The Antidote to Academic Orthodoxy · 16 May 2004

Filed under: Miscellaneous

By Stephen Balch--Chronicle of Higher Education

Every so often in the history of great institutions fundamental issues of governance assume a compelling urgency. Such dramatic episodes are familiar enough at the highest levels of politics. But they also occur in the social, cultural, and religious spheres. Ecclesiastical history is replete with them, and systematic overhauls in modes of governance have periodically upturned the worlds of business, finance, media, and the military.

American higher education has experienced them as well. Between the two world wars, academe completed a constitutional reorganization that reflected the triumph of the scientific paradigm over earlier creedal missions. Reconceived as temples of dispassionate reason, colleges and universities effected a wholesale transfer of intellectual power from trustees and presidents to specialized faculties, wherein reason was presumed to reside. Among the incidents of that transfer were the establishment of tenure as the normative employment practice and the relegation of boards and presidents to no more than an attenuated oversight of academic hiring and curriculum.

The subsequent evolution of this regime, however, took a very different course than proponents like AAUP founders John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy anticipated. They had confidently expected that the humanities and social sciences would follow the path of the natural sciences, generating an ever more cumulative and accepted understanding of human affairs. They had also imagined that humanistic and social-scientific research would proceed within communities of practitioners able and willing to sustain a free and open marketplace of ideas. Academic freedom, as they conceived it, was intended to protect that marketplace from external interference by a less enlightened laity.

It is now painfully clear that those hopeful suppositions were wrong. Although interesting and useful work continues to be done in the humanities and social sciences, advancing, in limited areas, knowledge of a typically descriptive character, broad theoretic syntheses commanding anything like a consensus have generally not emerged. Also unlike the natural sciences, sweeping applications of new knowledge have failed to flow from these fields into the larger world. Most disappointing, many have been shown to be highly susceptible to penetration by fads and sects, at times out of a desire to mimic the hard sciences in method and jargon, at times to replace a waning passion for inquiry with a zeal for causes. One crucial result has been a substantial contraction of serious academic discourse about the human condition, and the range of philosophical, cultural, and public-policy issues to which it gives rise.

This paradoxical outcome represents a major embarrassment for American higher education. Although other centers of opinion leadership, such as the mass media and Hollywood, have often been attacked for political and cultural bias, each offers a diversity of intellectual product rarely found on campus. Blockbuster films regularly tout traditional values of patriotism, valor, and personal honor; radio hosts a panoply of powerful conservative voices; and even the op-ed pages of liberal organs like The New York Times and The Washington Post give far more space to critics of their viewpoints than would be accorded by most humanities or social-sciences faculties. Dewey and Lovejoy might well have found it remarkable that, even without the practice of tenure, American journalism provides a profitable home for a multitude of sophisticated commentators who dissent from its dominant opinion. The marketplace has apparently proved a more effective means of preserving reasoned diversity than the insulated self-governance of the professoriate.

Before progress can be made toward reviving intellectual pluralism in higher education, some habits of thought and institutional governance need to be reconsidered. Principal among these is the too easy equation of the intellectual world of the natural sciences with that of humane learning. It should now be obvious to all but the most dogged defenders of received academic wisdom that there are enormous differences between them. Two differences particularly stand out. First, professors in the humanities and social sciences characteristically bring to the analysis of questions in their fields vastly stronger feelings about the answers they would prefer to find. Second, the phenomena treated in the humanities and social sciences, involving - as they do - the tangled skein of human action - are much more ambiguous and complex.

Unlike the issues that occupy physics, chemistry, mathematics and, for the most part, biology, those relating to justice and moral truth -- the stuff of the humanities and social sciences -- are strenuously contested in the outside world. Because emotional involvement and interest in the particulars of social controversy go hand in hand, those recruited to their study usually arrive already equipped with strong dispositions toward one or another of the warring factions. The scholarly continuation of controversies remains encapsulated within the global ones, further sustaining career-long partisanship.

