heterodox: the blog
Richard Shweder on the End of the Modern Academy
Every now and then we come across books or essays that are so good that we want everyone interested in university life to read them. Often the best ideas are expressed in books or long essays, which means that most people will decide not to devote the large amount of time needed. At HxA we are therefore starting a series of blog posts with “Essential Reading” in the title and as a tag. These posts make it possible for readers to get the basic idea of a major work quickly. Each post will include a short introduction followed by an outline of the work that includes substantial excerpts. We do not summarize the work ourselves – we offer selections that give the reader a sense of the argument. We include occasional commentary [interspersed with the text in brackets] to show why the essay is so important for our mission at Heterodox Academy. We put some key lines in bold.
Here is the first such essay:
Richard A. Shweder (2017). The End of the Modern Academy: At the University of Chicago, for Example. Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2017, pp. 695-719.
Available online at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/675032; Ungated full text of the manuscript is available here.
Why this essay matters:
HxA member Richard Shweder is a cultural anthropologist, and is the person most responsible for the rebirth of cultural psychology in the 1980s and 1990s. He is a keen observer of social groups and institutions, and the way they change as social forces and moral passions sweep through them. In this essay he turns his attention to universities, including his own rather unusual university—the University of Chicago—which has distinguished itself in recent years as the leading American university supporting viewpoint diversity and a culture of vigorous argumentation. (It achieved the highest score, by far, in the HxA Guide to Colleges.)
Shweder describes the “modern” (as opposed to pre- or post-modern) conception of a university that was widespread in the 1960s and 1970s when he began teaching at the University of Chicago—an “ivory tower” conception in which the purpose of the university is “improving the stock of ordered knowledge and rational judgment.” He structures his essay around three ideals of the modernist university, and three threats that are now undermining those ideals. The three threats are: 1) the increasing pursuit of profit from research after 1980; 2) the rise of bureaucratic constraints on research, such as the creation of Internal Review Boards (IRBs) to govern all research; and 3) the rise of a post-modern form of expressive identity politics. This third point is the most important for our mission at Heterodox Academy, for this form of activism, when done by scholars, is sometimes in conflict with the cultivation of viewpoint diversity and the search for truth.
When Shweder speaks of the “end” of the academy, it is a double-entendre. He refers to the “end” as the purpose or goal, but as he describes the three threats, it becomes clear that these threats may bring about the end (termination) of the modernist truth-oriented university. Universities, like all institutions, evolve. This essay is an essential reading because it helps us think about the recent history of universities, it helps us see recent trends as continuations of longer-term trends, and it gives us a language that will help people at each university discuss the kind of institution they want to be going forward. (Full disclosure: Shweder was my post doctoral supervisor, 1992-1994, and his ideas were very influential on my later work, culminating in The Righteous Mind.)
All text below is from the essay [unless it is in brackets].
INTRODUCTION: THE IDEALS OF THE MODERN ACADEMY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO (CIRCA 1967)
In 1967 Edward Levi, the president of the University of Chicago… told the Citizen’s Board of the University of Chicago that it is not the role of the university to directly respond to the needs of the broader worlds of politics and commerce or to be popular with the general public, and that the true mission of an academic institution is intellectual, not moral. He told them that the university does not exist to develop inventions for industry, or to train technicians for society, or to counter the injustices of the world. The central purpose of the university, Levi avowed, the main reason for its existence, is “improving the stock of ordered knowledge and rational judgment” (Levi 2007)…
Levi’s vision of the academy is the conjuring of an image of a so-called ivory tower… Whether or not the ivory tower metaphor is apt, Levi was describing what one might call the modern conception of the academy. As far as I know, the enrichment concept in the motto of the University of Chicago (“Let knowledge grow, so life may be enriched”) was never meant to imply “go to college so that you can get rich,” or “go to college so you can save the world”—nor was the adage meant to imply that the aim of the university was to engage in beneficent social engineering, or human rights activism, or identity politics. Nevertheless, those motives are increasingly part of a contemporary postmodern multiverse discourse used to justify public and private support for the academy, as many universities strive to become consulting agencies of sorts, setting up “urban labs” or “innovation institutes” to collaborate with nonacademic “change agents” (for example, politicians, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations) and targeting their fundraising efforts (and even their mission statements) to projected practical advances in the production of energy, school reform, environmental protection, and health enhancing discoveries and inventions in microbiology and molecular engineering.
