A guest post by HxA member Carl L. Bankston III of Tulane University


This past October, Jonathan Haidt published a thoughtful article on the telos, or purpose, of higher education. Haidt argued that universities could dedicate themselves to either truth or social justice, but that they had to choose a single highest purpose. While I agree with him that these two goals are sometimes incompatible, I think he is incorrect in arguing this is primarily a problem of multiple orientations.  Education as a social institution necessarily has many ends that compete with each other and sometimes even contradict each other. Our universities ideally pass a cultural heritage from the past to the present, create an informed citizenry, develop capacities for rational debate and inquiry, teach vocational skills needed by the economy, and provide opportunities for upward mobility, to name a few of these ends. Deciding which of the many ends of education to emphasize is a continual problem. Incommensurate values, to use Isaiah Berlin’s term, are built into the institution of higher education, and we must juggle them as best we can.

The reason a social justice orientation cannot co-exist with an orientation toward the pursuit of truth is not, then, these present universities with two competing ends. The problem, rather, is the nature of social justice education. By institutionalizing a social and political ideology, this approach takes thought and decision-making away from individuals and imposes a received set of organizational values and ideas. Because the character of the just society is a legitimate topic of debate and not a self-evident truth, an organization devoted to social justice requires its members to assume answers rather than asking questions and stifles freedom of thought.

The Institutionalization of Ideology

My own discipline, sociology, can illustrate the institutionalization of ideology. Some may see sociology as a particularly egregious example. I think Christian Smith is correct that a sacred, moralistic vision has historically animated and biased sociology.  Others, such as Irving Louis Horowitz and several of the authors in Stephen Cole’s edited book What’s Wrong with Sociology?  have argued that sociology has suffered from heavy ideological bias in recent decades. Sociology has traditionally leaned left and this has led to attempts to impose intellectual conformity through organizational power. In an especially shameful episode, in 1976 the president of the American Sociological Association, Alfred McClung Lee, led a movement to expel prominent researcher James S. Coleman from the association because Coleman had dared to draw the ideologically unacceptable conclusion from research data that busing and other means of forcible school desegregation were actually  exacerbating segregation by intensifying white flight. To the ASA’s credit, the expulsion effort failed, but only after many attacks on Coleman’s character and motivations.

As the sociologist Mathieu Deflem has noted, during the 1990s, sociology went through a period of relative professionalization, during which most sociologists continued to be left-leaning in their personal beliefs, but the discipline stepped back from presenting the field itself as a socio-political program. As the twenty-first century opened, though, both the ASA and sociology in general swung back toward an institutionalized ideological program. In 2000, the newly elected president of the American Sociological Association, Joe R. Feagin chose as his meeting theme “Oppression, Domination, and Liberation.” In his presidential address he called for a decidedly radical “liberation sociology.”

In 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the ASA passed a resolution condemning the war and calling for its end. A minority of sociologists submitted a response arguing that the organization had violated its own code of professional ethics by using organizational means to advance political and moral causes.  When ASA President Michael Burawoy announced “Public Sociology” as the theme of the 2004 meetings, supporters and critics of the theme had different takes on its meeting. For some, it meant simply that the discipline should seek to reach a wide public audience and address issues of public interest. For others, it meant the identification of sociology with a program of left-wing political activism.  When Burawoy published an article in 2005 in the journal Critical Sociology, arguing that public sociology could have a “progressive impact” by promoting a vision of democratic socialism, he gave evidence that public sociology was indeed an institutional ideological program.

Frances Fox Piven, elected ASA president in 2006, made the ideological nature of public sociology even clearer.  In a 2007 book chapter, Piven considered what kind of politics public sociology should encourage and proclaimed that the field should produce “a politicized sociology that is unashamed of the left.” Piven’s message to her academic colleagues was clear: get with my political program or get out.

