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heterodox: the blog

Essay (Opinion Piece)

On Truth and Ideology in Academia

Christian Alejandro Gonzalez December 9, 2020

The following is part of a series of blog posts this month on the telos of the university, a topic originally explored on the HxA blog by Jonathan Haidt in his piece, “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.”

At an Heterodox Academy event in December 2019 at Columbia University, Jonathan Haidt argued that universities must choose a telos—a guiding purpose, a governing principle. Universities, he said, are like other institutions in that they must place one value above all others if they are to function properly. For courts of law, that value is justice; for the medical profession, that value is health; for universities, that value is truth. Universities must therefore choose: they can either commit themselves to the pursuit of truth, Haidt said, or to the promotion of social justice. They cannot place the two goals at a level of equal importance, for they will often come into conflict with each other. A university whose telos is social justice, for instance, would probably be reluctant to support scholars whose research undermines social justice narratives. And if a truth-seeking university failed to support such scholars, its mission would become compromised.

Implicit in Haidt’s argument is the view that truth and the ideology of social justice (as presently defined by the academic left) are incompatible, at least to some degree. This argument is correct, in my view, but it applies to all ideologies, not just to the ideology of social justice. An institutional commitment to the unfettered pursuit of truth is incompatible with ideology as such. For that reason, the quality of scholarship and teaching will suffer to the extent that any single ideology predominates in academia.

All ideologies are partially constituted by the factual claims they make about the world. Reactionary Catholicism, for example, holds that liberal political philosophy and the erosion of religious faith are generating widespread loneliness; critical race theory claims that discrimination on the part of whites is the primary cause behind black disadvantage; and many varieties of radical feminism contend that there are no meaningful biological differences between men and women.

In short, ideologies function as tools that interpret empirical reality. Once this function is grasped, their tension with the unfettered pursuit of truth is easy to see. Imagine, for instance, a university whose highest value was the promotion of reactionary Catholicism. What would it do if one of its sociologists used survey data to show that people are less lonely today than they were seventy years ago, when the influence of religion on public life was stronger? Or imagine, say, a university whose highest value was the promotion of critical race theory. What would it do if one of its economists demonstrated that there is little evidence of anti-black discrimination in the labor market? Because such findings would imperil the central narratives of these imagined universities, they would have to be suppressed through one form or another, lest the heretic imperil the institution’s foundational dogmas.

Thus, to the extent that the pursuit of truth involves the relentless discovery of facts, the endeavor threatens to subvert all ideologies (unless one claims, implausibly, that there exists an ideology which perfectly captures empirical reality—in which case I should very much like to hear about it!). If that is so, then the only way for a university to make truth its highest value—the only way for it to maintain a truly unrestricted marketplace of ideas, where any finding can be discussed—is for it to become officially agnostic about ideology. The moment universities make an ideology their highest value, they render truth a secondary concern and compel themselves to snuff out dissent.

We immediately run into a problem, however, because universities cannot be completely agnostic about moral and political values. For one thing, all centers of knowledge production must make value judgments about what kind of research they will fund, support, protect, and help to disseminate. It is impossible to collect random facts about the world without placing them into some sort of framework which gives them meaning, and these frameworks will always reflect value-judgments. To give an obvious example: the historian who studies the Atlantic slave trade will spend more time discussing the conditions of life on slave ships than the paint used to give the ships their color, and this decision would reflect a value judgment that human lives are more worthy of study than paint. Such moral decisions—as well as far more complicated ones—are an inescapable part of the research process. 

There is a further reason why universities cannot be agnostic seekers of truth, and it has to do with the massive influence they exert over the culture. Universities have the power to craft curriculums, to give credentials to professors (who themselves might hold certain values rather than others), to access mass media, and to educate the leaders of the future. All of this amounts to having the power to shape society’s conception of the common good—a highly attractive prize. Any group that takes charge of the academic apparatus will use this power to advance its values.

If it is inevitable for universities to have ideologies, and if all ideologies suppress points of view that threaten their foundational claims (even if they don’t all do so with equal intensity), then the question confronting commentators on the academy cannot be “will our universities promote truth-seeking or social justice?” Instead it must be, “which moral and political values will universities promote, what sorts of questions would that ideology necessarily suppress and exclude, and would the trade-off be worth it?” Pace Jonathan Haidt, the real choice is not between truth and social justice, but between a different set of values and the one that presently enjoys hegemonic or near-hegemonic status. This is both a political and a philosophical question, and choosing between the current ideology of social justice and some alternative would require one to explain whether the alternative ideology would govern the members of the academic community more justly, and why.

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