The unexpected election of Donald Trump has created uncertainty and new challenges for most advocacy groups. Heterodox Academy is no different; we are witnessing two contradictory trends in the last month:
1. More criticism from people on the left who say that now, more than ever, our work plays into the agenda of the right because HxA validates their claim that universities lean left and are biased against conservatives.
2. More support from people on the left who say that now, more than ever, students and professors on the left must escape from bubbles and echo chambers and expose themselves to more viewpoint diversity.
I believe that both responses are correct, but within different time frames. HxA’s work does give the right a short-term tactical boost. They get to say “See? We told you so! Universities are partisan!” These boosts feel great, and this is why our work gets more coverage in right-leaning publications than in left-leaning ones. If you are a progressive professor who cares mainly about damage control this month, don’t join HxA.
But if you are a progressive professor who wants to strengthen the left in the long run, raise the credibility and federal funding of universities during a time of Republican dominance, and improve the reliability of the research upon which nearly all progressive reforms depend, then now, more than ever, is the time to join HxA.
Here is the case for joining and supporting Heterodox Academy, as made by four prominent voices from the left.
1) Nick Kristof
Kristof wrote a pair of New York Times columns this past May on the moral and educational case for viewpoint diversity. In A Confession of Liberal Intolerance he wrote:
“The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.”
Kristof was surprised by the intensity and uniformity of the response from progressive readers, who wrote things like “you don’t diversify with idiots.” In response, Kristof wrote a second column in which he laid out “three good reasons for universities to be more welcoming not just to women or blacks, but also to conservatives.”
A) “Stereotyping and discrimination are wrong, whether against gays or Muslims, or against conservatives or evangelicals.”
B) “There’s abundant evidence of the benefits of diversity. Bringing in members of minorities is not an act of charity but a way of strengthening an organization…Sure, achieving diversity is a frustrating process, but it enriches organizations and improves decision-making. So let’s aim for ideological as well as ethnic diversity.”
C) “When scholars cluster on the left end of the spectrum, they marginalize themselves. We desperately need academics like sociologists and anthropologists influencing American public policy on issues like poverty, yet when they are in an outer-left orbit, their wisdom often goes untapped.”
2) The Harvard Crimson
Three days after the election, the editors of Harvard’s main student newspaper published an editorial titled Elephant and Man at Harvard. They began by noting the results of a pre-election survey of Harvard undergraduates that found roughly 70% identifying as being on the left, and only 13% as being on the right. Only 6% said they would vote for Trump – far below the 35% of millennials nationwide who did so. They wrote that “the survey points to an overall lack of ideological diversity that should concern faculty, administrators, and students alike, especially at this moment in our history.” Here is their key argument:
“But when the disconnect has grown to such proportions, diversifying political expression in all settings ought to become an administrative priority. The pursuit of ‘Veritas’ which undergirds our intellectual life demands not only that each member of our community be able to debate politics freely, but also that we attend to the multitude of political views that exist in our nation. Stifling this discussion on campus is a disservice to our peers in the campus political minority, and to our own educational growth.
In the same vein, administrators and faculty should take active steps to ensure that students of all political stripes feel comfortable voicing their ideas, especially in the classroom. Concretely, this effort will likely involve actively encouraging the airing of different views, and curtailing unnecessary or inappropriate expressions of political favor by professors. Guaranteeing that more conservative professors teach in subject areas that clearly lean liberal, like the humanities, is also crucial.”
In the wake of the election, the editors of Nature published an editorial titled: Academia must resist political confirmation bias. The editors explained that “It is crucial to fight discrimination in all its forms, but it is unhelpful to exclude conservative voices from debate.”
They acknowledged that “confirmation bias is rife in all walks of life, including the practice of research and the political viewpoints of academic liberals. No one should kid themselves that they are immune.” The editors specifically noted the urgency of understanding contemporary populist movements (which are attempting to reverse progressive gains around the world) and said that “social scientists must weigh in more heavily to inform public debate and vigorously challenge misconceptions — on all sides.”
4) Barack Obama
At a forum on education in 2015, the President offered a beautiful meditation on the importance of viewpoint diversity:
Look, the purpose of college is not just… to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information; to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative. The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time, people learn from each other, because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.
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All of these writers understand that the left’s increasing numerical dominance of the academy has been a pyrrhic victory. John Stuart Mill explained it well in On Liberty:
“the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”
When political orthodoxy suppresses dissent, it is the dominant group that loses the most. In fact, a 2005 New York Times article on Chief Justice John Roberts’ education noted that the left’s dominance at Harvard may have created stronger conservatives and less able progressives: “Conservatives at Harvard [Norquist said] learned to be ‘tougher than anyone else.’ Unlike students on the left, he said, they were constantly being challenged.”
So if you are a professor who is upset by the right’s recent electoral success – at multiple levels of government, and in many countries beyond the USA – then join Heterodox Academy. Add your voice to that of 300 colleagues who have pledged to welcome and support viewpoint diversity. Together we can improve the vitality of our universities, the quality of our research, and the readiness of the next generation to take up the challenges of democratic citizenship in a divided nation. In the long run, would that harm the left, or help it?
Post Script: The day after this essay was posted, Kristof’s column happened to return to this topic: The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus. Excerpt: “I share apprehensions about President-elect Trump, but I also fear the reaction was evidence of how insular universities have become… Already, the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students and to liberalism itself, with liberalism collapsing on some campuses into self-parody…. Whatever our politics, inhabiting a bubble makes us more shrill.”