful, wrongheaded nonsense.” But who decides what’s nonsense? You, apparently. You think you know which ideas are “discredited, offensive, and abhorrent.” I mean, keep going: that’s only three adjectives to express the fact that you, personally, dislike what the other person is saying.

You reject, for instance, the claim, “Slavery is good.” That’s nice. You have a viewpoint and, like every other person on the planet, you are entitled to it. But that has nothing to do with a university education. Education is not a matter of ignorant opinion. Education teaches us to ask, What kind of slavery: should we include “wage slavery” in that statement? What does “good” mean — would slavery still be bad for everyone, if researchers found that slavery can have positive mental health effects for people sharing certain beliefs? Education teaches us to explore history — to discover, for instance, that Aristotle thought slavery was natural. Why would he say that? Did others of his time agree? In short, education teaches us to be curious, to think and investigate, to find evidence and consider alternatives. When you say that such statements “aren’t worth poking holes into,” I say, thank God you are not an educator.

If you are seriously concerned about “poisonous” ideas on campus, I can offer a few from personal experience. How about the idea that the university can order a PhD student not to speak to his own classmates outside the classroom? I endured such an order for six months, at Indiana University. Would you believe an incident where an administrator filed a report with the campus disciplinarian, regarding a nightmare that a student experienced 25 years earlier? I know, beyond belief: but, again, I’ve posted the writeup. Let readers decide for themselves what to think about it.

Neither of those bizarre episodes involved a “half-baked and silly” student. Those were actions by senior administrators at a well-known state university. But let us not obsess on Indiana. How about being removed as instructor after filing an ethics report (at the suggestion of the campus ethics officer) against students who cheated on an exam? It seems at least one of the cheating students was politically connected. I experienced that, courtesy of a senior administrator at the University of Arkansas. He proceeded to assure the accused students that the ethics complaint would be terminated and, in effect, it was. Does it not seem a bit “poisonous” to allow corruption of that nature, played out in high drama for an entire class to observe and learn from?

I am not a philosopher of science. But I have been intrigued by Feyerabend’s suggestion, precisely opposing yours. He said, “[T]he first step in our criticism of customary concepts and customary reactions is to step outside the circle and either to invent a new conceptual system . . . or to import such a system from outside science, from religion, from mythology, from the ideas of incompetents, or the ramblings of madmen. This step is, again, counterinductive.” In other words, you are most likely to see how you might be wrong — because we all are wrong, quite often — if you reach as far as possible for ideas alien to your own.

Your article politicizes this, as if it were all about conservatives cynically “taking up the mantle of ‘ideological diversity'” as a ploy “to give more prominence to viewpoints that [actually] argue against” diversity of gender, race, and sex. But I am not a conservative. I am not interested in arguing against the forms of diversity you mention. What I am against is the cowardice of belatedly enshrining them as if they were special, now that it is cool to be in the photo with the black guy — behaving thus at the expense of other forms of differentness equally deserving of attention. What about people with disabilities — are campuses really tolerant of depression or other mental disabilities? Even better, socioeconomic diversity. I can’t say I saw it praised at Columbia: not much inclination to court poverty; not much sympathy with the hick.

What about ethical diversity — about, say, commitment to trying to do the right thing, instead of the dominant ethic of going along to get along? So, for example, when I was the only one to speak up against abusive practices during an internship at the University of Michigan: do you suppose my educators praised me for it? Not exactly. My faculty advisor was completely on board with the abusive facility. I was removed from that internship immediately, and had to scramble to find another so that I could graduate.

It seems pretty “poisonous” to send the message that students dare not try to do the right thing. If campuses were half as concerned about ethical diversity as they are about the color of someone’s skin, we might not be in a position where, according to Public Agenda, “Public confidence in higher education is waning” — where a Washington Post editorial (Coleman, 2016) reports “an unprecedented erosion of public support.”

Academia still doesn’t get it and, I’m sorry to say, neither do you. If anything, Kate, you seem to have made yourself into a poster child for the “hissy-fit intolerance” that academia embodies. It is unfortunate that you, like so many, seem to have passed those four years not learning about and working with people who are not like you. But it is never to late to start learning and so, at last, to become educated. I hope you will consider doing so.



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