The Fracturing of the Academic Mind

Smith College is getting some unwanted attention. For the rest of us, it is a good test case for what is going on in American colleges and universities.

A tiny women’s college in Western Massachusetts, Smith has been much in the news. An employee has publicly quit her job in response to the mandatory critical race theory training which she has described, quite rightly, as creating a “racially hostile workplace.” Smith’s endowment currently stands just shy of $2 billion. That is a fat target for a hungry lawyer. If this weren’t enough, the New York Times has gone back and investigated a two-year old episode in which a black student was offended by cafeteria staff who told her she could not sit in an area reserved for visiting high school students (where all persons required CORI background checks). The result was a campus-wide protest against racism and the eventual removal of two employees whose combined salaries just barely equaled the cost of attending Smith for one year. Other employees were threatened at their homes. Lives were ruined. But then, after an investigation, it was determined no wrong had been done. But no apology or recompense was made to those who actually suffered, with the president of the college still insisting “implicit bias” may have been at work in this case. What is going on?

There is no single explanation for the decline in American higher education. We can look back to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) or to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s more recent Coddling of the American Mind (2018). Standards have slipped, amenities have proliferated, and yet learning seems to have fallen aside. I saw a comment on the internet to the effect that a century ago we taught Greek and Latin to high school students, and now teach remedial English in college. Something has certainly gone wrong.

Nor has the overwhelming partisanship of the universities escaped its critics. The sudden embrace of critical race theory has been unsettling, however. This is not just one more step in the ever leftward lurch that is placing higher education beyond the possibility of parody (but see Scott Johnson’s Campusland, which I reviewed here). It seems to be entirely new, violating the precepts of even the radicals we have become accustomed to. What happened to free speech, free inquiry, or the unsettling of comfortable ideas? Whatever happened to old-fashioned liberalism and a minimal respect for free debate and inquiry?

The left’s championing of free speech, as sincere as it might have been at one time, always existed side-by-side with the development of what C.P. Snow described as “two cultures.” In a 1956 essay of that title, expanded upon several times, the accomplished natural scientist and novelist argued that there has developed such a divide between those who study the physical sciences and those who pursue humanities and the arts that they have become two separate cultures. He suggested that knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics is as fundamental to the one culture as a knowledge of Shakespeare is the other. (Would that that were so today.) But how many English professors can explain elementary principles of physics, for instance? Sadly, it now seems that few can discuss their own field without recourse to arcane ideological language.

Snow’s point was that the two cultures no longer speak to each other. No longer can one mind contain the sum of human knowledge. Especially with the mathematization of the sciences, large areas of knowledge are now inaccessible to even the well-educated. In a 2002 review of the book, Orin Judd added a more cheeky explanation. Whereas developments in the sciences inevitably made access to them more and more difficult, the arts had to make a concerted effort to achieve the same result:

The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible. If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn’t going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either.

Surely Judd goes too far, but how far is too far? Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is an extended study of this very point. Wolfe quotes from the Dadaist Manifesto: “Any work of art that can be understood is the product of a journalist.” Fans of Picasso and Joyce might object. They will tell us we just need to “put in the work.”  (Sound familiar?)

From this position that only members of the specialized field can speak on it, it is not a big step to say that only members of a given race can speak on topics related to them.

As the process of specialization continued and both cultures held to the principle of free speech and inquiry, something strange happened. Not only did each side find it impossible to understand the other, each abandoned territory to the other. English professors would defer to the physicists on issues of physics, and physicists would accept anything coming out of the English departments. Not unlike the medieval Muslim philosopher Averroës’ theory of two truths—one for philosophy and one for theology—each department has come to define its own field and all that might pertain to it.

This is why we hear statements that begin, “As an historian, I would say…” or “As an anthropologist, I would say…” Specialization confines anyone’s ability to contribute only to the field, and not only as a matter of professional courtesy. Each field is supposed to have its own perspective on the world and operates exclusively from within it. Such is what Heidegger described as “the point of view of the point of view.” With the advent of the various “studies” departments which divide the intellectual world by race, sex, and gender, we have the makings of even more specialized and ceded territory. The Women’s Studies department has the final word on women, as the African American Studies department does on the black experience, and so on.

From this position that only members of the specialized field can speak on it, it is not a big step to say that only members of a given race can speak on topics related to them. Keep that going, and you have a passage like the following from that New York Times article about the debacle at Smith College: “The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.” There was nothing ironic in that sentence. What can facts say to a “personal truth”? No more than a computer scientist could say about religion. (But don’t tell the always interesting David Gelernter.)

The multiversity, to use Clark Kerr’s expression, was prepared to accept many of the tenets of critical race theory by both habit and structure. There is no coherence to the education or even the structure of such institutions. Critical race theory, the product of the multiversity (and of multiculturalism), fit perfectly well. And it allows for moral preening on the part of those who no longer believe in the demanding search for truth.

Our institutions can influence our habits, as Aristotle taught. And this is true of our habits of thought as much as any other. The American academy was, therefore, structurally predisposed to embrace critical race theory and all its consequences, such as we see at Smith College. Ideology is also at play, but the habits that resulted from the specialization and obscuritanism of the multiversity led to the habits of critical race theory. The good news is that habits can be broken. But the long road back to sanity has yet to be travelled.