We are thrilled to announce that linguist and heterodox thinker John McWhorter of Columbia University has joined Heterodox Academy. McWhorter has long confounded people who tried to label him politically (though he’s on the left on most social issues), and he has continued to be confounding and original in his writings and commentary on the current campus turmoil.
Here he is talking with Glenn Loury of Brown University, at Bloggingheads.tv:
Click on links below to go directly to sections of the discussion:
- Assessing the new wave of campus protests 6:04
- What the students get right and wrong about free speech 6:50
- A defense of mockery 6:57
- Glenn to protesters: Don’t throw a fit, make an argument! 6:05
- “Painful truth” on faculty diversity 6:06
- Crime on campus and the profiling of black students 13:02
And here are some excerpts from his blockbuster Wall Street Journal essay “Closed Minds on Campus“, from Nov. 27:
From the aggrieved pitch of recent student protests against racism, the naive observer might be surprised that we are now 50 years past the 1960s. Today’s protesters have not endured the open hostility and dismissal that James Meredith did as the first African-American student at Ole Miss in 1962, when white students turned their backs on him in the cafeteria and bounced a basketball in the room over his at all hours of the night. As a black college student in the early 1980s, my experience felt different enough from his that it never occurred to me to characterize my school, Rutgers University, as a “racist campus.”
Of course, it was part of a racist America, and so I encountered discrimination here and there. The girl at the open-mic night who opened with “What do you call 150 black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” The German teacher who told me I was in the wrong class the second I walked in and openly despised me for the rest of the semester. The frat boys yelling “Zebra!” as I passed with a white girl I dated.
But I was too busy with the other 99.7% of my life to really focus on such things—maybe being an introverted geek was part of it? Under the current campus Zeitgeist, I was nevertheless behind the curve. The new idea is that even occasionally stubbing your toe on racism renders a university a grievously “unsafe space” and justifies students calling for the ouster of a lecturer who calls for reasoned discussion (Yale) and even of a dean stepping down in shame for an awkwardly worded email (Claremont McKenna).
However, something is off about today’s student protests. The protesters may start with valuable observations, but then they drift into a mistaken idea of what a university—and even a society—should be…. The problem is that the university campus is already one of the most exquisitely racially sensitized contexts a human being will ever encounter in America… Since the 1980s, anyone familiar with the college campus scene knows that in private moments, undergraduates of all colors tend to wryly dismiss the “diversity” workshops they had to attend at the start of freshman year as hollow exercises. No one on record has created a program or method on “racial sensitivity” that would do a better job and transform minds in a new way. “Racial awareness training”—the words resonate. But these programs are now eons old. More of these programs would be like thinking a car will run better with more gasoline.
Especially noteworthy is McWhorter’s development of the idea that the protestors are taking an essentially religious approach to campus life, complete with ideas of sacredness and heresy. McWhorter first developed this idea in an essay last July in the Daily Beast, titled “Antiracism, our flawed new religion.” It’s a fascinating article, drawing attention to the clergy, creed, scripture, faith, and concept of original sin bound up in the educated elite’s thinking about racism. Now, in the Wall Street Journal essay, McWhorter applies that idea to today’s campus protestors. He notes that a few questions really are beyond the pale nowadays, such as whether women should have the right to vote. But he objects to the protesters claims that any proposition that they find objectionable is equally settled and must not be discussed openly in classrooms, newspapers, or even private conversations. Any questioning of dogma is sacrilege:
The idea that only the naive or the immoral would question issues connected to something as broad and protean as race and racism is hasty at best and anti-intellectual at worst. What qualifies as discrimination? As cultural appropriation? As aggression? What is an ethnicity? What does racial courtesy consist of, and for what reasons? These are rich, difficult questions with no hard-and-fast answers. Any insistence otherwise is religious. The term is unavoidable here. When intelligent people openly declare that logic applies only to the extent that it corresponds to doctrine and shoot down serious questions with buzzwords and disdain, we are dealing with a faith. As modern as these protests seem, in their way, they return the American university to its original state as a divinity school—where exegesis of sacred texts was sincerely thought of as intellection, with skepticism treated as heresy.
Please read the whole thing. It is a stirring defense of what universities should be, and an exemplar of the value of heterodox thinkers in our increasingly orthodox academies.
Welcome, John McWhorter.
(For another view of McWhorter, see his TED talk on how “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!“)