Wither Academic Freedom?

First they burn the books. Then they kill people. History has shown us this repeatedly.

When I was in graduate school, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a bogus paper to the progressive academic journal Social Text. Suspecting that the editors of the journal would publish anything, so long as it employed popular linguistic jargon, Sokal submitted a bunch of jibberish, couched in trendy academic terms, in which he argued that gravity has no objective existence. In other words, gravity, the phenomenon that causes my pen to drop to the table if I release it from my grasp, is an illusion. Sokal went so far as to include deliberate arithmetic errors that a third-grader could spot on a cursory reading. Social Text published the article.[1]

Three weeks later, Sokal came clean about his hoax:

“The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.’ They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

Social Text’s editors, such as they were, cried foul, accusing Sokal of playing a dirty trick.  Apparently those responsible for trafficking in such postmodern pap harbored little inclination to do some soul searching or to issue a mea culpa. No, none of that. They simply pointed the finger at the other guy, at the guy who had handed them the cyanide capsule.

Sokal’s accusation of intellectual laziness hit its target, for it lay bare the modern state of affairs: What you say doesn’t need to contain anything of substance, so long as it finds expression in politically acceptable terms. But heaven forfend you don’t use politically acceptable language!

Let us now consider last week’s controversy surrounding remarks made by University of Southern California Business School professor Greg Patton during an online business communication course.  In footage captured on Zoom, Patton, who has spent much time in China, used a Chinese expression to illustrate a point about one aspect of Chinese communication. Unfortunately, the Chinese term he used sounds rather like the N-word in English.

Some black students erupted in indignation and called for Professor Patton’s ouster. He has been relieved of his teaching duties for that course and has issued a formal apology.

Why? Because in order to support a legitimate academic point, Professor Patton employed language that a small number of students considered improper. Perhaps he should have avoided using an example to support an idea.

 Did Professor Sokal’s paper contain anything of substance?  Absolutely not. Did Professor Patton’s lecture contain anything of substance?  Absolutely.  Can language be hurtful?  Absolutely.  Can critical thought disappear when we place undue focus on politically correct language? Absolutely.  

So here we are. This, my friends, is the odor of lost academic freedom.

NB. It gets worse.   Getting academia to shoot itself in the foot has grown into a cottage industry.[2]


[1]Sokal, Alan D. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text. No. 46/47. (217-52).

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/new-sokal-hoax/572212/

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