Stephen Messenger has a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Systems Management. He has worked for 35 years in systems engineering and program management for FAA, DoD, and civilian government acquisition programs. In his spare time he studies psychology, ideology, and politics.
Heterodox Academy (HxA) is my favorite of all the groups that are trying to bridge the ideological divide and bring some amount of civility back to our culture. I want desperately for it to succeed. If it fails there’s nothing else that I see that could take its place.
So it was especially disconcerting for me to come away from their recent Open Mind Conference feeling deeply disappointed. Having been a reader of HxA’s blog since it started — and through that, having been steeped since 2015 in messages about the tenets and practices of viewpoint diversity, I was excited to attend a day full of discussions at which I expected to see those tenets and practices put to use.
Alas, that was not what happened. As I see it, three tendencies undermined their inaugural symposium, and menace their project more broadly (click to expand):
Conclusion and Recommendations
Effective solutions to wicked problems require accurate diagnoses of their root causes. So far what I’ve seen from Heterodox Academy is lots of attempts at solving, but perhaps inadequate diagnosing. Viewpoint diversity, by itself, is insufficient to solve the multi-dimensional problem faced by academia. The problem is much more pervasive and far more insidious than HxA seems to realize.
As I argued in my Quillette essay “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics,” I believe it’s not WHAT people think – their viewpoints – that defines the ideological divide, it’s HOW they think; the psychological profiles from which viewpoints follow.
The good news is that Heterodox Academy seems to be coming around to the idea that viewpoint diversity alone might be insufficient to solve academia’s problems. It recently asked, in a Perspectives Needed column, “What Are the Limits of Viewpoint Diversity?” – and it recently expanded the definition of its mission to include promoting not just viewpoint diversity, but also “mutual understanding” and “constructive disagreement.”
These are encouraging signs. However, I would like to offer four additional recommendations that may help HxA advance its goals:
First, the theme of the next Open Mind Conference should be “A Day Of Listening.” Its mission should be to help university stakeholders gain a deeper understanding of the people whose viewpoints are missing from academia, and how and why academia alienates those people and drives them away.
Second, the ratio of non-conservative to conservative panelists, which was perhaps as high as 25 to 3 at this conference, could be reversed. As HxA likes to say, quoting John Stuart Mill, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Future Open Mind conferences should help academics on the left get to know the “other side.”
Third, following from the first two suggestions, a significant proportion of the panelists should be from outside academia. It seems counterintuitive to believe, as HxA apparently does, that most within the academy tend to think the same way – yet these same professors and administrators who helped create and perpetuate the problem can solve it on their own.
Fourth, the process for achieving the mission of the day should be for HxA members to let go of a for-and-against mindset, and commit to actively listening to the panelists for the purpose of gaining an intuitive grasp of where they’re coming from.
This type of approach could help make future Open Mind conferences, and HxA as an organization, more productive and impactful – both within the academy and beyond.
Editor’s note: Stephan was invited to submit this entry following a great interview with Benjamin Boyce on the topic of Heterodox Academy and our recent Open Mind Conference. Although not himself an “academic,” one of Stephan’s key arguments is that HxA, and the academy more broadly, fails to sufficiently engage with non-academics, or to value non-academic knowledge and perspectives. This, and the other points raised here, seemed important to present to our academic members and readership.
Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or that sound like a tirade or screed are likely to be deleted.