What Happened to Our Universities?

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As extensively documented, our universities have been swept up into a new cultural movement, the so-called “social justice” movement. “Social justice” ideology is based on the Marxist vision that the world is divided into oppressor classes and oppressed classes. Unlike classical Marxism that divides the world into a bourgeois oppressor class and a proletarian oppressed class — that is capitalists oppressing workers — neo-Marxist “social justice” theory divides the world into gender, racial, sexual, and religious classes: male oppressors and female victims; white oppressors and people of color victims; heterosexual oppressors and gay, lesbian, transsexual, etc. etc. victims; Christian and Jewish oppressors and Muslim victims.

“Social justice” ideology leads to the rejection of oppressive institutions such as capitalism and Western Civilization. Universalistic criteria such as merit, achievement, and excellence are rejected today in universities and beyond because they allegedly disadvantage members of victim categories. Preferential measures on behalf of victims have been adopted as the overriding and primary purpose of universities today. Course topics, course substance, course references, recruitment of students, provision of special facilities and events for “victim” categories, hiring of academic and administrative staff, all are aimed to benefit members of “victim” categories and to exclude and marginalize members of “oppressor” categories.

Sociology, anthropology, political science, English, history, women’s and gender studies, black studies, social work, education, and law have all jettisoned their traditional fields of study to become “social justice” subjects, vilifying men, whites, heterosexuals, the West, capitalism, and advocating for women, people of color, gays etc., and Muslims. Now there is a full-throttle attack on the natural sciences and on STEM fields to infuse them with “victims,” whatever these “victim” preferences and abilities might be, and to turn STEM into “social justice” fields, so that there would no longer be “science,” but “feminist science” that is “socially just.”

How did all of this happen? What brought about this almost universal change in institutions of “higher learning”? It was and is, in fact, the most normal thing in the cultural world: a return to the default of a closed, moralistic worldview. Human psychology favors secure and comfortable closed, moralized cultures. In most societies throughout history, the always fragile and vulnerable set of cultural understandings were framed in absolute and unchallengeable terms, so as to bolster them, justifying them in terms of the requirements of religion, race, history, or justice.

The ancient Hebrew tribes divided people into those who followed one God, and those who worshiped idols. The Catholic Church defined good and evil in terms of its theological precepts and sent those who disagreed to hell to burn in eternity. Following the inspiration of the Holy Inquisition, American Protestants sought out witches for extermination. Islam divided the world into Muslim worshippers of Allah, and infidels, targeting infidels for slavery, conversion, or death. The Nazis saw the world as a struggle between the pure race and the inferior races, and they sent those they considered inferior to a hell the Nazis themselves created. The Communists divided the world into those who sided with “the people,” the Communists themselves, and other “people” who were political opponents or members of oppressive classes, and other non-people were drugged in insane asylums, worked to death, starved to death, or executed. Now the default closed moral culture has been re-established in universities.

Given the normality of closed absolutist theological and moral systems, nothing is so abnormal in human history and culture as an open, self-correcting system. Among all the cultures of the world throughout history, the only two self-correcting systems known are products of the Enlightenment: science and democracy. Science and its technological offspring were slow to develop, but by the 20th century, they were central to Western society, while religion was removed from societal institutions and limited to the personal. This did not stop closed ideological movements such as Nazism and Communism from appropriating science and technology to advance their absolutist ideological goals. But with the self-destruction of Nazism and Communism, science itself has remained an open culture.

Since the eclipse of theology in the 19th century, science has been the backbone of higher education in the West. As the most successful method for understanding the world, it was taken as a model for most academic work. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, social studies emulated the natural sciences, as best they could, in the hope of producing valid findings.

In my own field of anthropology, social theorists adopted an evolutionary framework from Darwin’s natural science and studied the range of societies in terms of different levels of technological and cultural development. Karl Marx characterized his theory as “scientific socialism.” During the first half of the 20th century, the two founders of British social anthropology, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown of Oxford and Bronislaw Malinowski of London School of Economics, authored books respectively entitled A Natural Science of Society (1948) and A Scientific Theory of Culture (1944).

