Reed ’21: Steven Pinker Wants to Repair Campus Culture

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, March 12, 2021

In a world seemingly beset by problems, Steven Pinker has made a career out of focusing on the positive. For the past decade, the Harvard professor turned celebrity intellectual has been spreading the good news about human progress. Pinker has written two bestsellers on the subject and won the praise of thinkers and commentators from Bill Gates to Joe Rogan. His message? Things are getting better. Progress is not inevitable, but the trends are good. Even though it may not always seem like it, the world is more peaceful, prosperous and happy than even just a few decades ago.

Steven Pinker has spent years documenting human progress, and right now he’s worried we may be backsliding.

Not in any of the big areas. The overall trends on crime and life expectancy haven’t all of a sudden reversed. Nor is humanity primed to descend into a second Dark Age. Rather, the not-so-newfound concern of Harvard’s Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology hits far closer to home. In the last several years, Pinker has become increasingly concerned about a wave of illiberalism, particularly on college campuses.

I spoke to Pinker this past summer after he and several dozen other writers and intellectuals released “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter decried “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” 

Nowhere is this ideology more widespread than in the halls of America’s colleges and universities. And Pinker has been among the loudest voices pushing back.

Political correctness and cancel culture (in effect, if not in name) are not new, though, Pinker says. For decades, the culture on college campuses has trended ever away from free expression and toward censorship — inflicted both overtly and through softer means of subtle intimidation. When he was an undergraduate, Pinker recalls, “There were cancellations; there were disruptions of lectures.” 

Pinker traces the origins of this dynamic all the way back to 1975 and the publication of E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” when Wilson and other biologists “would get shouted down” for expressing the view that genetic and other evolutionary considerations determine, in part, social organization.

Still, 1975 was a relatively tender age for the stifling atmosphere we now see on campus, Pinker says. In the 46 years since “Sociobiology,” the window of acceptable views has narrowed and, consequently, the rate of cancellations has grown. Just in the last few years, though, we seem to have reached a fever pitch.

In 2017, Evergreen College in Washington State descended into chaos when a white professor refused to leave campus after a group of activists organized a day without white students and faculty. 

That same year at Middlebury College, students accusing political scientist Charles Murray of racism due to his work on genetics and intelligence prevented him from speaking on campus and assaulted a professor who was escorting him.

A year later, Brown Assistant Professor Lisa Littman of the School of Public Health published a peer-reviewed journal article coining the term “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” Upon criticism from trans activists that the study was harmful to trans youth, the University retracted a letter promoting Littman’s study, and the journal that published the article announced a post-publication review of the piece, only to republish the same results several months later.

These are not isolated incidents. They speak to a broader trend of cancellations in an increasingly stifling academic environment. To give a more empirical point of reference, the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has tracked disrupted or canceled events going back to 1998 in its “Disinvitation Database.” After remaining relatively stable, the last five years saw 36 percent more disrupted events (166) than the five years prior (122).

In other words, things seem to have gotten precipitously worse just recently. When I asked the professor why this might be, he provided two theories. 

The first is that the recent spike might be a backlash on the left against Donald Trump. “People feel that classical liberalism, enlightenment ideals have failed and nothing is left for us but to oppose it with brute force. Brute force meaning (using) the administrative apparatus to silence or fire people.” The rise of Trump, combined with flashpoints like the killing of George Floyd, has “served as a focal point for the dissatisfaction with the status quo that has led to some fairly radical responses.”

The other explanation is that this new wave of illiberalism “is just the cumulative effect of several generations” of professors having indoctrinated their students in an ideological mixture of postmodernism and Marxist critical theory. Unfortunately, we have just reached the tipping point.

But the problem isn’t just some fringe groups of student activists, Pinker says. Many of our institutions, including much of the campus bureaucracy itself, have become radicalized over the years. “So many people in positions of administrative power were brought up with this postmodernist and critical theory ideology that it’s become second-nature.” Professors then indoctrinate the next generation of students in these sorts of beliefs, namely that “history is a struggle,” that “there is no objective truth” and “that argumentation and logic are just pretexts to power.” These students, in turn, go on to become professors themselves primed to indoctrinate the next generation.

It’s not that every college administrator or professor shares these views, though, Pinker says. But few are daring enough to express their opposition. When faced with an issue of this sort, colleges too often choose flight over fight. Groveling has become the default setting. “It’s rather disturbing to see the people in charge of our institutions of higher learning repeating clichés and slogans,” Pinker said. “For university administrators, (acquiescence) is often the path of least resistance since a small number of noisy student protestors can make a university president’s life miserable.”

Student activists have learned how to game the system. Claims of mental and physical harm are used to advance political agendas. Statues are taken down. Disfavored speaking events are shut down, and those opposing such moves are treated as though they agree with the content of the speech rather than the principle of free speech itself. But it’s mostly a tactic, Pinker says. “It’s not that we have a generation of snowflakes. Although, there may be some of that. But it’s not so much being wounded but it’s the pretext of being wounded,” which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming to the ideology. 

