An Open Letter to American Academia

Dear American Academia:

Except for a few years in between schools, you have been my home for my whole life. After age eighteen, I spent thirteen years in college and graduate school. Since receiving my PhD in 1988, I’ve given thirty-two years to teaching in colleges and universities. I’ve been through the tenure process, published several books, participated in national and international professional academic societies, and achieved the rank of full professor at a prestigious university. I think I know you pretty well. And it is from my experience that I write.

A Sense of Self-Importance

I get it, you think you are an important social institution. You present yourself to the larger society as the champion of science, the engine of technological innovation, and the guardian of civilization. You market yourself to potential students as a four-year rite of passage into the professional class. I do not deny that much of what you say is true. My life testifies to that. Becoming a professor was my dream from age eighteen onward, and I am still amazed that the dream came true. I would not accept anything in exchange for what I learned from my teachers and students. I could not have written the books I have authored were I not a professor paid to teach and research. But I am not writing to praise you. Nor do I write to bury you. I write to admonish you and warn those who accept uncritically your rhetoric of self-importance.

Hidden Motives

The inviting narrative created by your public relations offices and published on your websites and in glossy brochures does not tell the whole story. Whatever your value to the common good, you are but one sector within a larger society encompassed by concentric circles of government power. Well hidden among your noble motives lie the most primitive of all drives: instinct for survival, desire for autonomy, and yearning for honor, security, and economic well-being. I could write an essay on each of these motives. But I want to focus on your quest for autonomy.

I believe your desire to become and remain self-determining is the driving force, the systemic ethos, of your behavior.  Autonomy allows you to pursue your self-interest without interference from external factors. It is your most cherished possession, and losing it is your greatest fear. The story is too long to tell here, but you write the history of American higher education as the struggle to free academia from the oppression of what you perceive as its two greatest enemies: right-wing politics and orthodox Christianity. And you tend to combine the two, although they are not natural allies.

Orthodox Christianity

You are driven by fear and hatred of these two enemies. You see them as sinister forces ever conspiring to bring you back under their control. You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it. Your reaction is a perfect illustration of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You consider any enemy of Christianity your ally. In your narrative, orthodox Christianity is anti-scientific, superstitious, imperialistic, historically unfounded, metaphysically absurd, morally oppressive, and, well, just plain evil.

Right-Wing Politics

Right-wing politics plays the second villainous role in your narrative. You interpret every voice on the right as an echo of the National Socialist (NAZI) takeover of the German universities, or of Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to root out communists from the entertainment industry and academia, or of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. You fear a right-wing takeover to the point of paranoia. And your fear is compounded by the fact that you have no power of your own with which to resist such a takeover. Hence you seek powerful friends to protect you. To fight the Right you made friends with the Left. To escape the eagle’s nest you fled to the bear’s cave. You are like ancient Israel in the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC, a weak vassal state set between two giant empires. In fear of Assyria and Babylon, you seek the protection of Egypt. For you must serve one devil or the other. Over a hundred years ago, when the Right and Christian orthodoxy were much stronger than they are today, you decided that the left-wing empire would give you more autonomy that a right-wing master would allow. And you have kept to that policy right up to the present time.

You have adopted another famous saying as your guiding light: “There are no enemies on the left.” To resist the Right, you embrace any and every cause that weakens it. It has been said in jest that the only thing that unites the modern university is the electrical and heating systems. No ideal, no mission, no philosophy, or moral imperative commands the loyalty of all the factions that congregate on your campuses. But I make no joke when I assert that the unity of the modern university is forged by one thing only: hatred of your common enemies, orthodox Christianity and right-wing politics.

Why do you, the modern university, put such emphasis on ethnic, racial, and gender identity and embrace anarchic, disruptive, and violent movements? Why target white privilege and systemic racism so vociferously? Why celebrate transgression of all traditional moral distinctions? It is not because of your love of humanity. It has little to do with a coherent philosophy of human dignity. Are you a champion of the oppressed? Not really. Are you motivated by your commitment to tolerance? I don’t think that is plausible. Do you love justice? No. That’s not it. I know you too well. These causes and movements weaken the Right and Christian orthodoxy. That is the reason you embrace them so fanatically. No enemies on the left! Your autonomy is all that matters to you. And your autonomy is a means to your selfish ends.

The Magic Mirror

Your fear drives you into hatred, suppression, and violence toward your enemies, whom you hate because you think they are bent on your destruction. You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion. If your enemy praises it as a virtue, you condemn it as a vice. And if your enemy condemns it as a vice, you defend it as praiseworthy. You are as closeminded and dogmatic as any “fundamentalist” who ever “thumped a Bible.”

