Beware of Bad Ideas
The democratic state has a duty to act as an ideological gate keeper to protect society
This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In the long historical rivalry between town and gown, the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13950 of 22 September 2020 was something of a watershed. The order on “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” was an unusually specific and high-level example of democratic society exercising what I will call a “reverse gatekeeping” function against what are seen as bad ideas borne inside the academy. The executive order noted that the core assumptions of identity essentialism, the division of citizens into oppressor and oppressed, and the assumptions of guilt and virtue based on group characteristics “may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars”.
These ideas, it warned, were “migrating from the fringes of American society and threaten […] to infect core institutions of our country”. The day after the order, Russ Vought, director of the office of management and budget, said in an interview that the stereotyping “emanates from left-wing universities across the country that suggests that our institutions are fundamentally racist and need to be brought down”.
While the order sparked healthy debate on so-called “diversity” training, the more interesting aspect was this stark example of an inversion of the usual hierarchy of judgment. It is normally academics, sitting in their ivory towers, who keep out ideas and evidence from campus that they find to be defective. Here, we had a reversal of polarity: an elected government rejecting an idea with such wide currency that many academics denied that it was an idea at all, but instead simply an authentic rendering of reality.
When the academy endorses works that make no pretence to be objective, it should not be surprised when society steps in
There is a clear parallel here with the concept of “academic gatekeeping” — decisions by those in educational institutions to prohibit discussions, publications, speakers, or faculty hires that convey viewpoints they feel “threaten to infect core institutions” of the university. The phenomena of cancel culture, no-platforming, and ideologically-driven hiring and promotion decisions are part of this problem of academic gatekeeping.
The justifications offered are typically very similar to those offered by the executive order, namely that they hold sway only on the “fringes of American society” and therefore have no place within its central institutions. For instance, the near-disappearance of the teaching of conservative political theories and philosophies on American college campuses has been justified on the grounds it represents, in the words of one Oxford reference volume, “the last gasp of an endangered species” or a “self-destructive faith in a system out to demean [women]”.
By contrast, “reverse gatekeeping” refers to efforts by mainstream society to protect itself from the bad ideas hatched inside the academy. What is new is that it, like its analogue in the academy, makes use of institutional and policy power, not just arguments. For 30 years from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), conservatives and classical liberals have been making good faith arguments about bad ideas. Many have concluded that this battle can no longer be fought with salvos of ideas because the contemporary academy has declared that the battle of ideas is itself part of the problem.
Lyell Asher, for instance, noted that in education colleges, aspiring teachers are regularly taken to training seminars where they are taught, to quote one training slide, that “the term ‘diversity of opinion’ is white supremacist bullshit!”. Both forms of gatekeeping therefore mean the deployment of power, rather than arguments.
In the classical world, there has been a constant struggle between townies and gownies
Going back to the classical world, there has been a constant struggle by townies to protect themselves from what are perceived as bad ideas among the gownies. The Greek comedic writer Aristophanes rallied the middle classes of Athens against the sophist theories of Socrates in his play The Clouds of 423 BC. Socrates later credited this act of reverse gatekeeping with encouraging he and his students to develop a more pragmatic “political” philosophy that became the basis of Western civilisation.
One might say that reverse gatekeeping is a central institution of a liberal society. Likewise, the Church in the middle ages had to limit the anti-material theories of poverty promoted by various scholastic orders, an injunction that allowed for the emergence of a “spirit of capitalism” within Christian thought and Western civilisation. The cases seem endless once one takes “the intellectual” as the intellectual problem that has repeatedly been solved by society.
There are two features that distinguish reverse gatekeeping from academic gatekeeping, aside from the obvious differences in the direction of the flow of ideas and who is doing the gatekeeping.