All of this would be moot, though, if it weren’t for campus administrators playing along. Student activists have found a partner in university administration and have leveraged its power for political purposes. Nowadays, “the radical student protesters bring in the campus bureaucracy to multiply their own power, something they wouldn’t have been caught dead doing” when Pinker was an undergraduate. “Even though university presidents technically aren’t powerless, they have subcontracted or outsourced” the parts of the job that entail responding to student activists. 

Consequently, bureaucracies like Title IX and gender equity offices have taken up those tasks. But the missions of those offices, while noble, are not the university’s mission. The transmission of knowledge is just not something these offices concern themselves with. It’s not in their job description. And since they operate largely autonomously, in cases where the two missions conflict, the university winds up on the losing end. 

The result is that fringe student activists can and do wield an inordinate amount of power on campus. Universities have become political in the extreme, and we should be worried.

“Contrary to the cliché sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger that ‘academic disputes are so fierce because so little is at stake,’ I think a lot is at stake,” Pinker says. “Not only (because) it’s college graduates who populate and control all of our institutions … but the entire academic ecosystem is at stake.”

The ability of universities to inform the public hinges on their credibility. And college administrators, for the most part, have watched silently as that credibility is destroyed. “I have more than once gotten into arguments with conservatives and libertarians over climate change, where I say, ‘there’s no reason to question our best science that climate change is real,’ and they say ‘why should we believe it just because it’s the scientific consensus?’ Universities are so overrun by the political correctness police that we can’t take anything coming out the of the university at face value — if someone dissented, they’d be canceled.’”

Solving these problems is not easy. But there are some slam-dunk moves universities and students can take to improve the culture, Pinker says. The number one priority of each and every campus bureaucracy must be to advance the mission of the university. Administrators must also continuously reiterate “the principles that underlie the existence of the university, namely acquisition of knowledge where knowledge inherently involves humility and skepticism.” 

On the student side, Pinker is optimistic. “I’ve been surprised by how many students are actually appalled by the stifling of debate and the deplatforming of speakers.” But, by and large, these students have watched the battles on campus from a safe distance. “(They) aren’t bringing in the bureaucrats to shut down those they disagree with, they’re not protesting, they’re not setting off fire alarms during lectures,” so we don’t really know how prevalent these views are. But repairing the culture requires that they be more vocal.

Whether these kinds of changes are coming anytime soon, Pinker is unsure. But he rejects the notion that the pendulum will swing back from gravity alone.

“I think it could happen and will happen but only if we make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.”

Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached at andrew_reed@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

 

Image: BhaawestCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Columns, Opinions

Design and layout by Jed Fox / Herald.

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. Tuition keeps rising to fund the salaries of woke administrators, while quality of teaching and student outcomes decline. $1.9 trillion stimulus mostly going to the government over the people. The road to serfdom continues…

  2. When the accepted views are narrowed down to one, silence will no long be an option.

  3. A very good article. Mr Pinker is a great intellectual and his work proves that there is still a lot of hope in our times

  4. This entire issue is overblown. I agree that stifling conservative campus speakers is wrong, but it’s hardly the existential threat that the author says it is.

  5. Like Pinker, I think there’s cause for concern but reason for hope. While illiberal, faux-progressive wokes brush off all dissenters as right-wing racists, an alliance of liberals and true progressives (who favor things like free speech and less racialization in our judgment of others contra the woke ideology of stifling dissent and increased racialization in our judgments of others) who will bring them down from their flank. My experience too is that most students may talk the illiberal talk of the woke but they tend to be quite liberal deep down.

  6. Daniel Lane says:

    If Pinker, the arch-Panglossian/neo-positivist optimist of our times, is worried, I think that really argues against the notion that the issue is overblown.

  7. Been a while since I’ve seen such an outstanding example of academic reactionary thought. Might want to eliminate the post-modern concept of silencing or take another route toward attacking post-modernism before proceeding further. Otherwise, the narrative sort of works against itself.

  8. Two years ago, Brown spent 8 minutes reviewing each of 32,000 applications. (Brown is my undergrad alma mater). Now it’ll be a lot less.
    Throw out half that are clearly unqualified–now we’re at 16 minutes per application.
    What a crazy process. Would you ask a woman (or man) to marry you after knowing him/her for 16 minutes? Of course not.
    Brown should be getting to know its candidates years before they apply. But they don’t care to do so because–it’s new, it’s weird, it’s unconventional. No courage. No new ideas.

    • Never True says:

      Yes! Welcome back John!
      “Would you ask a woman (or man) to marry you after knowing him/her for 16 minutes? Of course not.” I think that’s how Kim Kardashian does it.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*