Look in the mirror! The magic mirror of your conscience! There you will see everything you hate in your enemies, down to the last eyelash. Everyone who loves brightens the world in their own distinct way. But all who hate look alike in the shadows they cast.

Let Me Count the Ways

Do I write these harsh things because I hate you? No. You were a second mother to me! I write them because I love you. Or to be precise, I love you for what you could be: a place where friends meet to sharpen each other’s understanding. A symposium in which we explore the meaning of our humanity. A laboratory in which we implore nature to reveal her secrets. A cathedral where everyone worships at the altar of truth and reality. A hall where hypotheses are tested in the furnace of respectful debate. A town square where no one who speaks in the voice of reason is silenced because of what they say. Do not fear that reason is too impotent a power to defend goodness, truth, and beauty against the crude designs of the eagle and the bear. Eventually, reason’s clear, sonorous voice will distinguish itself from the cacophonous babel of party interests.

With much affection and not a little grief,

Ron Highfield

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to American Academia

    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Thanks Mark. I am not optimistic about secular higher education’s future. And this letter is preparation for the next one, on Christian colleges and universities. I am concerned that by intimidation or envy they are traveling the same wide, down hill road with increasing speed.

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  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Good evening Ron.
    Hope my pan-global reply doesn’t arrive late, and i find myself three essays behind again….
    Surely we have to forgive these circles or spheres of ‘excellence’ for their concentricities? Some of them wobble and precess backwards and forwards too- like you say, with no direction at all! Metaphorically speaking.
    Isaiah mentions ” wisdom with understanding, courage and counsel with fortitude, and above all, holiness ( c.f. ‘ true piety’) laid down in the knowledge of the fear of God… by the power of the Holy Spirit”. It’s that last bit that art, science, theology, politics, philosophy etc etc seems to be lacking: science may be wise, and politics ( governance) can be brave, but where has holiness gone? Is it in the church pl. we have spoken of? Perhaps not any longer, as the next sentence describes.
    We have to forgive education and politics for infecting each other: universities like churches have declined into “big businesses”, advertised and run as priofit-makers no longer having any semblance of old-fashioned academia. Render unto Caesar and all that.
    We all may appreciate of whom, the prophet speaks, and to that i’d like to add Jeremiah’s v29:11.
    I say this because, yes, we all lack holiness to some great extent, but where are the plans for education and governance that involve any kind of a future, a proper plan Ron? What are we (pl.) doing that doesn’t focus on financial warfare, savage economics, over-arching profit and money? The complete opposites of the New Covenant.
    The world is like a great big ocean liner (based upon the beauty only, of what this scepted-globe once was), on it are all the classes, as it steams head-on into the oblivion of a boiling sea, under an armageddon sky. Visual enough? I believe it’s now… And these non-interacting non-communicating non-speaking ‘powers’ are preparing themselves, in their autonomy to raise the life-boats. When the ship has gone, the life-boats (only in name) will contain politicians and books of law no doubt.
    I’m praying for both holiness and piety in some of those leaders and institutions that we’ve mentioned.
    Did i mention John 16:33?

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  2. nokareon

    There are so many directions I could go in response, but as someone only just beginning a career in academia next to your impressive thirty-two year pedigree, I want to honor your experience and knowledge in this field. One thing I do wholeheartedly agree with – academia is currently plagued with a drought of viewpoint diversity, measured along political lines. Jonathan Haidt and others at the Heterdox Academy have done great work in tracing the viewpoint disparity and raising awareness about the importance of viewpoint diversity. The challenge to the university, with the stated aim of seeking out truth, is to truly embrace the dictum: “The truth has nothing to fear from viewpoint diversity.”

    https://heterodoxacademy.org/

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I think it’s fantastic that you want a career in higher education. The more people like you that go into the profession, the better! My strident criticisms of the academy are not intended to condemn all the people within the system. Many wonderful people work there and do much good. So, I encourage you to keep on the track you have chosen. I can cooperate with people from all sorts of religious or nonreligious perspectives in many (most) areas of research and knowledge as long as we together seek truth and measure everything by reason.

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    1. nokareon

      Yes, that was going to be my main source of pushback – I may not know what goes on in the halls of the administrators and department chair meetings, but I do know that not all championing change and justice in academia are insincere. Many of us – especially in the younger generation, I believe – are 100% sincere in the aims we describe. But only time will tell what passage of time and the pernicious corrupting influence of power may bring, even in the hallowed halls of academia.

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