As late as 1980, the influential American anthropologist Marvin Harris entitled his book, Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Society. These authors and other like-minded anthropologists were motivated to search for the Truth or as accurate an approximation as our primitive methods allowed. In this scientific view, knowledge was based on Truth and adding to knowledge, and passing on knowledge was the object of higher education. The science model of scholarship followed the precept of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Before I describe what happened next, you must understand that academics commonly feel that they cannot simply repeat what their teachers and the founders of their field said. To gain any attention and stature, academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, must come up with something original to say. Furthermore, while natural scientists can express their creativity by discovering or refining a relationship between natural phenomena, social scientists and humanists do not get very far by dwelling on ethnographic or statistical or historical details. Rather, to make a splash, they must invent a new theory, a new “ism,” a new epistemology. So new theoretical arguments in the social sciences and humanities tend to come not from responding to the bulk of scientific evidence, but from professional and career considerations.

For example, in literary criticism, one generation will require understanding a literary work in terms of the social and political environment of an author, while the next rejects that and demands that the text is examined only in itself, while the succeeding generation demands an understanding in terms of the author’s biography. None of this is driven by the evidence, but by the fads and fashions of academic competition.

By the 1980s, the social sciences and humanities had taken what some called “the postmodern turn,” also characterized as a “paradigm shift.” This included a rejection of attempts to be objective, and, in its place, a celebration of subjectivity. Absoluteness, as in absolute truth, was rejected in favor of relativism. Academics came to say that “everyone has their own truth.” Science was rejected as a model for studies of humanity. The ideas of “data” and “evidence” were set aside in favor of “interpretation.” Scientific laws, generalizations, and “master narratives,” were rejected as unfeasible and oppressive.

Anthropology’s contributions to this turn were substantial. “Cultural relativism,” which had been conceptualized in the first half of the 20th century by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict as a mental attitude to make researchers more receptive to understanding cultures other than their own, had morphed into moral relativism by the second half of the 20th century as shown by the rejection of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the American Anthropological Association on the grounds that it was based on Western cultural ideas.

The most influential anthropologist of the second half of the 20th century, Clifford Geertz, who was followed closely in all the social sciences and humanities, turned away from cultural anthropology as a scientific study, instead likening it to literary criticism. Perhaps Geertz was influenced in this by deconstructionism, fashionable in literary studies. The main thrust of Geertz’s theory was that, in ethnographic research, we interpret what we see and hear, and present that interpretation as our understanding. In the much-lauded Introduction of The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz says that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.” This is reflected in his famous definition of culture:

The concept of culture I espouse,…is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.

With the scientific spirit rejected by the social sciences and humanities, and the idea of authoritative knowledge rejected in favor of allegedly valid subjective truths, what role can the university play? The discovery and passing on of new knowledge have, in the postmodern turn, been judged invalid. In the absence of knowledge, what then is the purpose of research and scholarship and teaching? The answer was found in a turn to moralism and political activism. This drew on the critical Marxist anthropology of the 1970s and came to fruition in the most popular anthropology book of the 1980s, Anthropology as Cultural Critique by George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer.

In the following decades, the neo-Marxist “social justice” ideology and movement flowered. Our society is condemned in universities for being racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and oppressive. To correct this, professors and administrators advocate for programs benefitting the “victims of oppression,” that is, females, people of color, gays—lesbian—transsexuals, etc., and Muslims, such as preferential admission for student applicants, separate housing, eating, and support facilities, special ceremonies, and preferential hiring as professors and administrators. The disfavored “oppressors,” males, people of white, heterosexuals, and Christians are to be marginalized and sidelined, certainly not to receive any benefits or opportunities. (Asians are now honorary whites because they have worked too hard and are too successful, so they too are condemned and discriminated against.)

The rejection of Truth and of evidence has now made its way into university administrations. Disciplinary tribunals have now accepted that “everyone has their own truth,” and they accept the “truths” of the oppressed victims and dispense with “evidence” that might be presented on behalf of accused “oppressors.” This rejection of Truth and evidence has diffused far beyond universities, to businesses, funding agencies, Government Agencies, and Departments of Education, and has now made its way to the U.S. Senate in the Kavanaugh hearings. What someone did or did not do is no longer important; the only thing that is important in universities and beyond is what category someone belongs to. After all, that is the only way that “social justice” is enforced.

What Happened to Our Universities?

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

Read all stories by Philip Carl Salzman