Wilding in Higher Ed
Two versions of a defense of Amy Wax
This was on First Things blog today.
And here’s a longer version, with a lovely quote by Ed Shils and other things.
Wokeism, Wilding, and the Decline of the Academic Ethic
Once, some decades ago, a traditional academic culture in American institutions of higher learning was still authoritative and widely accepted. Central to its ethic of debate and argument was a commitment to civility and a courteous, professional demeanor in debate. The ad hominem attack was seen in this traditional view as illicit, unscholarly, and dangerous insofar as it threatened the very existence of the university as a truth-seeking community.
How far we are from that now. We are at present watching the final death throes of that academic ethic, and what is rising in its place—a Wokeist personalism based in name-calling and insults--will destroy the universities.
There is no better current example of the method of this new academic culture than the treatment that is being meted out—once again—to the courageous Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law School. It seems every year or so Professor Wax says some utterly defensible thing about some controversial topic, and woke cancel mobs assemble and begin bellowing for her head. Such campaigns often start in the schools themselves, with caterwauling student Red Guards banging revolutionary drums, and soon leftist politicians and professional activists are holding press conferences demanding action. And then painfully Woke college deans such as Theodore Ruger at Penn Law start mouthing the Woke’s trusted ideological epithets (“racist!” “xenophobic!” “white supremacist!”) and making ludicrous claims about the “reasonable belief” some students have that they have been or will be harmed by interacting with Wax’s ideas, though they provide no evidence of that and likely know that it doesn’t exist.
In the hubbub, the Woke shriekers can increasingly be assured of one thing: no one will ask them for a case as to why what the offending individual said or wrote is “racist” or “white supremacist.” They of course oblige this non-request with a non-argument, and just continue to say the magic epithets.
I propose we call what Wokeists are up to here Wilding. It neatly follows, likely without having read him, Oscar Wilde’s sardonically offered argumentative principle: “If you cannot answer a man’s argument, do not panic—you can always call him names.” No case needed, then; just use labels, and especially have frequent recourse to the highly destructive epithet that starts with ‘r.’ This will have the effect of whipping those already sympathetic to the Woke agenda into a frenzy on their social media, and it will frighten anyone but the bravest who is inclined to ask questions about substance to be quiet or have the dreaded ‘r’ word lobbed at them too.
What, exactly, did Professor Wax say this time?
She said that a US immigration policy that had the slightest interest in maintaining cultural allegiance to founding American principles would do well to limit the number of immigrants from cultures that are distant from those principles, because culture is sticky and it is harder to assimilate those folks to the significantly different culture into which they are entering. This ultimately would amount at the policy level to limiting immigration from countries with cultures that are not closely aligned with our principles. She also said that immigrants to the US from Asian countries are disproportionately drawn into the economic and cultural elite in this country owing to their levels of formal education, and as a group they lean politically significantly in the direction of the Woke left and do not strongly identify themselves with the country of their residence.
Evidence for the second claim is not at all hard to find. The first claim is perfectly reasonable and argumentatively defensible, and it has been argued by many other scholars. Harvard’s Samuel Huntington wrote an entire book based on the premise. American presidents have articulated this same view. John Adams noted that our Constitution is unsuited for people without religious beliefs. His son, John Quincy Adams, suggested that any immigrant or would-be immigrant population to this country who would not “accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political, and physical, of this country” ought to “return to the land of their nativity and their fathers.” Are the Wokeists insinuating that the words of these two Presidents of the country cannot be expressed by a professor at a university today? They ought to say so, if that’s the implication.
One can disagree with what Professor Wax argues, certainly, as her interlocutor Professor Glenn Loury does civilly and respectfully in their conversation, but the charge that what she said is racist is just laughable. What she said about the general trend of Asian American political beliefs is true, and what she said about the general desirability of doing what is possible to keep leftist-leaning voters from becoming a still larger portion of the American population ought to be at least an arguable point to conservatives, unless they secretly agree with the left and want conservatism in the country to disappear altogether or become incapable of ever winning anything at the level of electoral politics. Much evidence indicates that the portion of the American population that identifies with founding principles and traditional American culture is shrinking every year, and current immigration policy contributes to this trend. That much is not deniable by someone concerned with empirical evidence.
This is now old news for Professor Wax, as she’s been dealing with this kind of insanity on a regular basis for years now. I have some ‘on the ground’ experience watching Wokeist Wilding at work, and specifically in its schoolyard targeting of Professor Wax. Several years ago, a student group I supervised at the school that currently employs me, Bucknell University, invited her to give a talk on the importance of protecting open expression of a wide range of views on controversial topics in higher education. Just prior to her visit, activists began caterwauling over an op-ed Wax had written with a colleague on the advantage offered to those in modern societies who learn cultural traits that valorize thrift, ascetic labor, sexual continence, and attention to social reciprocity instead of naked egoism. They short-handed these cultural traits as ‘bourgeois values.’ “Racist!” predictably went the immediate cry by the eternally outraged in the online media. I found it risible, but I was not prepared for what would soon happen on my campus.
