The Pandemic of Rampant Wokeism Strikes Academia

A deadly virus that threatens our way of life is spreading rapidly across the land.  It is not COVID-19, but wokeism and academia is its mothership.  Wokeism is the product of an educational system that has lost its way.  Universities have become the de facto farm system for progressives.

The indoctrination process begins with suppressing the free exchange of ideas.  Citing the risk of violence, university administrators have banned certain (predominantly conservative) speakers from campus because they are deemed too controversial.  These concerns, while not patently unreasonable, must be more than thinly veiled attempts to control students' thinking and squash debate.  A recent survey finds that eighty percent of college students self-censor in their interactions with peers and professors.  These results align with my own academic experience: approximately 85% of my students reported that they felt pressured to answer in-class or examination questions to placate the political or social leanings of their professors.

Paradoxically, the concerted effort on college campuses to increase faculty and student diversity has encouraged not a diversity of ideas, but the opposite.  Learning is a process of creative destruction in which new ideas continually challenge and displace old ones.  The economist John Maynard Keynes described this as "a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression" because "the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."  Just as diamonds are formed when high pressure is applied to carbon, knowledge is the product of the unrestrained clash of competing ideas.  In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson underscored this theme in an oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College entitled "The American Scholar":

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

The politicization of science is dangerous business.  Medical schools no longer teach that there are only two sexes.  It is virtually impossible for researchers to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals that do not support the woke doctrine on climate change.  The lectures of world-renowned university scientists are being canceled because their social policy views do not conform to the progressive agenda.  Similar problems pervade the awarding of research grants.  Wokeism increasingly (and alarmingly) trumps scholarship.

No consensus has yet emerged as to whether contracting the COVID-19 virus provides stronger natural immunity than the vaccines.  Nor can medical science speak authoritatively to the cost-benefit calculus of masking K–12 students.  The COVID-19 virus has exposed the dark underbelly of what is wrong with academia.  Universities do not have the answers to these questions, or the answers they do have are deemed politically unpalatable.  We can debate which possibility is the more troubling.

Teaching has morphed into indoctrination with a lack of rigor and poorly trained students constituting the collateral damage.  The average college student in the United States today puts in less than 60 percent of the study time per week that his counterparts did in 1961 (14 hours versus 24 hours).  Employers have been forced to compensate with increased skills training for newly minted college graduates.  Universities are seemingly less concerned with providing a rigorous education than they are with students being addressed with gender pronouns that match their sexual orientation du jour.  Columbia University recently announced that employees may be terminated for referring to someone using the wrong pronoun.

A recent manifestation of wokeism on college campuses is admonishing professors against telling their students that "everyone can succeed in this society if he works hard enough."  University administrators contend that no amount of effort by minorities can overcome the systemic racism that purportedly holds them back.  This is deeply disturbing because students are not inspired to greatness by being told that what they dream is impossible to achieve.

Wokeism is on full display in Oregon.  As opposed to working with K–12 teachers to raise the academic performance of all students, the governor eliminated English and mathematics proficiency requirements for high school graduation so minorities can feel that they are on equal academic standing with their peers.  A Minnesota middle school recently announced that it was eliminating the grade of "F" to combat systemic racism.  This is what an educational system in free-fall looks like.

Calling traditional grading practices "racist" and a manifestation of  "white privilege," an Arizona State University professor supports a labor theory of grading in which effort rather than proficiency determines student grades.  Effort may be necessary to achieve proficiency, but it is not sufficient.  For those who traverse bridges, fly on airplanes, or undergo medical procedures, it matters not that engineers, pilots, and neurosurgeons worked hard if they lack competency.

What is racist is an educational system that lowers academic standards because it does not believe that minorities can compete on the merits.  There can be no better example of "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

The promise of equality in America can be partitioned into two storylines.  The first storyline is a snapshot in time that rightly calls out the economic inequities and racial divisions that presently exist.  The second storyline is a movie through time that recounts a young nation that has traveled from abolishing the barbaric institution of slavery to electing the first black president in less than 150 years.  Neither storyline is intellectually honest without the other.

The academy fixates on the first storyline because it supports the woke narrative.  The universities of yesteryear would have actively engaged both storylines, encouraged debate, and entrusted students with the freedom to draw their own conclusions.  This is the critical difference between indoctrination and teaching, between being woke and being scholarly.

That our educational system is broken is no longer a debatable proposition.  The only question is whether it is broken beyond repair.  To effect constructive change, universities must be willing to concede that wokeism and scholarship are antagonists that cannot coexist, but there is no credible basis to believe that this will occur.  The woke have taken over our universities and transformed them into what they always wanted them to be.  Whatever that is, we should be under no illusion that the institutional mission is one of dispassionate analysis in the pursuit of objective truth.

Dennis L. Weisman, Ph.D. is professor of economics emeritus, Kansas State University, and former director, strategic marketing, SBC (now AT&T).

Image via Pixabay.

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