An Open Letter to Heterodox Academy

Dear Heterodox Academy:

I am trying to better understand my irritation every time one of your emails lands in my inbox, and thought writing through these feelings may help. 

On the one hand, I am – as the kids don’t say anymore – “down” with the necessity of viewpoint diversity. Being a northerner as well as an agnostic/indifferent atheist who worked in the South for the majority of my career, I was out of step with the backgrounds and beliefs of most of my students, who tended towards evangelical Christianity and cultural conservatism.[1] The ideological freedom I experienced at Clemson University from 2005 to 2011, even as a contingent instructor, led to some wonderful and productive exchanges for both my students and me. One of my proudest moments was at the end of a semester in a contemporary literature course themed around apocalypses – which naturally brought about many discussions about faith and the meaning of life – being invited by a couple of Clemson football players to “testify” at their monthly Cru[2]meeting.[3]

I also 100% embrace what is known as the “HxA Way,” a series of principles that aim to promote the successful exchange of ideas in order to “improve research and teaching at colleges and universities.” The precepts, “1. Make your case with evidence, 2. Be intellectually charitable, 3. Be intellectually humble, 4. Be constructive, 5. Be yourself,” well articulate the spirit and practice I’ve attempted to bring to the teaching of writing and study of literature. It’s a world I wish for students and myself.

Additionally, I feel like I’ve been offering some heterodox opinions on higher education in this space for better then nine years now, including past hits like “tenure is already dead,” “faculty are laborers, not knowledge workers,” and “killing the five-paragraph essay.”

And yet, and yet, I often feel…irked when interacting with and consuming HxA content. I suppose I first noticed this with the announcement of the 2019 HxA conference[4], which featured such little-known, apparently heterodox contributors like David Brooks and Steven Pinker. Where else am I going to be exposed to the ideas of people, other than literally everywhere?

The monthly announcements of HxA events elicit similar responses, as it seems as though I’m invited to hear from many people whose views I am well familiar with. The focus of HxA writings and presentations seems relatively narrow as well, particularly when I look at the links to articles by HxA members. Concern over “critical race theory,” seems to be common, for example.

This is not a problem, per se, but it never looks particularly heterodox to me, or rather HxA, seems to have a pretty consistent orthodoxy about heterodoxy.

And yet, I remain curious about the goings on at HxA. This curiosity led me to view the entirety of a panel convened in honor of the five-year anniversary of Heterodox Academy. It was an interesting discussion with a definite variety of viewpoints around the issues of concern. I watched the whole thing with interest. 

There was also one part that pointed me towards a source of my own irritation with HxA. The crystalizing moment came around 33 minutes into the event as Prof. Nicholas Christakis of Yale listed a series of what he considered outrages to free speech and the free exchange of ideas on elite campuses. As one example, he was concerned that instructors would not be allowed to show students the powerful and visceral photographs of lynchings in the South. Christakis sees the “brutal and vile photographs,”  as “powerful historical documents,” and one presumes, therefore necessary to appropriately teach the history of the era.[5]

He then goes on to say, “The students at these institutions are my moral equal, they are human beings, they deserve to be treated with respect and seriously, but they are students.”

Here, Christakis leans a little closer to the camera for emphasis, obscuring part of the backdrop touting the Yale Human Nature Lab. 

“We are the faculty,” he goes on, hands raised above his eyebrows. “That’s why they come here. We have a different obligation, and I think our obligation is to help students to see that these arguments that they are making, that defending someone makes you guilty by association is wrong.”[6]

Some vague notions about my irritation started to gel. One clear disconnect between me and HxA, as articulated by Christakis, one of its leading figures, is its focus on elite institutions. Christakis is clearly concerned about these places that he believes have (and in his view presumably deserve) such outsized influence.[7]

I am not. 

More importantly, Prof. Christakis embodies a kind of paternalism that I believe is inconsistent with precept three of the HxA Way, “Be intellectually humble.” It is clear that in Prof. Christakis’ view, students do not have the experience, knowledge, or standing to challenge the faculty or institution.

