Jonathan Haidt explains “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.” When my friend Chad Wellmon (on Twitter) questioned Haidt’s dichotomy, I agreed that there is a problem. After all, people who are promoting social justice in he university think that their beliefs are true!
But I also think Haidt has a point — it just needs to be rephrased. The social-justice faction in the university believes that the most fundamental questions about what justice is have already been answered, and require no further reflection or investigation. (And from this follows the belief that questioning The Answers, and still worse suggesting other answers, is, as Haidt says, a kind of blasphemy: At Social Justice University, “there are many blasphemy laws – there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use. This makes it difficult to do good social science about politically valenced topics. Social science is hard enough as it is, with big complicated problems resulting from many interacting causal forces. But at SJU, many of the most powerful tools are simply banned.”)
What needs to happen, then, I believe, is for “SJU” to be honest about its own intellectual constitution, to say openly, In this university, we are not concerned to follow the model of many academic enterprises and inquire into the nature and forms of justice. We believe we already know what those are. Therefore our questions will involve how best to implement the understanding we have all already agreed to before beginning our work.
And you know, if SJU is a private institution, I don’t think they would be simply wrong to do this. After all, I have spent my teaching career in Christian institutions, where there are also certain foundational assumptions at work — which, indeed, is true even at Haidt’s Truth U. If Haidt really thinks that there is no blasphemy at Truth U he is sorely mistaken. (Thought experiment: a professor grades her students by seeking the wisdom of the I Ching.) Every educational institution either implicitly or explicitly sets certain boundaries to its pursuits, that is, agrees to set certain questions aside in order to focus on others. And what has long made American higher education so distinctive is its willingness to let a thousand institutional flowers, of very different species, bloom.
The question I would have for proponents of SJU is: Do you embrace the ideological diversity that has been a hallmark of the American system? Are you willing to allow SJU to do its work alongside Truth U and Christian U, and argue for all of those institutional types to be treated equally under the law? Or, rather, do you want every college and university to be dedicated to social justice as you understand it — for there to be no institutions where the very definition of justice is open to question and debate?