The Danger of Unassailable Ideas

Treating beliefs as truths makes it impossible for the academy to do its job

Medieval walls in Montangana, Italy. Image Credit: Commune of Montangana

Open inquiry is supposed to be the foundation of the academic endeavor. And yet today, that endeavor is constrained by a set of unacknowledged beliefs that administrators, faculty and students at colleges and universities increasingly treat as unassailable truths.

As we argue in our new book, Unassailable Ideas, many of these beliefs have in recent decades migrated from the edge of academia to its very center. Three of these beliefs in particular now shape how the academy conceptualizes research, teaching and its administrative role, a phenomenon that restricts how classes are taught, which questions can be asked and how problems are solved.

The first of these beliefs is that any effort that aims to undermine traditional frameworks is automatically viewed as good. In making this claim, our aim is not to mount a defense of conventional discriminatory power structures. However, it should be possible to rightly condemn them and simultaneously point out that not all efforts designed to fight against them are well thought-out. Sometimes the goals of a particular effort will be worthy, but the methods to achieve them won’t be.

The second belief is that discrimination is the cause of all unequal group outcomes. In other words, absent discrimination, all intergroup differences in representation in various aspects of life—from education to family structure to employment—would cease to exist. While discrimination is clearly a force that should be combated, this second belief precludes any consideration of the potential role of preferences, priorities and culture that might also play a contributing role.

The third belief is in the primacy of identity, where identity is defined by attributes such as race, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, etc. We are not suggesting that identity along these lines isn’t important: it is. Rather, we are suggesting that there can also be value in non-identity-centered perspectives.

One could argue that what we have characterized as beliefs that can reasonably be questioned are instead truths that reflect the “right” way, in an objective sense, to understand the world. If that is the case, then any attempt to label them as beliefs and open them to questioning is by definition flawed and misguided. If, on the other hand, they are beliefs rather than nondebatable truths, it becomes possible to ask how widely they are held and to argue for greater recognition that they reflect a particular perspective that not everyone shares.

The “beliefs or unquestionable truths” question relates to the much broader puzzle of how we develop our opinions on all manner of subjects. In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution argued that the divergence in perspectives among different people runs deep. Part of Sowell’s inspiration for the book was the observation that people generally coalesce in groups on a multitude of issues. By knowing someone’s position on, for instance, gun control, Sowell observed that you can deduce with reasonable confidence that person’s positions on issues such as abortion, charter schools and affirmative action. As he noted, “It happens too often to be a coincidence, and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot.”

Sowell connected this phenomenon to what he described as a spectrum of views on human nature, ranging from constrained on one side to unconstrained on the other. He wrote, “When Rousseau said that man ‘is born free’ but ‘is everywhere in chains,’ he expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision, in which the fundamental problem is not nature or man but institutions.”

“By contrast,” Sowell argued, “the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” Sowell described the resulting correlation with differences in policy prescriptions:

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.

He also wrote that:

In the constrained vision, social processes are described not in terms of intentions or ultimate goals, but in terms of the systematic characteristics deemed necessary to contribute to those goals—“property rights, free enterprise” or “strict construction” of the Constitution, for example. The unconstrained vision speaks directly in terms of desired results, the constrained vision in terms of process characteristics considered conducive to desired results, but not directly or without many unhappy side effects, which are accepted as part of a trade-off.

More broadly, Sowell’s analysis illustrates that the foundations for the different worldviews are often both unacknowledged and implicit. It can be difficult to recognize the assumptions underlying one’s own strongly held views, making it that much harder to understand those who are looking at the same issues from a completely different vantage point.

Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle made a related point in relation to an invitation offered to Steve Bannon to speak at the 2018 New Yorker Festival. Although Bannon’s history and views were well known to festival organizers when his invitation was extended, in the face of the subsequent social media backlash, New Yorker editor David Remnick rescinded it, writing in an email to New Yorker staff, “I’ve changed my mind” and “I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns.”

In a Washington Post commentary on the incident, McArdle highlighted the complete separation between the two sides of the political spectrum:

By leaving less and less room for dissenters, the hegemons created a counter-tribe of outsiders who reject their authority as vehemently as they exert it. And thus, for the same reasons that the beliefs of New Yorker readers are in no danger from Steve Bannon, the views of Trump fans are entirely safe from David Remnick.

What’s left is a kind of ceremonial cleansing of the sacred city, a mighty labor to make sure that the two circles on the Venn diagram never, ever come into contact. There’s something admirable about uncompromising ethical purity, but also something rather dangerous. For it means that outside your circle, there’s an entirely different normal.

McArdle’s commentary was about the New Yorker’s leadership, staff and readers. But the observation that “outside your circle, there’s an entirely different normal” applies in other contexts as well, including on campus. Academic communities can and often do exist in their own circles outside of which there is a different normal. And, like many other communities, they can be places where unacknowledged assumptions can impede dialogue, and in some cases can entirely prevent it from occurring.

At the end of the day, reasonable people can disagree about the proper role of each of the three beliefs outlined at the beginning of our essay. The problem is that these beliefs have been incorporated into universities in such a way that they’re no longer considered beliefs at all, but rather truths that cannot be questioned. They now underpin much of teaching, research and campus policy dialogue more generally. The resulting climate impedes the engagement of multiple perspectives, which is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of a university education.

The preceding article has been adapted from the book Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education.

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