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Gradually, a better way emerged, a liberal system for adjudicating differences of belief in a shared struggle to ascertain what’s true. That’s the story Jonathan Rauch tells in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge (Brookings Institution Press). He argues that the American founding was both a political and an epistemic revolution. Just as the U.S. Constitution created structures and rules to peacefully channel social conflict into social progress, the Constitution of Knowledge created a network of norms, rules, and institutions for turning disagreement into knowledge. Higher education sits at the center of that system.
Now that system, says Rauch, is under attack. Outrage and disinformation, alternative realities, enforced conformity, and ideological blacklisting have contributed to an epistemic crisis. It can sometimes feel as if we’re walking around in a daze debating first principles. How do we know what we know? How do we know it’s true?
Rauch spoke recently with The Chronicle Review about the intellectual climate on campuses, the extent to which professors are afraid of their own students, and why higher education is losing credibility with the public.
What role does higher education play within the Constitution of Knowledge?
There are four major pillars of the reality-based community, my label for the people, professionals, institutions, and organizations that work under the rules of the Constitution of Knowledge. The first is academia, science, and research; the second is journalism; the third is law; the fourth is government. Of the four, the academic world is first among equals. First, it’s at the forefront of actually doing knowledge work — figuring out what is and isn’t true. Second, it determines and refines the rules for figuring out what’s true and not true. Third, it transmits those values to subsequent generations. So higher education is at the heart of the whole system.
You are not yourself an academic, but you spend a lot of time on campuses and have long been an engaged observer of the academic scene. How would you characterize the intellectual climate today?
There is a huge amount of important and serious and honest work being done in American academia. We should not forget that. We sometimes talk as if universities are Maoist struggle sessions. They’re not. But there are a few interlocking problems that seem to be getting worse.
One of them is the lack of viewpoint diversity. When there are entire disciplines, certainly entire departments, where a student can go through training starting as an undergraduate, through graduate school, then on into her professional career, and maybe even through retirement, without ever encountering a political conservative — that is going to cause serious distortions because of the questions that won’t get asked and the prejudices that will be assumed. And it’s going to cause the public to believe that the enterprise of academia is not on the level.
So lack of diversity is problem one. It fuels a couple of other problems. One is chilling. Surveys, anecdotal evidence, and reporting find there are many students who are afraid of their fellow students, and professors who are afraid of their students, and sometimes of other professors. There are entire topics that scholars are effectively avoiding out of fear. That is the opposite of what a university is supposed to be. A university should practice and model open inquiry and intellectual fearlessness. Instead we have fearfulness — that someone will be hurt, someone will be offended, someone will protest, someone will demand an investigation.
There’s a further, related problem that also comes from lack of diversity, or is exacerbated by it: politicization. We’re seeing in a number of fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences, demands that the disciplines themselves take on particular political priorities. If there is one thing good science should not be, it’s politicized.
Much of what you describe as self-censorship might be described by others as civility. Where does civility end and self-censorship begin?
Civility — editing ourselves so we can get along with others — does not involve punishment. It does not inspire fear. It’s a different story if you think you’ll lose your job, be investigated, your friends will shun you, your professional connections will detach themselves, your journal will repudiate your work and apologize for publishing it, and you might not be hirable somewhere else. Those actions are not consistent with civility. Those actions are punitive in intent and intimidating in outcome, and that’s what they’re designed to be.
Most students do not want to drive conservatives from campus, and most professors do not want to discriminate against conservatives. So what’s going on?
It is a bit puzzling on its face. The More in Common study that was conducted a few years ago figured that the progressive, activist portion of the U.S. population is 8 percent. It’s a very small group, yet they dominate conversation on Twitter and in Democratic Party circles. On campus we see even more of the same thing.
We need to think about what Trump and MAGA are up to, and what cancel culture is up to, as two varieties of the same thing, which is information warfare. Or epistemic warfare. There are lots of ways to do that. The way we see increasingly used on campuses is social coercion: Find ways to make it very socially painful to be called out. It’s not like you’re safe if you don’t, say, criticize affirmative action. You never know where the land mines are. You never know what might be construed as a microaggression until someone denounces you for it. That’s on purpose, and has two effects. One is straightforward chilling. The second is more subtle: It distorts the information environment by spoofing consensus. In a chilled environment, you don’t know what people around you really think. It becomes easy to believe that you’re the only person with your point of view and that you’re isolated.
What you’re describing is how a dedicated illiberal minority can chill a liberal majority.
Yeah, and it’s important to separate the tactics from the ideology. Anyone can use these tactics. And everyone has. This is how it’s possible for fairly small vanguards of people to dominate their environments.
You argue that acting censoriously in the name of laudable goals like diversity and inclusion tends to be counterproductive. For one thing, norm-policing often backfires on the norm police. Moreover, censoriousness patronizes and imperils minorities. How so?
