2020 Open Inquiry Awards Winners
Awarded to a person or group that has shown exceptional leadership in championing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in the academy and beyond.
John McWhorter is a public intellectual and prolific writer who has produced counter-narratives to contentious issues steeped in orthodoxy throughout his 20+ year career. His nominator describes him as “an inspiration and a gadfly in his articles on race and justice,” adding that “his role as a Black intellectual committed to a genuinely open inquiry about issues of race, policing, and justice in America has been essential. McWhorter is championing an actual conversation, in contrast to the imposed and ill-thought-through orthodoxy we are living through now.”
McWhorter’s articles and commentaries have appeared in several publications, including The Atlantic, Reason, The New Republic, Aeon, and many more. He has published op-eds on the increasing pressures of cancel culture in academic settings, including “Academics Are Really, Really, Worried About Their Freedom” and “The Show-Trial Rhetoric That Took Down a Charter-School Founder.” His Quillette piece “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered” presents a more complicated, evidence-based narrative on race and police violence than is often portrayed.
When asked what open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive mean to him professionally, McWhorter shared:
“The humanities and social sciences are permeated by a sense that advocacy is the essence of intellection rather than an offshoot of it. The advocacy in question is leftist, today founded in the tenets of Critical Race Theory that hold battling power differentials as humankind’s most important mission, neglected only by the morally perverted who therefore require censure and ostracization. I stand in opposition to this perversion of what it is to think and to be intelligent, and seek the genuine exchange of ideas central to forging truly new insights.”
McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University. He hosts Slate’s language podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of over 20 books on issues including race and language. His most recent books are “The Creole Debate” and “Talking Back, Talking Black.” He has also composed five audiovisual courses in the Great Courses series on language.
Exceptional Scholarship Award
Awarded to an academic who, through research or another form of scholarship, has greatly contributed to understanding of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.
Amy Lai is a legal scholar and writer based at Freie Universität in Berlin. Born in British Hong Kong, Lai received her legal training in the U.S. She interned at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and worked at Boston-based law firms.
Her nominator described her as ”dedicated to free speech activism and the battle against authoritarianism—both overt and covert, in Hong Kong and in the Western world. She has been outspoken on social issues, including the erosion of free speech in Western academia and the creeping influences of the Chinese government in Western societies.”
Lai was selected for a 2020 Exceptional Scholarship Award in part for her book “The Right to Parody: Comparative Analysis of Copyright and Free Speech,” which proposes a legal definition of parody that ensures the right to free expression. Lai is completing her second book on the origins of the university and free speech in academia, slated to be published with University of Michigan Press. She has also published in the Globe & Mail, Apple Daily, and the McDonald Laurier Institute, a non-partisan Canadian public policy think tank, advocating for nuanced perspectives on colonialism.
Lai says that she “hopes that her book and op-eds will at least inspire people in Western democracies, especially those who have not lived under dictatorships, to not take their freedoms for granted.”
Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke
Justin Tosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, and Brandon Warmke is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. They were jointly selected as 2020 Exceptional Scholarship Award winners in part for their book “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk,” which was featured on the Half Hour of Heterodoxy Podcast. They also co-authored “Moral grandstanding and political polarization: a multi-study consideration,” which was published in the Journal of Research in Personality.
Their book “Grandstanding” distinguishes moral grandstanding from virtue signaling and argues that people use moral talk to gain status, power, and prestige rather than to help others – particularly in the political arena. Their nominator lauded their book for “giving us a language with which to describe contemporary ways of political communication and political speech in general,” which is crucial in a moment of extreme polarization.
Tosi and Warmke have also co-authored pieces for CNN, Aeon, The Conversation, and MarketWatch, and their academic work has been featured in The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, HuffPost, Scientific American, Forbes, Vox, Commentary Magazine, and The Guardian.
When asked what open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement meant to their professional work, and they shared:
Tosi: “For free inquiry to work, we have to be able to tell the truth, even when it’s not a crowd-pleaser. We also have to listen to and learn from people with whom we disagree. Because people are too often rewarded for abusing moral talk to seek status, free inquiry is regularly under threat.”
