Monday, April 14, 2014

Academic Justice

A recent column by New York Times columnist Russ Douthat calls our attention to an article written last February by a Harvard senior for the university paper The Crimson. The student's name is Sandra Korn and she illustrates perfectly the left-wing progressive mindset.

Ms Korn thinks academic freedom is a bad thing and should be replaced in academia by what she calls "academic justice," which, given her description of it, is the exact opposite of both "academic" and "justice." In Ms Korn's view "justice" pretty much means "agreeing with her." Here's her introduction:
In July 1971, Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein penned an article for Atlantic Monthly titled “I.Q.” in which he endorsed the theories of UC Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen, who had claimed that intelligence is almost entirely hereditary and varies by race. Herrnstein further argued that because intelligence was hereditary, social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile—he wrote that “social standing [is] based to some extent on inherited differences among people.”

When he returned to campus for fall semester 1971, Herrnstein was met by angry student activists. Harvard-Radcliffe Students for a Democratic Society protested his introductory psychology class with a bullhorn and leaflets. They tied up Herrnstein’s lectures with pointed questions about scientific racism. SDS even called for Harvard to fire Herrnstein, along with another of his colleagues, sociologist Christopher Jencks.

Did SDS activists at Harvard infringe on Herrnstein’s academic freedom? The answer might be that yes, they did—but that’s not the most important question to ask. Student and faculty obsession with the doctrine of “academic freedom” often seems to bump against something I think much more important: academic justice.
We might pause at this point to ask this question: What if an unpopular view like Herrnstein's happens to be true? Truth seems not to matter to academic brownshirts like Ms Korn. Nor does it seem to occur to her that she might not be in possession of the truth herself and might have something to learn from someone who has actually been around a few decades longer than she has. This is all obfuscation, however, to progressives like Ms Korn. Herrnstein and those like him shouldn't be allowed to promote their views in the university because left-wing progressives find those views deplorable. She states:
If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
Has it occurred to Ms Korn that preventing people from pursuing the truth is also a form of oppression? Isn't it oppressive to deprive people of the freedom to voice their opinions? Is not Ms Korn herself "justifying oppression" of a different sort? All of which raises a further question. What if, per impossible, the university were to consider the views of Ms Korn to be insidiously harmful to the values Americans cherish? Would the university be warranted in shutting her up? Would silencing her be an act of academic justice?
The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do....Only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.

It is tempting to decry frustrating restrictions on academic research as violations of academic freedom. Yet I would encourage student and worker organizers to instead use a framework of justice. After all, if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.
Well, since Ms Korn is concerned about the "moral upper hand" let's ask this question: At a secular institution like Harvard, run, no doubt, by secular progressives like Ms Korn, what exactly is the "moral upper hand"? Indeed, what is her conception of justice? Secularists like to throw around words like "morality" and "justice" while simultaneously dismissing the idea that these terms actually mean anything.

When we peel away progressive rhetoric what we find is that "moral" is whatever the left thinks is just, and "justice" is whatever leftist cause happens to be in fashion on any given day. Beyond this the words mean nothing. They have no objective significance because they have no objective ground.

Only a justice rooted in a transcendent, perfectly good, moral authority - the God of Christian theism, for example - can carry any obligation to observe its strictures. If God is disregarded, as the left generally insists he be, then justice is reduced to nothing more than a term that packs a rhetorical wallop, but actually refers to nothing more than one's subjective preferences.

A well-known twentieth century progressive, the Russian dictator and mass murderer Vladimir Lenin, put it this way: "We repudiate all morality (i.e. concepts of justice) that proceeds from supernatural ideas....[Justice] is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. Everything is [just] that is necessary to the annihilation of the old exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat."

To which Ms Korn presumably lends her enthusiastic assent.