Niang Incident Reveals Academic Complexities

In recent years, a startlingly strong movement has sprouted up on university campuses that questions the fundamental doctrines of Western reason. Hostile to the claim that truth exists objectively and concerned with altering the structures by which knowledge is discovered, a large body of literature has emerged that criticizes the knowledge “produced” by “privileged” voices in universities.

Since the mid-1970s, this trend has manifested itself most clearly through the creation of departments and programs dedicated to the advancement of liberating ideology. Gender studies, ethnic studies and African American studies departments have cropped up all over the country, and even the U has jumped on the bandwagon with the creation of the gender studies program, the ethnic studies department, and the “diversity” requirement for which students have to take one course that focuses on an American minority group.

Many scientists and scholars have begun criticizing the trend. In a recent conference titled “The Flight from Science and Reason,” held by the respected New York Academy of Sciences, Mario Bunge, a well-known philosopher of science attacked the unique status of ideologically driven academic departments as “academic charlatanism.” Even right here at the U, the diversity requirement has received special attention recently because of the actions of Amadou Niang, a teaching assistant in an African American experiences class.

On March 27, Niang’s argument that the LDS church is institutionally racist angered several students and prompted calls for his suspension or resignation.

The problem with the trend toward granting minority groups special academic status is that it runs counter to the traditional values of scholarship.

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, two of science and reason’s most articulate defenders, argued in a book titled Higher Superstition that universities are built on the assumption that scientific theories are objective, not diverse, and that research and argument can bring us closer to an understanding of truth.

When universities devote resources and recognition to the pursuit of specific ideological agendas, they undermine the basic assumptions on which they operate. Often, as with the incident involving Niang, the result is an atmosphere of distrust, where students and faculty can’t debate rationally for fear of violating the reigning orthodoxy.

This balkanization of campus into various “communities” derives its ideological roots from the postmodern scholarship of the last several decades. Though “postmodernism” is a large and complex concept with as many definitions as there are authors on the subject, its most basic assertion is that knowledge is a function of power.

The most famous advocate of this theory is Michel Foucault, who argued that rather than reflecting objective reality, “knowledge claims” (to use the jargon) reflect the interests of those who have the power to shape those claims. Postmodern theorists, therefore, argue that human “constructions” of the world are intrinsically biased by cultural backgrounds. According to radical postmodern theorists, even science?the most objective of academic disciplines?produces knowledge colored by cultural bias.

Postmodern theorists argue, therefore, for new approaches to knowledge (and new departments in which to develop them) that aim not to produce truth, but to right the wrongs of history.

Sandra Harding, for example, a well-known postmodern feminist theorist, talks about creating a feminist epistemology in which research and analysis are purely “political” acts. Maryanne Campbell and Randall K. Campbell-Wright even read an article recently at a conference of the Mathematical Association of America titled “Toward a Feminist Algebra,” in which they tried to restructure traditional mathematics from a feminist point of view.

This argument runs completely counter to the Enlightenment tradition on which modern universities are founded. Since Galileo demanded in the 15th century that church officials look through his telescope and see the moons of Jupiter, Western scholars have tried to tell the truth as they see it. Scientists, historians and philosophers engage in research, debate and argument, and trust that the process of criticism and peer review will produce knowledge free of bias and ideology. When postmodern theorists assert that educated white men can’t produce real knowledge, they chuck the foundation of the academy into the trash.

Before you dismiss this column as the ranting of yet another right-wing cave man from Utah, let me acknowledge the reality of discrimination. For hundreds of years, powerful cultural establishments, including universities, have oppressed and excluded many racial minorities and women. Scholarly research that attempts to understand discrimination is worthwhile, as are many policies that aim to eliminate it. Furthermore, this column is not concerned with defending the irrational assertions of the religious right. Rather, it attempts to defend the scientific tradition of the Enlightenment.

However, the wrongs in our cultural past don’t justify the existence of special “privileged” academic platforms from which minorities can spit on the notion of objectivity. Telling women and minorities that they can’t compete with “the boys” in traditional scholarship, and that they need fundamentally new forms of knowledge to accommodate their special needs, leaves them hanging on the margins of the academic community.

Instead of standing on the sidelines slinging mud, those who feel that traditional scholarship is exclusive can focus on encouraging the academic establishment to accept disadvantaged groups among its own ranks. Doing so would preserve the strength of the western tradition, while simultaneously reducing its exclusivity.

Unfortunately, when universities set aside dispassionate scientific analysis of social forces and enshrine the doctrine of multiple truths in its place, the result is an atmosphere much like the great conservative reactions of the past. The difference is that this great ideological crusade comes from the political left. But in either case, throwing out objectivity removes the constraints on power.

As during the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the red scare, students and faculty become more concerned with establishing their innocence from accusation than establishing the truth. Heretics are isolated, tortured and forced to recant the doctrine of objectivity.

Gross and Levitt describe how white male faculty members at many universities are hesitant to speak out, afraid that the weight of the historical wrongs of their class is simply too great. Likewise, administrators grant special departments sacrosanct recognition, refusing to question the legitimacy of their ideologically driven scholarship.

The recent incident involving Amadou Niang is a case in point. Some argue that the university’s diversity requirement is designed to make students aware of other cultures. A side effect is that students come to understand the wrongs of discrimination. This is certainly a legitimate goal. But the diversity requirement also encourages students to accept the notion that there is not one truth, but many. It teaches students that the ideology of various subgroups of society must be accepted without question, because to do otherwise would be discriminatory.

As a result of this indoctrination, students become deathly afraid of racism. Instead of learning how to take an objective approach to understanding discrimination, students are taught simply to hate it. The students in Niang’s class, who clearly believed in “diversity,” resented being accused of racism so deeply that some of them even began to cry.

For Niang and these students, the questions of what racism is, what it means, and whether we even ought to worry about it are secondary to the task of proving guilt and innocence.

As part of academia’s continuing trend toward enshrining
“diverse” truths, young students are made to feel uncomfortable about the sins of their fathers. The guardians of this new orthodoxy tell them that the western tradition of objectivity and the knowledge it produced is tainted by cultural exclusiveness. Though these values have gained wide acceptance, they threaten the very foundations of Western scholarship.

John welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].