I simply feel differently. This is quite probably rooted in our different experiences and statures within the academy. It may be a consequence of the nature of our disciplines. For my own experience, I have frequently reconsidered issues and practices after having been challenged by my students and become a wiser and more effective instructor for it.

Additionally, Prof. Christakis was famously at the center of a campus controversy over culturally insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale. The heated protest, which included Christakis being yelled at directly by students and ultimately resulted in he and his wife stepping down as the faculty leaders of one of the Yale residences is, to him, an incident demonstrating that students need shaping so they respond to controversies in a manner more appropriate, more like…Nicholas Christakis.

Fair enough, but I think we can look at what happened at Yale in 2015 as a canary in the coal mine for the social justice protests of last summer highlighting longstanding systemic inequalities in policing. What seemed to some like outsized reactions from the students at the time, was quite possibly a pressure relief of building anger over what students perceived as systemic hostility at Yale and the culture at large. The student response was intemperate and arguably unproductive, but it was not rooted in a lack of appreciation of the values of reasoned debate.

This is not a view available only with five years of hindsight. Writing at Tablet in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Mark Oppenheimer, who has been a student, grad student, and instructor during different eras at Yale, noted that the Halloween costume uproar happened shortly after a previous incident in which fraternity member remarked to a group of women of color trying to enter a party, “No, we’re only looking for white girls.” Oppenheimer offers additional evidence that suggests a campus culture that is justifiably perceived as unwelcoming to students of color by students of color.

Oppenheimer goes on to argue that Yale itself operates under a system of paternalism not unlike that of BYU, simply reoriented around different values. Oppenheimer believes that within the particular dynamic of Yale, students are treated as “residents,” but they are “never full citizens.” “Rather, they are—they choose to be, and covet their position as—junior participants.” Because of this, we get incidents like what happened to Christakis. The failure to allow students full participation in the culture leaves them powerless in a way that makes their responses unproductive.

Christakis’ view appears to be that students are there to serve the interests of the institution, rather than the other way around and it is impossible for students to know more or know better than faculty. From my perspective, this is particularly dicey when it concerns issues where students have first-hand, lived experiences and are reliable observers and interpreters of their own experiences.

More pieces fell into place. My criticisms of The Coddling of the American Mind co-authored by HxA co-founder, Jonathan Haidt, seemed of a piece with my objections to Christakis’ form of paternalism. In the book, Haidt and Greg Lukianoff posit that a pathology of “safetyism” is causing students to engage in disordered thinking that is damaging to themselves and institutions. Their solution is to attack the pathology through tools such as, particular parenting strategies, cognitive behavioral therapy, making sure children have recess, and limiting time on social media among many other things.

I have a different view. I believe the turbulence students are experiencing is a byproduct of a “culture of scarcity and precarity.” When school has been constructed as a gauntlet that a limited few will succeed in navigating, it should be unsurprising that students respond by becoming increasingly anxious and depressed. There is no pathology. Students are responding quite rationally to the incentives the system provides.

Christakis and Haidt are no doubt well-meaning and believe that students will benefit if they get with the program and embrace the values of elite institutions and a “telos of truth.” After all, these things have worked very well for them. Why shouldn’t they also work for others? 

Here then, I’ve come to the crux of my rub. My problem is not with heterodoxy or orthodoxies different from mine, so much as a problem with the academy in general.

Because here’s the thing, the academy ain’t done nothin’ for me. 

In fact, I would argue that it’s the very existence of the academy that has excluded me from a secure and stable life promoting the “HxA Way” as part of an institution of higher education. I was one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of contingent laborers whose work protected the privilege of the full members of the academy like Professors Haidt and Christakis. While at Clemson, I published two books in six years, taught up and down the curricular ladder, received outstanding performance reviews, and had I been tenure track, easily would’ve been tenured.

Instead, I was paid $25,000 per year to teach four classes per semester. People in positions like mine taught the vast majority of courses in the department.