Edward Levi’s modern conception of the academy is therefore not a description of the contemporary academy, which in various ways—including the three I discuss in this essay—has traded its modern soul for a soul of a different kind, one that is sometimes postmodern, sometimes premodern, and sometimes both. Instead, Levi’s ivory tower should be viewed as an imagined venerated academy associated with a particular set of intellectual ideals: disciplined impartiality, organized skepticism, a fondness for assumption-questioning dialogue, and a love of critical reasoning, all aimed at the scholarly (by which I mean disciplined and disinterested) pursuit of an abstract virtue called “truth” and its assumed byproduct, the growth of knowledge and the development of rational judgment…
Below I describe three somewhat deceptive but nonetheless treacherous contemporary threats, which I have come to view as Trojan horses within the gates.
The first is the abandonment over the past three or four decades of the modern ideal for scholarly research, which states that research done primarily in anticipation of profit is incompatible with the aims of the university…
The second threat is the softening, qualification, and weakening of the modern academic commitment to the principles of complete freedom of research and unrestricted dissemination of information…
The third threat to the modern academy concerns the laws, the regulations, and the contemporary ideological currents that have stimulated and encouraged the growth of expressive-demonstrative identity politics on campus.
1) MODERN ACADEMY IDEAL #1: RESEARCH DONE PRIMARILY IN ANTICIPATION OF PROFIT IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE AIMS OF THE UNIVERSITY
[In this section, Shweder describes how universities changed after the US Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which commercialized the academy by offering a financial incentive to federally funded researchers and their university administrators. They moved away from the Ivory Tower conception and started down the path toward becoming more like businesses. This has caused problems because, as the philosopher Arthur Lovejoy wrote:] “the distinctive social function of the scholar’s trade cannot be fulfilled if those who pay the piper are permitted to call the tune.”
2) MODERN ACADEMY IDEAL # 2: THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF THE UNIVERSITY INCLUDE COMPLETE FREEDOM OF RESEARCH AND THE UNRESTRICTED DISSEMINATION OF INFORMATION
The University of Chicago’s Articles of Incorporation magnificently proclaim that “the basic policies of the University of Chicago include complete freedom of research and the unrestricted dissemination of information.” Nevertheless, despite some eloquent academic freedom proclamations from within the academy over the past several decades, “research administration” has become a growth industry on America’s college campuses. [Shweder then describes the process by which universities voluntarily and foolishly forfeited to the Federal government the power to create a review system – the IRB – that requires all researchers to go through a cumbersome administrative process before they can do research of any kind, even research that poses no risks to participants, such as having a conversation about language or food]. Socrates himself would have rolled over in his grave by now if he knew about the hoops his heirs in the humanities and social sciences must jump through to even gain permission to ask questions.
3) MODERN ACADEMY IDEAL # 3: VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY
There can be little doubt that the modern academy has long been a fan of viewpoint diversity. It eulogizes Socratic engagement with the other side of almost any story. It extols the intellectual benefits of exposure to alternative perspectives that challenge one’s convictions. It thrives on the intellectual freedom it grants to its disputatious members. The result: whenever issues are contestable (that is, most of the time) and there is freedom to engage in dispute, there will be viewpoint diversity. This is one of the reasons the modern academy as an intellectual community has no unitary voice of its own. It lives up to its ideals by keeping its corporate mouth shut. What it does have are freethinking individual members (faculty and students) who are willing and empowered to push the envelope and explore unpopular, minority, or politically incorrect points of view. But they only speak for themselves, not for the academy or their profession as a whole. [Here Shweder gives the intellectual justification for the famous “Chicago principles on Freedom of Expression,” which we at HxA strongly support]
Viewpoint diversity is also one of the reasons the entrance door to the modern academy is left wide-open to all fearless minds regardless of national boundaries, race, gender, or creed. Ideally they enter the academy willing to place their political goals, their values, their pictures of the world, and themselves at intellectual risk and are eager to participate in critical, skeptical, sometimes upsetting, sometimes discombobulating, yet never-ending truth-seeking conversations.
