I like Heterodox Academy. I like the fact that people outside it are identifying that parts of our society are too dominated by people of one political persuasion. I like the way more and more college administrators are saying the antidote to speech is more speech.
But I don’t like the assumption underlying all of these. It’s an assumption of bias: an assumption that we should not only accept that everyone has biases, but that we individuals shouldn’t even feel an obligation to try and overcome them. Our workplace ought to compensate for our failings, this model assumes. If it provides enough people with enough different biases, we will hash it out between one another.
I agree that people with different biases hashing things out between one another is preferable to a bunch of people with the same bias congratulating one another. But individuals challenging their own biases is preferable to either of these. Isn’t it, in fact, one of the main duties and obligations of a scholar? If we didn’t challenge our understanding of things, we would stop leading the life of the mind. We would stop welcoming and reacting to new discoveries – stop making them. We’d stop re-evaluating things we knew. I would not be angsting over whether topics I’ve been teaching for 30 years really make any sense in light of what I learned yesterday.
I can’t wait for some physiologist with a different bias to point out that my understanding of respiratory acidosis is simplistic – and it’s not because I’m at a small college. Even the largest university probably doesn’t contain two people with different biases about that topic. I had to find it out for myself, though there was no pressing reason for me to think I had a problem. The fact that I find something like this out for myself every semester reassures me that I’m still learning and growing, doing my job. The year I go without discovering that something I’ve been teaching is inadequate or outdated is the year I stop living up to my profession.
Have faculty in general given up this ideal? Have we decided we can outsource the critical eye to people with other backgrounds, other ideologies, other experiences? Have we despaired of our ability to question ourselves and hold our opinions lightly, as provisional and subject to refutation?
I may be misreading the movement entirely. The idea may be that by hiring a diversity of colleagues, we will be better enabled to challenge our biases. I just dont see much of that in the discussion. Personal development and the virtues of a scholar seem sadly lacking, and that makes me sad. Because we shouldn’t be satisfied with being the representatives of an ideology, partisans of one side or another.
It’s the life of the mind. Arent we in it to expand our minds, to improve ourselves, to become greater than we are? Having time to do this, to make it our major focus, is a tremendous privilege. Let’s be worthy of it.