The old joke that academic controversies are so bitter because so little is at stake misses a major point. Unlike the larger public realm, where most citizens have only a tangential interest in vindicating their opinions, and even political leaders can walk away from conflicts after splitting the difference, in academe professional lives, fortunes, and perhaps most sacred, personal self-esteem, can hang on the outcome of even the most recondite disputes. Too often under such circumstances, yearnings to preserve a comfortable environment of orthodoxy trump the interest in maintaining free debate.

Eventually, perhaps, large portions of humane inquiry will be undertaken with fully scientific rigor. Consilience may or may not be a realizable aspiration. But, in the meantime, the social sciences and humanities will have to make do with fuzzy concepts, contested analytic frameworks, a paucity of reliable data, and chronic difficulties in formulating decisive tests of rival hypotheses. In such a context, theory stays murky or becomes so artificially abstracted that practical relevance is largely lost. What reigns instead is judgment, at best informed by good sense, relevant learning, and careful observation, but never entirely transcending the slippery realm of opinion. Such cloudiness gives even greater opportunities for the prejudicial treatment of dissent.

Considered as constitutional systems, our institutions of higher learning are ill-equipped to thwart the power of the overbearing intellectual majorities that strong preferences and prejudices mobilize. In fact, academe's characteristic mode of governance magnifies majoritarian power. As polities, colleges and universities bear more than a passing resemblance to federations of small, semi-autonomous republics -- in this case the departments comprising their main subdivisions. Those generally hire, give tenure, and promote their teaching staffs; fix major and graduate-studies requirements; admit and finance graduate students; award the doctorates that provide new practitioners with credentials; and help journeymen secure their initial jobs. The bigger and more prestigious the institution, the less the department is likely to be subject to serious oversight from above.

Little republics are subject to all the dangers memorably delineated by James Madison in Federalist 10. Being diminutive, they easily fall under the sway of compact majorities that persistently monopolize positions of power and grind down opponents. And because the admission of new academic citizens is subject to the majority's control, as time passes those majorities tend to expand. Swollen majorities, of course, eventually generate their own factions. But in a context of diminished diversity, subsequent splitting can leave academic departments little more than nests of wrangling sectarians.

The first step to reform, then, is to admit the differences that exist among divergent fields of inquiry. In some, the classic paradigm of scientific investigation is largely realized, and internalized checks can be more or less relied upon to keep things on the straight and narrow. In others, rationalist aspirations are too clouded by passion and prejudice to prevail long without extra reinforcement. Disciplines of the former type might be called collegial in that, though rivalries exist among hypotheses and investigators, there is general agreement on the means of resolving them and a strong sense of shared intellectual mission. Such fields have well-established paradigms within which research proceeds, extensive histories of settling theoretical disputes in a manner that restores consensus, and findings that receive unambiguously productive usage in the larger world. Conversely, disciplines of the latter type are adversarial in that rivalries shade into enmities, bear heavily on methods of verification as well as the substance of disputes, involve judgments of value as well as of fact, often reveal an absence of shared mission, and produce results whose employment outside academe is very frequently polemical. Adversarial fields are likely to be divided into enduring factions whose partisans frequently treat their opponents more as foes than colleagues.

Adversarial disciplines occupy something of a twilight zone between plain politics and mature science. To recognize that is not to disparage them. They deal with important questions about the structure of human relationships and the nature of human ideals that can be genuinely illuminated by serious scholarly inquiry. But if the university is to assimilate adversarial disciplines productively into its life, it must treat them in a manner that acknowledges their distinctive character and problems. Exclusive reliance on the forms of governance serviceable for collegial disciplines is unlikely to preserve a healthy level of intellectual competition in adversarial ones. Special efforts must be made to sustain their discursive commitments to evidence, logic, clarity, and civility.