That in a nutshell is what I mean by viewpoint diversity in its modern academy sense. But it is only the beginning of the story. In recent decades, two other senses of viewpoint diversity have gained currency in the contemporary academy.
The first sense is premodern: viewpoint diversity as census category/ ancestral in-group diversity where you have to be one (a demographic insider) to know one: by this account it was inauthentic for Janis Joplin (a white woman) to sing the blues, and only a Jew should be the head of a Jewish Studies Center. The second sense is postmodern: viewpoint diversity as solipsistic exile, “to each her own bag,” everything is in the eye of the beholder, what is true for you is not true for me, so-let’s-talk-about-me-for-a-while diversity. Today both of those Trojan horses are deep inside the gates.
…. In 1987 the political philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a national bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. … Bloom focused on one of the Trojan horses: the subjective relativism in the contemporary academy that he believed was contagious and left the minds of students so open and undiscriminating that they became undiscerning. He had less to say about the other Trojan horse, the hazards associated with the ready acceptance of the premodern interpretation of viewpoint as tribal identity and diversity as a census count of balkanized in-groups.
Combine the two Trojan horses, however, and a new force is created: the academy as a platform for expressive-demonstrative identity politics. The players are not impartial contentious skeptics but rather interest groups who are basically uninterested in any side but their own story and morally motivated to engage in pursuits (e.g., knocking down the doors to rectify what they view as historical injustices) that take precedence over assumption-questioning discourse and the disinterested search for truth. Working independently and together, those two Trojan horses (the premodern and the postmodern) have now exerted a structural pressure that threatens the integrity of the modern academy and challenges several of its ideals.
There are many symptoms of the problem or signs of the times. Some have names that are familiar by now: trigger warnings, safe zones, radar screens for the detection of microaggressions, political correctness. Other related manifestations include faculty and students who take shelter in balkanized centers or institutes where true-believing insiders feel safe at home and embrace parochial ideological stances that they never contest and are all too eager to proselytize or universalize; students who seem to have been so protected and/or privileged that when they arrive at college they actually want to be in locus parentis, treated like wards of the state by one of the ever-expanding university administrative offices designated to serve that protective function, or at the very least shielded from unsettling facts about the world and never exposed to ideas that challenge their convictions (on this, don’t miss the illuminations in Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). Mere exposure to arguments and evidence that challenges one’s convictions is experienced as trauma or as the creation of a hostile work environment, requiring a therapeutic or legal response.
Add to this symptom list the popularity of a vilifying campus vernacular that encourages the incontinent use of epithets such as sexist, racist, homophobe, or anti-Semite. If you suggest that sexism is not necessarily the best explanation for the relative infrequency of female theoretical physicists compared to female literary critics, you are a sexist… Fearless minds are increasingly in short supply on college campuses, and even those who are fearless may hesitate to “follow the argument where it leads.” Inhibited by reputational concerns or anticipations of an administrative complaint or legal suit, worried about perceptions of complicity or guilt by association, they give up on skeptical dialogue and see little benefit in defending a politically unpopular point of view, even just for the sake of argument. The campus thereby becomes a place where once fearless minds “self-censor” or tiptoe around controversial hot-button topics.
4) LOCAL CONTAGIONS OF ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM
[This is a short section continuing the argument against the “premodern logic” in which “only insiders have the authority to speak about themselves.”]
5) DODGING THE BAKKE DECISION
[In this section Shweder speculates about how the pre-modern conception came back into vogue, replacing the modern conception in some departments. He suggests that there might be a connection to the way that academics reacted to the 1978 supreme court case on affirmative action known as the “Bakke Decision,” which prohibited racial preferences in admissions policies, but allowed an exception for preferences enacted to create what Justice Powell called “beneficial educational pluralism,” also known as “diversity.”]
