Seminar explores contemporary critiques of the academy
In a recent Institute for Freedom and Community blog post, St. Olaf College alumnus Nick Gonnermann ‘19 outlines how the academy has increasingly become a politicized tool in America’s culture wars, thereby diminishing trust in higher education and intensifying polarization across the country. In effort to identify and understand some of the root causes contributing to these challenges facing our country’s colleges and universities, the Institute for Freedom and Community hosted a four-part faculty seminar this summer titled “Two Critiques of the Academy.”
The critiques in question are offered in two books, each co-authored: Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, and Unassailable Ideas, by Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor.
“The books have different accentuations,” noted Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri in his opening remarks, “but they agree in their judgment that the contemporary academy lacks full conditions of open inquiry, lacks the tolerance of competing ideas typically associated with academic freedom and the vision of the academy as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ in the search for truth.”
Pluckrose and Redstone were recent guests of the Institute, participating in a panel discussion in Spring 2021 on the topic of “Freedom, Open Inquiry, and the Academy,” where these matters, and others, were discussed in greater detail.
Assistant Professor Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science David WalmsleyThis seminar helped me better understand the philosophical underpinnings behind many of the social movements that so often are the source of headlines these days. Consequently, I now have more clarity in my own thoughts on matters like critical race theory and academic freedom. These are complex issues that deserve a more thoughtful and nuanced treatment than they are typically given in mainstream and social media, and this seminar was a much appreciated venue to do so.
The first two days of the seminar, which included 17 faculty members from 10 different academic disciplines, focused on Cynical Theories. For Pluckrose and Lindsay, the problem in the academy is the dominance of a particular system of ideas, which they call the “ideology of social justice.” In their account, this ideology is intolerant of competing views and insists on closing off certain forms of investigation, speech and debate that ought to be allowed in our colleges and universities given the commitment to academic freedom. The solution to the problem, Pluckrose-Lindsay contend, is the restoration, in academic and scholarly settings, of the philosophy that is, in their view, most compatible with free and open inquiry, a philosophy they label “liberalism without identity politics.”
Assistant Professor Religion Timothy Rainey IIDebates on the role of politics in education tempt opaque claims from those who dismiss and affirm the import of individual identity in scholarly discourse. Regardless of one’s orientation to critical theories attentive to particularity, the best of liberal traditions should give thinkers an appetite for deliberative encounters. ‘Two Critiques of the Academy’ brought together faculty representing a broad range of the political spectrum and provided a trace of hope for all working toward the democratic community.
The second half of the seminar turned to Unassailable Ideas, which argues the problem in the academy today is the dominance of three beliefs: (1) the belief that “any action that aims to undermine traditional frameworks or power structures is automatically deemed to be good,” (2) the belief that “discrimination is behind all unequal group outcomes,” and (3) the belief “in the primacy of identity along the lines of race, gender, identity, etc.” The general consequence, in Redstone’s and Villasenor’s view, is a censorious, punitive, academic environment that substantially inhibits free inquiry in pursuit of knowledge and truth.
“There was recognition by many of the participants that the issues raised in the two texts were substantive,” says Professor of Chemistry Jeff Schwinefus. “Not all faculty supported the key arguments in the two books. However, faculty generally believed open conversation was necessary to challenge personal belief and provide a path to a better understanding of the current situation in academics and elsewhere. In light of recent attempts at the college to deplatform invited speakers, faculty recognized open dialogue was of paramount importance.”
Fostering constructive disagreement on important issues and offering interdisciplinary approaches to these issues have long been guiding principles of the Institute. Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Anna Mooy appreciated “the variety of viewpoints, ideas, and perspectives,” and Professor of Romance Languages León Narváez enjoyed “the in-depth discussions on issues of racism and other forms of prejudice with colleagues from religion, music, mathematics, economics, English, etc.” He notes further, “I found that all of my colleagues were willing to discuss difficult topics without engaging in hyperbole.”
The seminar also offered an opportunity for faculty members to learn about scholarship outside of their own respective fields. Professor of English Joseph Mbele, who led a past Institute Seminar on Cultural Differences, noted the following of his experience: “Before this seminar, I knew very little about subjects like Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, and Disability and Fat Studies. Nor had I thought about how social media impinges on or threatens the work of academics and scholars. The seminar has opened doors for me. The readings and the discussions exemplified the spirit of inquiry that an institution of higher learning is supposed to embody and foster. I enjoyed the readings. By relentless probing of ideas and assumptions many of us take for granted, by raising many questions and challenging many assumptions, the writers show us the necessity to be humble, on guard, and aware that no matter how right we think we are, we could be wrong.”
Professor of English Joseph MbeleThe readings and the discussions exemplified the spirit of inquiry that an institution of higher learning is supposed to embody and foster. I enjoyed the readings. By relentless probing of ideas and assumptions many of us take for granted, by raising many questions and challenging many assumptions, the writers show us the necessity to be humble, on guard, and aware that no matter how right we think we are, we could be wrong.
Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues. Through its range of programming for students, faculty, and the general public, the Institute offers a distinctive opportunity to cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts.
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