This blog has often noted how—in the race/class/gender groupthink atmosphere that dominates many humanities and some social sciences departments—it is likely that the academy will become more extreme in the foreseeable future. Since department members control new hires, those likely to challenge the status quo can be screened out at the stage of the job description or, if the candidate somehow makes it past the screening committee, at the campus interview.
Citing the research of Cass Sunstein, Mark Bauerlein has termed this phenomenon the law of group polarization, which predicts "that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial, for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war. Group Polarization happens so smoothly on campuses that those involved lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion."
I’ve written elsewhere about how these patterns have affected my own field, history. Subfields perceived as dominated by “dead white males”—military history, diplomatic history, political history, and constitutional history—have largely been eliminated or “revisioned” beyond recognition, to become aligned with the preferred race/class/gender approach.
Such redefinition has occurred in one direction only. Scholars in social history, or ethnic studies, or African-American history, or gender history—who dominate most history departments in the United States—have shown little interest in “revisioning” their fields to include more attention to relevant military, diplomatic, political, or constitutional topics. It would be all but inconceivable for a department’s sole specialist in, say, U.S. women’s history to specialize in a topic like the regulatory theories of female members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Such a research area would occupy the fringe of a field that —as my former colleague, the gender historian B.S. Anderson, once candidly explained—considers historians who explore the activities of “figures in power” to be “old-fashioned.”
The net result of these personnel patterns is to produce departments filled with historians of race, class, and/or gender—or historians who are described as focusing on fields such as military, diplomatic, political, or constitutional history but whose research specialties nonetheless revolve around elements in the race/class/gender trinity. And, of course, at large research universities, these scholars train the next generation of professors.
Duke’s History Department is marinated in the Group of 88’s race/class/gender-based philosophy. Ten of its members signed the Group’s statement, and an eleventh—Reeve Huston—attacked Duke students in his class in ways that clearly violated the provisions of the Faculty Handbook. So, perhaps, it should come as little surprise to see what passes for scholarly discourse among some of the graduate students that the Duke department trains.
One of those students, Sean Parrish, recently offered a glimpse into how he viewed the state of the field. The occasion was a posting by Douglas Campbell, who teaches at Cal. St.-Chico, on the blog of the National Association of Scholars. Among other items, Campbell discussed a class in which he spoke about military culture.
The Campbell post prompted a rambling response from Parrish, who identified himself as “an actual graduate student, studying at a university other Americans have actually heard of,” and addressed Chapman as “Mr. Doug Army Guy.”
Parrish begins by providing an unusual conception of the “point of academia”:
As I see it, the point of academia is to take note of the simplified caricatures society produces - whether by the media, a variety of counter-cultural knownothings, or crusty intellectual posers like yourself - and try to complicate them by pealing [sic] away their layers of obfuscation.
Those who thought that “the point of academia” was to pursue the truth and to expand knowledge apparently need to think again. Quite beyond the absurdity of allowing others—”the media, a variety of counter-cultural knownothings, or crusty intellectual posers”—to define the questions that dominate “the point of academia,” does anyone really believe that the contemporary academy has much interest in peeling (or “pealing,” in Parrish’s preferred lingo) away the “obfuscation” posed by counter-culture types? Or, for that matter, the “obfuscation” posed by politically correct broadcasts on NPR or PBS?
Parrish’s conception of the academy, in short, essentially seems designed to give license to professors to spend their time “complicating” what they perceive as “right-wing” ideas in American society.
Parrish further asserts that at Duke,
many[?!] of the grad students here are former military officers. One of our incoming students next year is an Air Force officer himself. There are many specialists here who study military history and military culture. Their aim is to understand the military as a sophisticated social institution, like the university, that presents problems continuous with themes social scientists have long considered important, such as the rise of the modern state, demography, economic trends, the history of the family, and wider social hierarchies. Their interests are not in advertising the military as an isolated bastion of unique values and heroic ideals mere “civilians” could never appreciate, nor are they concerned with waiving peace signs.
This is a wordy articulation of the “revisioning” thesis—military history as “the history of the family” and “demography.” These might be appropriate questions for a military historian to explore—but they also fall at the field’s margins, as opposed to more mainstream military history topics (the history of battles and tactics; strategic theories and the bureaucratic and intellectual struggles that help produce them; technological change and its effect on warfare; the relationship between war and diplomacy) that, unsurprisingly, seem to hold little, if any, position in Parrish's “revisioning” of military history.
This, again, would be a little like celebrating the fact that the department’s gender historians were looking at such themes as women in elective office, female judges, and Madeline Albright’s tenure as secretary of state—topics that might fit within the definition of women’s history, but that most would consider on the margins of the field. Somehow, if Duke’s women’s history graduate students were focused exclusively on women in politics and women in diplomacy, I doubt we would see Sean Parrish celebrating the situation as an illustration of the department's strength.