I don’t think this is resentment so much as a perspective from a place outside the elite. It is hard for me to believe that these issues members of HxA are so concerned about are meaningful next to these larger, structural barriers to participation in the full rights and privileges of the academy that so many of us (including staff here) have faced. The academy did not exist for me, be it heterodox or otherwise. It’s non-existence forced me out of a profession I enjoyed and was better than good at.

These structures are now not only harming contingent faculty, of course.

On the day I draft this, a top story at the Chronicle reports on state legislatures in Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia moving to block the teaching of social justice issues in courses by legislative fiat, about as big a threat to academic freedom as I could conceive. 

In Iowa, Republican legislators are threatening to “gut tenure” because of an anti-conservative bias they perceive at public institutions.

I’m certain that HxA rejects these initiatives, but surely we can see how the work of HxA has, in at least some small way, helped pave the way for these assaults, and validated the criticisms the legislatures are using to attack the work of the institutions. HxA may claim that they were trying to head off such attacks. I hope no in when in a position of influence is so naïve to believe this in the light of a critical mass of the Republican party explicitly embracing authoritarianism over the last couple of months.

Meanwhile, HxA is offering a chance to watch a conversation with superstar academic John McWhorter, a longstanding critic of anti-bias education. Which of these issues seems more dire at the moment?

There is something about the purity with which HxA would like to approach this work that simply seems out of touch with reality. Perhaps I missed it, but where is the HxA discussion and writing on the fate of historian Garrett Felber, who was allegedly fired due to antagonizing University of Mississippi donors?

It’s as though HxA is a discussion club held in one of the lifeboats from the Titanic, debating the various virtues of travel by luxury liner even while thousands of other passengers are sucked into the icy depths as the ship tips skyward before making its final plunge.

I suppose this is now frustration that I am feeling, a not unfamiliar sensation when I write about higher education from the perspective of what Marc Bousquet would call one of higher education’s “waste products.”

It’s not clear to me if HxA even knows these waste products exist, that we are, in fact, a majority of the academy, or if you recognize that more and more faculty are about to get flushed. HxA feels like an almost willful attempt to create a vacuum in which these existential threats to the well-being of students, faculty, and staff are not present, so participants can continue to engage in the enlightening (and even fun) debates we expect of members of the academy. 

I wonder if some of the HxA activities are the proverbial whistling past the graveyard, even as the corpses rise from their crypts and lurch toward snacking on the living. Are you as worried as I am about the existential threats to non-elite higher education, particularly public higher education?

I’m going to stop being irked, I think, because let’s face it, none of this matters. In light of what’s happening in the wider world, the work of HxA is truly “academic” in the “of only theoretical interest” part of the definition.

I hope we get back to a point where that is no longer true, but right now, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Yours in heterodoxy, 

 

John Warner

 

[1] The winner of the 2008 student straw poll at Clemson, where I was working at the time, was Ron Paul, followed by Barack Obama and John McCain. 

[2] Formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

[3] Because we had talked so often of faith, belief, meaning, etc…and I was conversant with different religious traditions thanks to a combination of comparative religion class and self-study, the students assumed I was a practicing Christian. I made sure that they knew this wasn’t the case, and unfortunately, it was decided by the leadership that it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak, a disappointment to both me and my students.

[4] Remember in-person conferences? Me neither.

[5] This is an interesting jumping off point for a discussion of pedagogical approaches, but it’s clear Christakis is operating from a stand of principle, rather than the practical. He assumes that viewing these pictures is somehow a pedagogical necessity. I think this is begging the question.

[6] Here, Christakis was referring to the example of Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law professor who defended Harvey Weinstein, and who was subsequently not retained as a “dean” of one of the Harvard residences because of student backlash. Contra some of Christakis’ characterizations in the video, no one appears to dispute Sullivan’s right to represent Weinstein, but instead questioned whether or not representing Weinstein was consistent with the role of someone who is also an administrative leader of a residential dorm. That strikes me as a far more open and debatable question as to whether not this is “guilt by association.”

[7] I believe the influence of elite institutions on how we view higher education as a whole has been terrible for both elite institutions and higher education as a whole.