Policy should therefore aim at two related goals: encouraging as much rational discourse within an adversarial field as possible, while inhibiting the formation of intellectual monopolies based purely on organizational clout. That means that structural reforms should be considered that both draw academic adversaries into sustained reasoned discourse and afford some institutional shelter for diverse views.
Admittedly, the balance that needs to be struck between shelter and competition is a fine one. Sustaining intellectual disagreement is not in-and-of-itself a good. It is a good in those contexts where it is needed to promote constructive interaction between serious alternative viewpoints, and only to the extent that it does so. In the polity, we're generally willing to settle for outcomes acceptable to the majority. In the academy, we want progress toward the truth. Ideas must therefore be made to defend themselves in fair fights to earn their academic keep. But they must also be protected from lynching. Striking this balance will not be easy, and a great deal of institutional experimentation will undoubtedly have to take place if it is to be gained.

What is needed is a restorative infusion of Madisonian imagination, embodied in devices that will nurture and protect a healthy degree of competition among intellectually diverse factions. Such "checks and balances" might include procedural expedients that preserve minority influence -- for example, proportional voting on curriculum and hiring decisions through which disenters can determine a fractional share of the outcomes. But, given the degree to which ideological exclusion has already progressed, such procedures, by themselves, are likely to be too little too late.

Formally recognizing the value of intellectual pluralism in adversarial fields, and deliberately multiplying the institutional sites wherein it can flourish, may be the best remaining course.The most direct way of doing that would be to allow distinct schools of thought within adversarial fields to organize themselves in a state of partial independence from their rivals with some significant control over hiring and tenuring decisions affecting their members. Academics of a variety of factional persuasions would then be at greater liberty to develop their positions and advance their careers free of the heavy peer coercion they now often experience. Some schools of thought might be unified by a philosophic sensibility, while others would find agreement in a particular methodological or subject-related perspective. Some might span a number of disciplines, while others would be confined to one.

Means of self-organization could vary. In a large university system, departments at different campuses might be allowed to reflect competing viewpoints. Within a single large institution, departments could be subdivided into semiautonomous programs, each exemplifying a distinct outlook. Alternatively, special interdisciplinary programs could be set up outside regular departments for the purpose of harboring a significant perspective that is underrepresented across the institutional board."Perspective-sensitive programming" and "interdisciplinarity" have, of course, become common in academe, usually with the effect of further strengthening prevailing views. Here they would be put to a new and fruitful use.
Academics in many of the social sciences and some of the humanities who possess a classically liberal perspective could certainly benefit from the opportunities thereby created , as would humanists whose interests lie in aesthetic analysis rather than cultural studies. In a field like history, scholars concerned mainly with peak institutions, as opposed to social currents, might also be helped, possibly forging links with similarly inclined social scientists. In political science and economics, the non-quantatively oriented would see organizational options open, as, in some settings, might scholars of Marxist outlook. As trends and fashions shifted, and patterns of peer pressure correspondingly changed, so too would the beneficiaries of this approach. The specifics of its evolution would be hard to predict, but it should serve as an important "failsafe" against the premature closure of debate, and the unreasonable homogenization that now afflicts many scholarly domains.

The principal danger would be the development of an ideological quota system, with political groups seeking their piece of the academic action through crude political struggle. Unfortunately, at many colleges and universities such a system already exists, albeit with participation limited to a very restricted range of parties. It is ultimately a responsibility of those entrusted with the governance of whole institutions -- senior administration and trustees -- to ensure that intellectual excellence and scholarly rigor aren't sacrificed to pressure politics. A faculty incorporating a wider variety of outlooks than exists at present should, in fact, render that responsibility easier to exercise, since ongoing debate and reciprocal criticism is the best way of winnowing the intellectual wheat from the chaff. But it would also help immensely if senior administration began again to make clear that the university's mission was serving the cause of truth, not the activist vindication of external movements, interests, and claims.

Our universities would be wise to make the cause of intellectual diversity their own. Pledged to virtually every other kind of diversity, they must not neglect the one type that - when appropriately conceived and pursued - goes to the very heart of their mission. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine the fiduciaries of our universities -- both public and private -- indefinitely permitting them to do the disservice to research and education that their intellectual monoculture produces. Voices of protest are increasingly insistent on the need for change, and rightly so. The best way of working out the institutional specifics will be through the agency of educators themselves, but, one way or another, it is likely to happen. The time to begin thinking about it seriously is now.

Stephen H. Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars.