A New Approach to a Longstanding Problem
Given that research on ideological parochialism and bias in research and teaching goes back more than half a century, it should not be surprising to hear that Heterodox Academy is far from the first initiative ostensibly created to address these problems. For instance:
|1947|| Under the management of Harold Luhnow, the William Volker Fund began funding initiatives to help spread libertarian and classical liberal ideas. As a result of the Great Depression, the Keynesian Revolution and the New Deal, the rise of Communism, socialism and other experiments in social arrangement following World War II and decolonization – Luhnow perceived that free markets, limited government and foreign non-intervention were growing increasingly passe – particularly in academia. Through the Volker Fund, he began to fund a series of initiatives to help reinvigorate these ideas. |
He began by funding conferences for the Mont Perelin Society – a network of libertarian and classical liberal scholars led by Friedrich Hayek. Luhnow, through the Volker Fund, then helped scale up the nascent Foundation for Economic Education (est. 1946). In 1953, the Volker Fund helped establish the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) — formulated as a response to the previous Intercollegiate Socialist Society (which, after a series of reorganizations and restructurings, eventually became the influential Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS – one of the primary organs of the New Left movement of the 60s). Towards the end of Luhnow’s tenure at the Volker Fund, he and longtime associate F.A. Harper sowed the seeds for what would become known as the Institute for Humane Studies (est. 1961). However, due to a series of personal and professional conflicts, Harper ultimately established the organization independently of Luhnow and the Volker Fund (for a time, running it out of his garage) – albeit following the same model.
What is that model? The Volker Fund initiatives each varied a bit from one-another in terms of their core audiences, methods, and top priorities – however they relied on many of the same tactics to help realize their objectives. Namely, they hosted events, meetings and conferences – fully funded for participants – to help build networks, mentorship relationships, and to deepen understanding of the classical liberal tradition. They produced materials to facilitate teaching others about these ideas – disseminated at little-to-no cost. They sponsored and published scholarship by those who were working within this tradition.
Through these methods they attracted a number of classical liberal scholars dissatisfied with the nascent ‘new left.’ Indeed, although the Volker Fund is no more, these organizations have not only survived until the present day, they have grown – not just in numbers, but also in the scale of their initiatives and operations.
|1987||Allan Gruchy coined term “Heterodox Economics” to identify approaches to economic theory that defied prevailing Keynesian and neo-classical approaches (an example of a ‘heterodox’ approach would be Marxist economics). United under this banner, a movement emerged – which continues to the present day — focused on challenging orthodoxies in this particular discipline.|
| Also in 1987, Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind. It became a cultural sensation, sparking a renewed national debate about the extent to which universities, as a result of New Left professors, ‘radical’ students, relativism, the neglect of the ‘canon,’ affirmative action and other diversity or anti-racism/ sexism initiatives, etc. were undermining the fabric of American society and culture, threatening the integrity of knowledge production, and perhaps Western civilization itself. |
That same year, a new national organization was launched — the Campus Coalition for Democracy (now known as the National Association of Scholars or NAS) to “preserve Western intellectual heritage.” Its initial efforts were geared towards criticizing diversity, equity or multiculturalism efforts, gender studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization drew a strong following among conservative academics and donors — and has come to be known as a conservative advocacy organization, although they have generally resisted that label. Today, for instance, NAS President Peter Wood defines the organization’s primary mission as speaking up for ‘deplorable scholars.’
|1988|| David Horowitz and Peter Collier establish the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now known as the David Horowitz Freedom Center). In contrast with NAS, the CSPC was explicitly and unabashedly a conservative advocacy organization, ostensibly aimed at countering ‘liberal indoctrination’ and ‘political correctness.’ |
In the early 90s, the CSPC launched a magazine, Heterodoxy, intended to ‘expose the excesses of political correctness’ on college and university campuses throughout the United States. In many respects, it served as a template for subsequent initiatives to surveille and report on ‘out of control’ left-leaning professors. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, Campus Watch (est. 2002) was established to target scholars who did work on Islam and the Middle East. With the advent of social media a number of new sites sprouted up to crowdsource and amplify incidents of alleged bias such as Campus Reform (est. 2009), College Fix (est. 2011), Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist (est. 2016). An entire ecosystem has emerged to cultivate and funnel (often decontextualized, exaggerated, distorted or otherwise non-representative) incidents of perceived educational malpractice into a right-aligned outrage machine – in order to mark scholars for campaigns of intimidation and harassment, or to push for their termination — in the name of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, no less!
|1999||In contradistinction with the aforementioned organizations seeking to advance a particular political agenda/ line of thought, or who lay siege to students and professors for their political views, Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to defend academics who were under attack for their beliefs, expression or scholarship – irrespective of the ideological positions of the aggressors or their intended targets. The organization is focused on legal equality (combatting discrimination and bias), ensuring due process, and defending freedom of conscience and expression. Their legal team files lawsuits and amicus briefs, drafts model legislation, consults university leadership on best-practices and educates faculty and students on their rights. In 2003 they began a university ratings project, assigning tracked schools a ‘green,’ ‘yellow,’ or ‘red’ rating depending on their openness to free expression (relative to their metrics) – which has subsequently expanded into a range of resources and student surveys to understand the state of free expression and due process on campuses nationwide.|
|The same year FIRE is launched to assist scholars in the United States, another organization, Scholars at Risk, was created to help provide temporary academic positions and support for academics who are threatened or persecuted for their work – focused primarily on scholars beyond the U.S. and Western Europe (who are often, in many respects, more vulnerable due to weaker protections for free speech, open inquiry, due process, etc.).|
|2009|| Dennis Prager originally planned on launching right-aligned university along the lines of Liberty University or Hillsdale. This proved cost-prohibitive. However, recognizing the growing popularity of online instruction, and of video platforms like YouTube, he got an idea to reach students with his preferred educational materials while circumventing professors and other institutional gatekeepers altogether. PragerU was born. |
Their primary product: short, polished five-minute ‘explainer’ videos offering highly-controversial takes on various topics, but presented in a way that seems authoritative, even commonsensical. Occasionally these explainers are put together by actual academics. More typically, however, they feature scholars associated with various conservative think-tanks, prominent media/ online personalities, or up-and-coming young conservative activists. According to their website, PragerU videos have received over three billion views to date — this despite a significant share of their content being restricted by YouTube.
While HxA shares some similarities with predecessor movements, it is also something entirely new:
- Like the Heteorodox Economics movement, HxA pushes push back on orthodoxies in scholarship – but across disciplines and fields.
- Similar to many other groups and movements, we recognize that there is a dearth of engagement with conservative, libertarian and religious views across most lines of social research. We share the conviction that this is a problem. However, (unlike many others operating in this space) we do not necessarily believe that conservative, libertarian or religious thought is ‘correct,’ nor that the prevailing secular and left-aligned values are ‘wrong.’ Instead, we recognize homogeneity itself as a problem for research and teaching. It leads to blind spots and overconfidence, untested axioms, underexplored possibilities, it contributes to a disconnect between scholars, the public and policymakers – undermining the credibility, impact and continued viability of research and institutions of higher learning. We are seeking a broader range of ideological (moral, political, metaphysical) views to address these problems.
- Put another way: we are not advocating for any particular ideology (conservative, libertarian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim) nor any particular tradition or canon (such as the classical western tradition). We are focused on the process of research and pedagogy, making sure it is as inclusive, free, rigorous and fair as it can be. Increasing ideological diversity is one means to this end – although we also support other diversity and inclusion efforts, for instance those aimed at increasing participation among women, ethnic or racial minorities, those from modest socio-economic backgrounds, rural areas, etc. Indeed, the primary subject of this essay is that the longstanding bifurcation of research and institutional advocacy — work related to identity commitments on one side, ideological commitments on the other — has significantly undermined the ability of any of these parties to make progress on their respective goals. Heterodox Academy is perhaps the first initiative of its sort — that embraces and seeks to address ideology and identity issues in knowledge production.
- While we respect the work of those who bring legal cases push back against incursions on freedom and defend scholars under fire for their ideas or research — as an organization, we have been consistently opposed to attempts at legislating viewpoint diversity, etc. (i.e. here, here, here, here). As Jonathan Haidt aptly put it, “The political world is playing a very different game, and it’s a game that almost always damages our ability to do our work in universities.”
- We are comprised of university faculty, staff and students. That is, we are invested in institutions of higher learning and have a profound stake in their flourishing.
- Consequently, we are opposed to attempts to defund universities or delegitimize expertise. We are opposed to attempts to terminate professors for their work, or to demean and vilify students. We are committed to rising above accusations and anecdotes through measurement and evidence. We are not out to simply highlight problems, but to think through solutions, highlight exemplars, provide data, tools, resources, etc. In a nutshell, we are committed to being empirically-grounded and constructive in a way that many other actors are not.
- Finally, we are laser-focused on institutionalizing, on pragmatism, and on drawing from models that actually work.