I’m married to a man today, miraculously, because of free speech, free inquiry, and the sovereignty of facts in the Constitution of Knowledge. When I was born, in 1960, it was illegal in most states to have sex with a person you loved. Gays were considered mentally ill by the psychiatric profession, subjected to shock therapy, sometimes lobotomized, denounced from the pulpits, assumed to be a threat to national security — I could go on. The only reason for gay progress was that we were able to organize and make counterarguments showing that the reasons for all that hate and fear did not exist.
To argue that minorities are so fragile that we’ll be traumatized if we’re exposed to contrary arguments, or even hate speech, is, first of all, ahistorical: We faced it down, and we won. Second, it’s patronizing. And third, it aids in our oppression. The excuse for second-class citizenship for gays, women, and Black people was always that they’re weak. Think about the slogans. Gay people: pansy, limp-wrist, sissy. Women: the gentler sex, not capable of surviving the rigors of the workplace or politics without feeling dismay or shock. And, above all, Blacks: childlike, unable to fend for themselves, need the protection of segregation and slavery. Minority-rights activists should be the last people on the planet to embrace the stereotype that minorities are weak and need protection.
Does a perception of higher ed as an engine of censoriousness — whether that characterization is fair or not — imperil the credibility of academic expertise?
Clearly, the credibility of higher education is taking a hit. I don’t have the polls in front of me, but I think it’s a 20-percentage-point drop in the past five years. A 20-percent change in anything over five years is very significant. Most of that is conservatives and Republicans. Diversity matters, and diversity of every kind matters. And if the public looks at academia and sees one type of person asking one type of question and adopting one type of worldview, they’re going to feel alienated from that. I can’t blame them.
Is there a risk that an emphasis on viewpoint diversity de-emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity?
They’re both important. What’s really going on here is that people want to assert that racial and ethnic diversity should supersede viewpoint diversity. I think it should be possible to have both. A lot of people want one without the other.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for quotas for conservative professors. You can’t do anything like that. But what you can do is affirmatively look for discrimination in hiring, in tenure decisions and peer review, and say we’re going to take political discrimination seriously from now on.
In your 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, and again in The Constitution of Knowledge, you detail two core rules for a reality-based debate. The “fallibilist rule": Something can be established as knowledge only if it’s, in principle, debunkable. And the empirical rule, which holds that the truth of a claim has nothing to do with the identity of the person making the claim. In other words, no one is epistemically privileged by dint of who they are. Kindly Inquisitors came out almost 30 years ago. In that time, have identity-based knowledge claims become more ascendant on college campuses?
It was already pretty significant in 1993. But in the early ’90s, standpoint epistemology was more heavily theorized. What I see today is more of a social phenomenon. It’s more about: I see myself as a person of such and such identity, and I’m demanding recognition for that on my campus and in my classroom. It’s a political assertion to be heard and recognized.
Something else I saw less of then but see now: the mic drop — the notion that once I quote my lived experience, my subjective truth, that ends the conversation. If someone says, as feminist epistemologists did 30 years ago, that standpoint begins the conversation, that’s great. Consider gays and science and all the biological assumptions that heterosexuality is the only way to do stuff. But if instead people say I’m stating my identity, and now we can’t talk about it, you’re disqualified, then that’s a violation of the Constitution of Knowledge.
How afraid are professors of their own students?
I hear that all the time. And they’re not afraid of most of their students. It’s just a handful. I spoke to an untenured but tenure-track professor of neurobiology, and one of her modules early in a course was on autism and how that affects the wiring of the brain at an early age. One student said it offended them because it can be seen as marginalizing to autistic people. This was a student known for their activism. Most students don’t mind in the least learning about autism. So the professor went to her department chair, and the department chair told her to ignore the student. “Great!” I said. “So you kept the module?” And she said no, that she‘d dropped it. “I want tenure, and I interpreted that student complaint as strike one,” she told me. “Why risk strike two or strike three?”
You point out that cancellation campaigns tend to fail when individuals and institutions have backbones. How would you rate the spinal stiffness of college presidents these days?
My impression from folks in the trenches is that it’s not as bad as it could be. Leadership is such an important factor here. The person at the top sets the tone all the way down. And sets expectations. When the crisis comes, it’s too late. You need leaders who establish clear values and promulgate those values to the freshman class when they come in.
I heard an interview you did recently in which you described recent legislative actions, including the anti-critical race theory bills, as a “clear shot across the bow to universities that the time when they could go about their business of allowing small groups of radicals to basically dominate the environment without external political consequences is over.”
I am very unhappy to see politicians barging into campuses and classrooms to dictate what can and cannot be taught. But it’s happening partly as a result of the collapse of credibility on campus. A lot of people out there in political land, especially on the right, think that campuses are engaging in indoctrination and teaching fake facts. This is America, it’s a populist country, it’s a democratic country, and you’re going to see political entrepreneurs make hay with this.
One thing we know from history going back to at least the Scopes Trial is that the worst people on the planet to make curriculum choices or write syllabi are politicians. They should never, ever, ever do it. They’re terrible at it. But now they’re doing it. And my admonition to people in academia is that there’s more to come if you don’t get more conscientious about making campuses more hospitable to a true diversity of ideas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.