One, is that academic gatekeeping suffers from problems of legitimacy given the unrepresentative and undemocratic constitution of the modern university. That is part of the larger problem of the virtual disappearance of conservative and classical liberal ideas in the humanities and social sciences, as well as in many professional schools that train the next generation of leaders in areas such as social work, criminology and criminal justice, law, education, public health, public policy and administration, and urban planning. By contrast, reverse gatekeeping, when it is enacted by duly elected governments or authorities that have traction in the preferences of a significant proportion of the citizenry, is a legitimate part of the responsibility of a democratic government.
Second, and related, whereas academic gatekeeping is justified on substantive normative or ethical grounds, reverse gatekeeping can also be justified on procedural grounds. It can point to the lack of appropriate scientific conditions in the academy, the most important of which is a competing range of ideas that broadly reflect the competing range of ideas in society, as reason enough to doubt the validity of ideas found there. By contrast, as a second-best approximation, it can cite the existence in a free society of a more appropriate set of scientific conditions in the educated and reasoned debates of society at large, which find their traction in the duly elected representatives of the people.
Today, there are critics in society who believe that the academy is still dominated by conservative and classical liberal ideas
As a procedural matter, very little that holds wide currency in the academy should be trusted as valid or defensible no matter how institutionalised. And, by contrast, ideas that hold sway over a significant portion of the population of a free country and that have endured over sustained time periods have ipso facto empirical and normative defensibility because they have stood this procedural test of validation.
Today, the extensive “negative” freedoms in a liberal society, as well as its capitalist economic organisation, have proven to be “good ideas” by this standard of procedural validation, an argument made by both Michael Mandelbaum in his The Ideas That Conquered The World (2002) and more recently by Deirdre McCloskey’s Why Liberalism Works (2019). By contrast, the “critical” theories that dominate thinking in the contemporary academy on all things political, social, and economic, and which insist on various forms of illiberal coercion of society, are ideas that have failed to take root in society.
While the substantive import of reverse gatekeeping today will in most cases protect conservative or classical liberal positions, it is not by necessity a conservative or classical liberal aim. There was a time, for instance, when the classicists who controlled the universities insisted that a fluency in Latin and a familiarity with Homer were what was needed to, for instance, govern the colonies or run the Internal Revenue Service, a situation lamented by the president of Harvard in 1907. The rise of more applied training required reverse gatekeeping to block these “conservative” ideas which no longer reflected the considered values and preferences of wider society. The limited franchise was likewise defended strenuously by scholars as a “good idea” until popular preferences pushed for a change.
Today, there are critics in society who believe that the academy is still dominated by conservative and classical liberal ideas that need to be “reverse gatekeeped” by progressives. For instance, some critics want to gatekeep mainstream academic economics ideas like balancing budgets, stimulating growth via tax cuts, and allowing pay to reflect worker productivity. Such debates should be welcomed, because they resound with the procedural arguments used to justify reverse gatekeeping, namely that ideas inside the academy have no inherent validity until they have won the approval of a democratic society.
When the academy begins to endorse flawed works it should not be surprised when democratic society steps in
There has emerged a large literature in recent decades on the “bad ideas” coming out of departments that reflect the left-of-centre domination of the academy. Walter Olson argues in Schools for Misrule (2011) that America’s elite law schools have become a liability for the nation by hatching such bad ideas as class action lawsuits, the mass release of prison inmates, court takeovers of school funding, and UN mediation of native land claims. More general works about the range of alleged bad ideas coming forth from campus include Heather MacDonald’s The Burden of Bad Ideas (2000), which centres on various “wars” on poverty, science, and the family; Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals (2001), which centres on law, philosophy and economics; and Gad Saad’s The Parasitic Mind (2020). Along with the recent contribution by John M. Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education (2020), these authors generally focus their energies on reforming the academy itself. Posner, for instance, concluded that the best way to deal with bad ideas was to create disclosure and tracking systems of the interventions by academics in the real world.
