Of Safe Spaces & “Sacred” Values

Immaculate Conception

Two separate items inspired this post:  one is the rash of stories eructating from the press these days about groups of students on campuses across the country, demanding “safe spaces” and other escapes from ideas and campus speakers they find unpleasant.  The other was a very long and interesting interview with the sociologist Jonathan Haidt, founder of the website HeterodoxAcademy.org, a site dedicated to trying to expand “viewpoint diversity” within the American world of academia.  Haidt is someone who has done rather interesting and helpful studies on the lack of “conservative” professors/views within higher education, and he recently wrote a very long and popular article in the Atlantic Monthly on why today’s students seem to react so violently to ideas they don’t like.

Haidt’s interview is well worth your time.  The interview, Tyler Cowen, is an economist at George Mason University, and he asks some rather interesting questions in the course of the interview.  And while I agreed with much of what Haidt had to say about the academy, and the reasons why students seemed so overly sensitive, and much else, I was struck by an exchange between him and Cowen toward the end of the interview, in which Cowen asked him “what the best replacement for religion in modern secular society.”  Haidt’s answer is worth quoting in full:

A few years ago I would have tried to give you an answer and say we should have some other sacred value to replace it, but given what’s happened in the last year on campuses, I’m really afraid of it, because you might think, “Humanitarianism should replace it. We should all have a religion of helping the poor, helping each other.” Now, of course, it’s really important to help the poor. It’s really important to help people who are oppressed.

But once you make it a religion, that means you are impervious to evidence. You are committed to certain religious rituals even if those rituals make things worse. For example, I’ve been studying the research on affirmative action and diversity training. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence that they make things better and there is some evidence that it makes things worse.

Now, it’s messy. I can’t say for sure that they do, but the point is, we seem to be doing things on campus that are making things worse. The activists are largely asking for things that will make things worse. Much more affirmative action, much bigger racial preferences, which will cause much bigger gaps between Asians at the top and African-Americans at the bottom. Which is going to inflame prejudice, not reduce it.

Once you make something a religion, you’re not open to evidence. You do really crazy, stupid things. What I would say is, let’s not have a replacement for religion. Let’s set things up so that there isn’t a big religion that unites us all to take on our enemies. Let’s try to return to a climate in which people find meaning and purpose in their private lives and in their smaller associations, but we don’t have a big sense of national purpose.

This was from later in the interview, but it struck me as being relevant to something Haidt said earlier in it, where he was speaking directly about the problems on college campuses today:

You have to see college campuses as being institutions that were designed or intended to be places where people come up against diverse ideas, they’re challenged, and as within the marketplace — monopoly destroys a lot of the value of the marketplace — if you have a monopoly on ideas in the intellectual marketplace, you kill the marketplace. Campuses are supposed to be places where nobody has a monopoly on ideas, but they’ve become that in the last few years.

Now what I find interesting here are a couple of things.  One is Haidt’s semi-explicit definition of religious as being obscurantist (“impervious to evidence”), and the other is his assertion that college campuses were designed to be a “marketplace” of ideas.  I say they are interesting because as to the first, as I am sure Haidt must be aware, “religion” is a rather hotly contested phenomenon, and indeed there are many scholars who insist the concept is so variable as to be no use at all.  Of course, he may just be referring to the supernatural or divine elements in a faith or religion as being the essence of it, which would make some sense.

As to the second, I’m not sure how well Haidt knows the history of the modern university, but it was not really designed to be a “marketplace” of ideas.  For those who are not aware, the modern idea of a research university (which is what I take him to be referring to) was largely a German creation:  educational reformers in early 19th century Germany like Wilhelm von Humboldt wanted to replace the older religious curriculum with what he and others called “Wissenschaft,” or learning that was systematic, and that implied the unity of all knowledge, as well as both research and teaching.  By research these reformers did not mean empirical research necessarily (though it would come to mean that, under the influence of the modern natural sciences) but what was important was that this all encompassing unity was discoverable for oneself, without having to have it handed down via tradition or authority.

Now, the goal of these reformers as well as others was not to reduce knowledge to subjective experience but to put it on a different footing.  Gone was the Christian and humanist worship of ancient/and or sacred texts (even though the German philological tradition remained quite obsessed with them thank you very much) and in was their “critical” examination, along the combing of archives for evidence–empirical research in other words. Eventually, by the end of the 19th century, this sort of emphasis  yielded the idea that, if every discipline would publish its findings in its major journal, where all educated people could read them, and the sum total of this research would preserve the unity of knowledge which the older, religiously inspired model had done but without dogmas, authority, or old books. That at least was the intention behind the modern research university as I understand it.

It’s a long story, but in the main this effort has failed spectacularly.  It has increased our depth of knowledge in virtually every field of endeavor (and spawned some new ones, including Haidt’s own discipline of sociology, which didn’t exist before the late 19th century) but the breach between the humanities and the hard sciences which had opened up in the nineteenth century has if anything widened even further.  And make no mistake, the reason why many intellectuals backed this change in the 19th century was to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge caused by the loss of the older religious view among them.  Thus the philosopher Georg Hegel could proclaim that “our Universities are our churches,” and the Harvard reformer Charles Eliot could see in his renovation of the Harvard curriculum a “liberal culture” replacing the older religious underpinnings of the university.  All of which is a long winded way of saying that Haidt’s desire to see the academy denuded of “sacred values” is at odds with the purpose of the university, in either its medieval or re-founded modern form.  Though I admire his efforts to increase intellectual diversity in the academy, I can’t say I am very sanguine that it will succeed. Openness of inquiry is a relative thing; it depends on some ideas, some beliefs being closed off from inquiry and discussion, off limits, taboo.  It is a means, and not an end. And the modern form of the university espouses a hollowed out, dumbed-down version of the singular, “sacred” value which is implied by the name “university” itself.  I doubt that will change very much any time soon, if at all.

~ by Alypius on May 1, 2016.

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