Parrish then loses control of his emotions, and describes the critique of the universities in the following way:
Let’s quit the bullshit and get at the real concerns motivating rightwing insecurities about the state of universities. It is not difficult to see this as just an updated version of an ancient fear among daddy-worshipping morons concerning the presence of effeminate ‘faggots’, ‘commies’, and women in positions of higher learning, and oh God forbid, positions of actual influence upon our youth! This has nothing to do with “rational debate”, it is merely an expression of paternalistic insecurities that always come to the surface and assume new forms as the traditional coordinates of public authority in society are renegotiated and debated . . . Perhaps the real concern underlying conservative diatribes such as yours is that many universities may be working too well in demanding students to ask questions, reflect upon their unexamined assumptions, and consider the troubling possibility that experience and understanding are not always one and the same thing.
Most defenders of the academic status quo would try to avoid the arrogance and condescension reflected in Parrish’s screed—at least in comments that they thought might be read outside of the academic cocoon. But there’s little doubt that the mindset reflected in these comments—and the fury at outside criticism of the academy that informs it—represents the majority viewpoint in most humanities and some social sciences departments nationwide.
Parrish then decides to argue against straw men.
“Brainwashing” [students], therefore, requires a level of effort and planning that few if any scholars would ever be willing to put into their work. The benefits are just not that interesting for personalities attracted to lonely recesses, personal independence, and the creative challenge of producing new knowledge even if it will only be appreciated by a small number of readers . . . Moreover, and this perhaps irritates me the most, is your incredibly arrogant disregard for the capacity of students to weigh the value of their instructor’s opinions against their own, and to maintain a healthy dose of critical distance in the classroom. There is much that goes on in the minds of students that you are not aware of, and it is your hubris that encourages you to believe that any student who expresses values different from your own must be a victim of some other pedagogical sorcery, rather than a critical and judicious thinker in his/her own right.
A handful of far-right figures—David Horowitz, Bill O’Reilly—have made the “brainwashing” allegation, a line of criticism that strikes me as absurd (one reason I have opposed, publicly and repeatedly, legislative enactments of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights).
But Parrish’s description of how students approach their educational experience is nothing more than a convenient rationalization for those committed to safeguarding the status quo on today's campuses. The main problem in contemporary higher education is not academic groupthink “brainwashing” students. The problem is how the effects of groupthink lead to enormous areas of inquiry simply vanishing from the curriculum.
There is no reason to believe that the average student (who, after all, makes no claim to pedagogical expertise) has any idea what he or she has lost. Indeed, in the last 10-15 years, we have seen a conscious attempt to restrict the range of questions asked, issues explored, and knowledge derived— an unprecedented development in the history of the American academy.
Parrish concludes with a touch of class:
My point, Mr. Doug Army Guy, is that there are other more meaningful targets to attack if you insist upon exposing society’s many ills. You might want to consider, however, that the most logical reason for the proliferation of liberal attitudes on university campuses lies in the fact that books of a higher quality than those you cited are hardly in short supply there. I think we found your real culprit General Doug, get the bonfires blazing if you really want to do something about it. I look forward to hearing the responses of your pissant cronies as they derail my lack of professional decorum, obvious indoctrination, or failure “to understand your thesis”. Your supposed thesis was not all that interesting, the passions that motivated it and what it aims to conceal, however, are quite interesting indeed.
This paragraph speaks for itself.
NAS president Peter Wood (no relationship to the infamous Duke professor of the same name) noted that Parrish’s screed teaches us at least four things “about the graduate student mind liberated from ‘paternalistic’ reason”:
(1) Snobbery. Mr. Parrish gets started with the modest declaration that, “As an actual graduate student, studying at a university other Americans have actually heard of…” Mr. Parrish is at Duke; Professor Campbell teaches at California State University at Chico. Once we dismiss reason, snobbery is as good an argument as anything else. ‘I attend a better known institution, therefore heed me.’
(2) Ad Hominem invective. This starts with Parrish’s salutation, “Dear Mr. Doug Army Guy,” and gets progressively worse throughout the letter. Who does Mr. Parrish think he is? He thinks he is someone entitled to treat with contempt people he disagrees with.
(3) Uncivil language and abusive assertions. One of the rules of reasoned discussion is that we avoid gratuitous characterizations. Mr. Parrish knows virtually nothing about Professor Campbell, but freed from the restrictions of reason, he invents his own elaborate psycho-sexual fantasy and projects it on to Professor Campbell as “an ancient fear among daddy-worshipping morons concerning the presence of effeminate ‘faggots’, ‘commies’, and women in positions of higher learning.” If we ask, ”How does Mr. Parrish come by this privileged knowledge?” we can find the answer in his first paragraph. These are, he tells us, “insights.”
(4) Just plain nastiness. Reason demands that we try to persuade people. Absent reason, the passions take over, and in this case, irritability seems to be in charge.
It’s worth noting, as regular DIW readers already know, that these four characteristics also have regularly appeared in the Group of 88’s response to their critics.
I twice e-mailed Parrish to ask if he stood behind his comments. He did not reply.