Warmke: “The public square is an impressive human achievement. To have a place where diverse people are free to hear and be heard is to have something worth protecting. Understanding what the public square is for and how we can protect it are two of the most pressing philosophical and scientific challenges in the digital age. This is not hyperbole. To address social problems, we must be able to talk to, learn from, and trust one another.”
Outstanding Student Group Award
Awarded to a student group for making a particularly vital and durable contribution to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement on their campus and beyond.
Princeton Open Campus Coalition
Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), an undergraduate student organization dedicated to fostering a campus environment free of fear and intolerance at Princeton University, is the 2020 Outstanding Student Group Award Winner. POCC aims to promote free speech and academic freedom and to encourage free inquiry, civil dialogue, and robust discussions between the university’s affiliates.
Multiple HxA members wrote to nominate POCC this year for their impressive efforts, both past and present, to bring open inquiry to their campus. While the founding members have now graduated from Princeton, current students continue to operate POCC and promote these ideals through on campus.
POCC formed in fall 2015 in response to a polarizing sit-in at Princeton President Eisgruber’s office and protests led by the Black Justice League. In November 2015, the group wrote a letter to Eisgruber decrying protest efforts that stifled forums for debate. In 2016, Joshua Zuckerman, a founding member of the group, testified to the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, saying that some of the protestor demands would have “especially chilling effects on academic discourse.” The group’s rapid formation in response to these events earned them coverage in many media outlets, including a write-up in The Chronicle of Higher Education and a spot on the National Association of Scholars’ 2015 Top 10 Influencers in Higher Education list. Founding members Joshua Freeman and Joshua Zuckerman were also featured in a 2016 New York Times write-up on student activists.
In 2020, 22 current Princeton students reunited as POCC, in response to a student-led petition and demands for anti-racist administration and policy changes at Princeton. Directly referring to this petition, POCC declared in an open letter to President Eisgruber they “strongly oppos[ed] politicization of the curriculum by requiring courses that reflect a certain ideological commitment.”
When asked what open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement means to them, POCC said, “An environment with increased viewpoint diversity highlights that each person is unique in their humanity. Lack of an opposing viewpoint deprives others of the potential to learn and understand nuances of various topics or experiences that they may not have. Engaging with those we disagree with requires humility, compassion and a common understanding of the inherent worth of each party and not assuming the worst out of them.”
For the educator(s) who has most effectively integrated open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, or constructive disagreement into the classroom and/or curriculum.
Matthew Burgess, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, an Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Economics, and Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the inaugural Teaching Award winner. Burgess is an environmental scientist who believes in exposing students to a wide range of perspectives. He advocates for a bipartisan, truth-informed approach to climate change, saying, “any approach to addressing climate change that doesn’t pursue and follow the truth will fail. Any approach that is not bipartisan—nor gains broad public support—will fail in a democracy.”
He developed the course Envisioning Sustainable Economies, bridging concepts from macro-economics and ecological economics, which are rarely put in conversation with one another. In this course, Matt explicitly shared the importance of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement with his students; and, he developed a syllabus that explored tribalism, conflict, and inequality as it related to economics and the environment.
Burgess has also contributed to the conversation about reducing polarization. In July 2020, he co-authored an op-ed with his undergraduate Honors student Renae Marshall entitled “What if a President Ran on What Most Americans Actually Wanted?: Imagining the two-thirds majority platform.” The piece details the many policy positions where two-thirds of Americans are in agreement by way of highlighting areas of political agreement rather than focusing on narratives of a ‘deeply divided’ country. In Fall 2020, Burgess hosted the weekly online discussion series “Reducing Polarization Dialogue” for the CU Boulder community that aimed to develop constructive dialogue on charged issues across ideological divides.
Burgess says that “as an environmental scientist, I study and am motivated by concern about some of society’s most pressing problems, including climate change . . . This is why open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and truth-seeking as the core mission of academia are so important to me, professionally and personally. If we don’t stay true to these values, universities will not only fail to help society meet its toughest challenges, we will also—deservedly—lose our trusted position in society.”