Justice Powell was aware that his warrant to promote beneficial education pluralism might be abused. As he left the legal door open for universities and college to admit students with diverse viewpoints and experiences, he acknowledged the critics who feared that his concept would be abused and would operate as a cover for a premodern admissions program aimed at the same unconstitutional remedial social-justice goals as a group quota system. Nevertheless he was willing to presume good faith on the part of the contemporary academy. It was a generous presumption.
Instead we have had an erosion of the modern ideal of viewpoint diversity. We have witnessed a weakening of the norms that create an intellectual environment corrosive of dogma and supportive of detached and exacting scrutiny of all theories, claims, and ideologies. When a census category becomes a viewpoint, the contemporary academy begins to look like the Balkans; or perhaps like the millet system in the Ottoman Empire, where diverse cultures with different values and pictures of the world and speaking 23 distinct languages lived separated lives. This is pluralism all right, but it is not the type of pluralism that is educationally beneficial, at least not in the modern academic sense. While it may seem strange for a cultural anthropologist to be writing against the premodern interpretation of viewpoint diversity, the modern university is not the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire was not a Temple of Reason.
6) THE CHANGING MEANING OF COMMUNITY IN THE CORPORATE POSTMODERN ACADEMY
Considering the modern conception of the academy, I do not think most faculty members think of themselves as employees of a nonprofit corporation, even if that is what they are from a state-based legal point of view. Their sense of community is of quite a different sort. Ideally, within the terms of the modern conception of the academy, faculty members are meant to view themselves as ardent and fearless autonomous scholars and individual researchers who follow the argument and the evidence where they lead, regardless of the practical, moral, or political consequences; as scholars and researchers who are prepared to challenge received pieties and make observations (or hypothesize the existence of facts) that might be embarrassing or even infuriating to some. They are not meant to view themselves as hired hands or as pursuing a job. Instead they conceptualize themselves more or less as a loose collection of individuals, each following their calling in a rare and precious institutional setting, with leaders who are committed to shielding them from the vested interests and pressing demands associated with the worlds of commerce, partisan politics, and religious and moral crusades. Under that type of arrangement the academy has a chance to remain a place where the life of the mind can be free, creative, and independent.
A university according to that modern conception may be a corporate entity but only in a very narrow sense: it exists for the limited purpose of teaching and inquiry. It cannot speak on social and political issues with a single voice or in the name of its individual members because the main reason for its existence as an incorporated entity is to keep the conversation going and not to take sides or declare what is right and true.
[Shweder then explains the Kalven Report, the 1967 report from a committee chaired by legal scholar Harry Kalen Jr., which is the precursor to the Chicago Principles on Free Expression mentioned above. He gives several excerpts from the report, including this one:]
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
[Here is Shweder’s concluding paragraph:]
It seems to me that the threats to the modern academy mentioned in this essay are connected to changes in the way the incorporated status, the corporate or communal nature of the academy, is currently conceptualized even by members of the academy themselves. The legal status of a university as a corporation makes it vulnerable to government regulations (federal and state) that thicken its communal aspects (including reputational concerns and legal risks) and have the potential to erode those aspects of its mission that derive from its commitment to restrict its communal norms to the pursuit of its compelling but very focused purpose of “improving the stock of ordered knowledge and rational judgment.” We have already gone pretty far down that corrosive primrose path, so much so that within the terms of the prevailing postmodern multiverse conception of the university, the campus is no longer an ivory tower but rather a practical innovation laboratory and a convenient training and recruiting ground for the commercial, moral, and political activities of a variety of interests groups. Universities undeniably have a corporate status, yet as Edward Levi proclaimed, they are incorporated to serve a purpose unlike most others; and if they are treated like and start acting like businesses, companies, or organizations that have other types of purposes in mind, they risk losing their main reason for being.
To read more of Shweder’s work, please see a selection of his publications on his faculty page at the U. of Chicago.
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