The idea of reverse gatekeeping differs from these treatments because it aims to block the influence of the university rather than trying to reform it from within. Since university trustees have been unable to steer the academy from the rocks, elected representatives must seize the helm, so to speak. From a policy perspective, this treats bad academic ideas rather like infectious diseases, to which the first response is protective measures while eradication is at best a long-term policy aim. A further argument in terms of policy effectiveness parallels the story of Socrates: universities will reform themselves only when they find that the ideas they seed in their students and programmes are blocked by democratic society. This will create incentives for parents and students to seek out departments and programmes that have an established track-record of real world engagement and success. As with The Clouds, the exiling of academic sophistry can help it to recover.
While the regulatory policy tools of the Trump executive order is one means of reverse gatekeeping, other tools might be more efficient. In particular, organisational and informational tools of government can help generate knowledge sites that provide alternatives to the mainstream academic ideas. The reorganisation of public education to allow school choice, for instance, is an example of the use of organisational tools (with strong informational dependence) to promoting rival ideas.
With modern Western universities in a state of ideological involution, the vigorous site of contesting ideas is missing
As for policy process, there is always a danger that populist reverse gatekeeping will merely replace one sort of bad ideas with another. The attempt in 2020 to reimpose affirmative action policies in California by means of a ballot initiative, for instance, or Oregon’s simultaneous adoption by ballot initiative of magic mushrooms despite widespread expert concerns, show that reverse gatekeeping does not solve the problem of bad ideas, but merely raises the procedural question of how to choose ideas carefully. Representative democracy, because of its many levels of scrutiny and accountability, may be a preferable route.
There is no guarantee that a democratic society will always be right. But claims by scholars that the excellent ideas circulating on campus are being blocked by nefarious forces have more often been evidence of reasonable policy differences rather than of scientific breakdown. In 2011, for instance, the Harvard political science professor Stephen Walt wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine with the title “Where Do Bad Ideas Come From, And Why Don’t They Go Away?” His catalogue of “bad ideas” includes the idea that the United States and its allies in the free world have a right and sometimes a responsibility to remove noxious regimes that threaten the lives of their own citizens or those of other countries; that Western colonialism was always a disaster; that the US embargo on Cuba since 1960 has been a failure; and that there is no room for scepticism on drastic policies in response to human-induced climate change.
One can surely agree with Walt’s conclusion that the world would be better off if intellectuals were “wary of firmly entrenched conventional wisdoms” and were taught to “relentlessly question our own judgments” through “vigorous, unfettered, yet civil debate”. The question is whether those conditions are more nearly met at Harvard Yard or in a free, pluralistic, and contentious democratic society.
If the very meaning of democratic society is at stake, then efforts at reverse gatekeeping that seek to protect a lively and positive understanding of democratic society seem to hold a special place in this repertoire. Another of the Trump administration’s late executive orders, Executive Order 13958 of 2 November, 2020, established a President’s Advisory 1776 Commission intended to rescue the study of American history from “critical” scholarship. “In recent years, a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship has vilified our Founders and our founding,” it stated. “This radicalised view of American history lacks perspective, obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws, resulting in the truth being concealed and history disfigured.”
In addition to ensuring American history was presented accurately at national sites and through federal government operations, the commission would “advise agencies on prioritising the American founding in Federal grants and initiatives” including the “Department of Education, through the American History and Civics Academies and American History and Civics Education National Activities”.
The politicisation of national history teaching is of course as old as the modern state itself. It is also an uncomfortable and unfamiliar spectacle in the West, which has long prided itself on a critical examination of its past. Yet when the academy begins to endorse flawed works such as those of the historian Howard Zinn, author of the bestselling A People’s History of the United States, or the New York Times’s 1619 Project that make no pretence of offering objective history, only progressive “narratives”, then it should not be surprised when democratic society steps in to exercise its parental role.
Given a reasonable variety of viewpoints that will always circulate in a liberal society, the assumption has been that good ideas will win out over bad ones. Yet with modern Western universities in a state of ideological involution, the vigorous site of contesting ideas is missing. The day when reverse gatekeeping is no longer needed is far off. Until then, democratic leaders will appropriately act to protect freedoms, liberal equality, and virtuous citizenship from ideas in the academy that would destroy the City.
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