Within days of the announcement of her visit, an angry mob of my colleagues were posting vulgar insults of Wax to the faculty listserv. Eventually, several dozen professors chimed in, publicly describing scholarly and public intellectual work it was painfully evident they had not read with obscenities and schoolyard language. After Wax had been to campus, these people vigorously denounced a talk none of them attended as white supremacist and racist. Reasoned argument itself and the rest of the academic virtues defended here were attacked as just another element of white supremacy. It was proclaimed that all claims of racism on campus by faculty of color are undebatable, and that such claims simply must be accepted as legitimate without evidence. Demands were made to the organizers of the talk to fund trauma counselling for these faculty, who presumably would be psychically harmed by Wax’s mere physical proximity. One departmental co-sponsor of the event rescinded their offer of financial assistance in the wake of this astonishing and irrational wave of self-righteous indignation, and a second department issued a statement after the fact of their outrage at the violence against faculty of color that had been perpetrated by the talk, which, again, none of them had attended. The student group that had organized the talk, along with their faculty supporters, were defamed publicly as potentially violent fascists and these Bucknell students were maliciously portrayed, by Bucknell faculty, as malign outsiders to the campus community.
In all the sound and fury, not a single substantive charge that could be documented or supported by something Wax had written or said was posted in tens of thousands of words of vitriol and bile. These were college professors, I remind you. Among the scholarly language they used to describe Wax and her work were “BS,” “dumb,” and “f##kery.”
I was the only faculty defender of Wax on my campus, and evidently the only one who had read her and who cited her as evidence of what she had said, instead of insinuating what she must have said based on the ideological skew and outright lies of this, that, or another biased intermediary. (An unreasoned, unlearned attack on her by the far-left National Lawyer’s Guild was one of the few sources used by the mob). In short order, I too was denounced as a “white supremacist” for having the audacity to ask my colleagues to present evidence of their charges. One particularly shrill member of the mob, demonstrating that her poor reading skills were not limited to Wax’s writing, accused me of making threats to my colleagues because I had written that such unscholarly attitudes by purported scholars made it impossible to take the people holding them seriously, and the ultimate result would inevitably be a dangerous and caustic effect on the institution itself. Another hurled f-bombs at me in a private email.
The entire episode was a revelation to me. I had known, of course, that Wokeism existed in my place of employment, but I did not know previously of the extent of the infection level among my colleagues. It shook my confidence in the belief that reason and the traditional academic ethic would be able to withstand the current assault. I am now quite uncertain about how things will go, here and in higher ed generally.
One of the giants of scholarship on the history of the university system and its academic ethic, Edward Shils wrote these powerful words about the threat he saw the system under in the wake of the 1960s. They merit reproducing at length because they are so compellingly applicable to our moment, nearly half a century later:
“What the university teacher must not do is to acquiesce in that onslaught on science and scholarship, on disciplined thinking of every kind, so characteristic of the 1960s… A university teacher who succumbs to that onslaught, who is content to say whatever comes into his mind, without respect for evidence and argument, and who encourages his students to proceed in the same way, is committing the ultimate treason against the university. Systematic, disciplined investigation is its life-blood. Those who reject it as a governing principle have no more place in a university than an atheist has in a church. They are, of course, entitled to attack the universities as an atheist is entitled to attack the churches. But they are lacking in a sense of moral intellectual obligation if they remain within the university, seeking to retain the advantage of membership in it after they have lost faith in the ideals which can alone make sense of it as an institution. The situation of such a university teacher is like that of a priest turned atheist or sceptic and who continues to preach in church.”
Professors like Amy Wax are the canary in the coalmine of contemporary academia. We just saw recently that Jordan Peterson has essentially been pushed out of his academic post by the constant episodes of Woke Wilding against him over the past few years. If Penn Law sanctions Professor Wax for saying what numerous American presidents have said and believed, we will have no doubt about how serious things are in higher education.
May I end by making a small suggestion to Theodore Ruger and all the others like him in universities? Given your clear commitment to the anti-scholarly practice of Woke Wilding, sir, you have no place in the academy. You ought to instead go take up a position on the political soapbox to try to make an honest living doing what you are currently doing while masquerading as a scholar.
It didn't feel right to put a "like" on something that also made me so very sad. But I like it that you wrote it.