Any review of the themes in the online meeting catalogues of the regional sociological societies will establish that the national organization is not alone in promoting progressive political activism as a central tenet of the profession. To attend a conference these days can feel like taking part in a rally of true believers. These associations are not government entities, one may argue, and they are entitled to become exclusive clubs of the committed. The problem is that the embedded ideologies of academic professional organizations are bound up with the embedded ideologies of universities. When we hire new faculty members or when we tenure or promote professors, one of the points we consider is whether the individuals concerned have been active in professional associations, especially the national association. Because the associations so strongly push political perspectives, universities implicitly encourage professors to hold and express the “correct” socio-political orientation.

Although I have used the national professional organization in sociology as my main example of institutionalized ideology in academia, one can easily find the same trend in other disciplines, such as American studies or anthropology. Universities, moreover, do not institutionalize ideology only through professional organizations.  By defining debatable positions on policy issues as “core values” –the moral common sense that is expected of faculty and students–contemporary colleges and universities limit inquiry and build intellectual conformity into their everyday patterns.

Social Justice as Institutional Ideology

When an organization adopts a socio-political vision as part of its program, it takes decision-making away from individuals and substitutes officially approved assumptions for reasoning. The perspective known as “social justice” is clearly the dominant socio-political vision of higher education. It does not express only the opinions held by majorities on our campuses. Centers for social justice, administratively sponsored social justice conferences, and statements of allegiance to social justice in the mission statements of departments and schools set this vision into the structure of much of higher education.

What does “social justice” mean, though? For many students and some faculty on contemporary campuses, the assumptions have become so deeply entrenched that they do not even ask this question. It just means the obviously correct set of preconceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Catholic teachings long ago defined social justice as “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to achieve what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” Without theological premises about the nature of people and groups, though, it is difficult to say exactly what this means.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the prevalent view of social justice on contemporary campuses (including Catholic campuses) derives not from religious concepts of the proper ordering of society, but from popularized versions of ideas associated with philosopher John Rawls. Rawls essentially argued that the just society is one that we would choose if we did not know what position we would occupy in it. He maintained that the rational person would choose the society in which she would be as well off as possible if she happened to land at the society’s least advantaged place. Thus, societies and social policies are to be judged by the extent to which they maximize benefits to their most disadvantaged members.

The Rawlsian emphasis on disadvantage has combined with post-Civil Rights Era identity politics so that the disadvantaged have come to refer mainly to people in disadvantaged categories according to the trinity of race, class, and gender. “Intersectionality,” or falling into multiple categories of disadvantage, gives people the greatest claims to be the measures of justice and the rightful beneficiaries of social justice.  As an argument, this version of social justice may be defended or criticized. It offers a reasonable set of points for debate about social ethics and policy. But it is more than an argument in contemporary education. In establishing social justice centers and placing social justice in mission statements, universities have made it what Haidt refers to as a telos, or what I describe as an institutionalized ideology.

By setting up the neo-Rawlsian race-class-gender model of justice as the program endorsed by higher education, it defines all questions about this model as unjust and even as unethical. It bends research toward confirmation bias, since any findings of negative or even mixed consequences of, say, affirmative action for the sake of ethnic diversity are defined as inconsistent with the core values of the institution. When a university or college defines a socio-political viewpoint as officially just and virtuous, it is not necessary to engage in overt censorship or punish dissenters to encourage everyone on campus to fall into line.

In the case of sociology, most practitioners of the discipline would be left of center even if its professional organizations and leaders did not define it as political movement. But if we would treat socio-political beliefs as the property of individuals, and not as part of the discipline’s identity, then sociology would not only have greater tolerance for intellectual diversity but left-wing sociologists would deepen their understandings of their perspectives by thinking seriously and respectfully about alternative views. Similarly, if colleges and universities did not take a particular version of social justice as an institutional goal, many professors and students would still advocate a Rawlsian approach to social justice. But this would be their view, to be tested against reason and evidence with an openness to debate and discourse, rather than a doctrine imposed by institutions.

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