How the ideological capture of universities warps them and subverts the search for truth.
Let’s talk about what ideological capture is, and how it’s eroding our academic institutions.
To have a better understanding of ideological capture, we must first have a brief discussion about what used to be called “regulatory capture.” Using Wikipedia as a quick source, regulatory capture can be defined for us as “a form of corruption of authority that occurs when a political entity, policymaker, or regulator is co-opted to serve the commercial, ideological, or political interests of a minor constituency, such as a particular geographic area, industry, profession, or ideological group.”1
In other words, regulatory capture is when an agency involved in writing or enforcing government regulations in an even handed way, is taken over an co-opted in the service of benefiting the interests of the group which has hijacked the regulator. An example of this might be if a special interest group which lobbies for the interests of the television industry was able to take over the Federal Communications Commission, and re-writes the laws so they no longer protect the consumer and instead benefit the television industry at the expense of consumers.
I would like to borrow this concept, but expand it beyond the scope of regulatory agencies. I will use the term “Ideological Capture” to name this concept.
Ideological capture is when an ideological group takes over an institution and redirects the goals, mission, and resources of that institution toward serving the interests of the ideological group who has taken over that institution. This is how I define “ideological capture.”
Here are two examples of “ideological capture.”
Political conservatives take over a local newspaper and change that news paper so that it no longer reports the news, but rather engages in political propaganda on behalf of political conservatism.
An art school has as it’s goal to teach students the fundamental of visual art. Progressives take it over, exclude conservatives, and transform the school into a place where all that is taught is how to infuse art with leftist ideology, and how to make leftist propaganda.
In short, ideological capture is what occurs when an institution has been taken over by people with a particular ideological axe to grind who then hijack the mission, goals, policies, methods and resources of that institution in order to align with and propagate their ideology.
The institutions of sense-making and cultural production in America, particularly the universities, have been ideologically captured by a particular sort of radical left wing politics which regular readers will recognize by the name “wokeness.”
For newer readers, wokeness (sometimes called Critical Social Justice) is a type of social justice politics that claims racism, sexism, homophobia, white privilege, and other sorts of injustice are baked into the fabric of society. They believe this creates “systems of power” which benefit people who are white, straight, and male, at the expense of everyone else. Wokeness claims these systems of power warp every element of western culture in a way that harms people, and for that reason all of society must be radically restructured. Everything, including science, knowledge, truth, beauty, economics, education, sports, music, film, agriculture, justice and everything else on society are full of bigotries, biases and self-interest which are a product of the systems of power which were created by and for straight white males. On this view even such things as math, biology, physics, and chemistry must be radically rebuilt with a focus toward diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, anti-racism, and of course, decolonization.
As you can see, wokeness is not just a set of views about the way the world is, it has both a strong moral dimension to it and a strong activist dimension to it. It is the activist and moral dimensions of wokeness cause the most damage when woke activists ideologically capture universities.
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For the remainder of this essay I would like to discuss the specific way that ideological capture by woke ideology effects universities.
When wokeness captures universities and academic institutions it makes a subtle change to the understanding of what an academic subject is. In what Searle calls the "Western Rationalistic Tradition" areas of study are thought of as domains to be investigated in the search for truth. Wokeness does not see areas of study as domains to be investigated for truth, but rather as spheres of influence where the moral cause of wokeness may be advanced. In other words, wokeness changes the way we understand what an area of study is. Wokeness does not see areas of study as a conceptual domain to be investigated for truth, but rather it sees areas of study as a social space where the moral, political and social causes of wokeness may be advanced.2
This change from “domain to be investigated” to “field where the moral cause can be advanced” has a number of down stream effects. The first of which is that academic departments cease to be units of truth seeking, and instead become factories for reproducing woke ideology.
The second effect is is a product of what happens when academic departments designed for truth seeking become factories for ideological production. Namely professors go from teachers of good methods attempting to engage in truth seeking to advocates of their chosen political dogma.3
The third effect is the replacement of Critical Thinking with Critical Theory. The difference between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory is explained to us by the Critical Theorist Allison Bailey:
“The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy. To be critical is to how good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life... the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living”. In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.
Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo_Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices.”4
To wit, Critical Thinking is all about how to reason correctly and appropriately in order to find truth, whereas Critical Theory is about analyzing claims, ideas, and statements as though there were moves in a game of jockeying for power.
As you can see, once a university is ideologically captured the entire apparatus of the University is turned away from truth seeking and instead reconfigured so it can be repurposed as a machine to produce wokeness. In doing this the woke activists dismantle the standards, assumptions, norms, expecatations, and guidelines that ensure that the University is pointed toward truth. This, of course, amounts to a rejection of the western rationalistic tradition’s search for truth in favor of the goals of political change according the to dictates of woke ideology.
The Philosopher John Searle explains the phenomenon clearly here:
“It is simply a fact that, in recent history, rejection of the Western Rationalistic Tradition has gone hand in hand with the proposals for politically motivated changes in the curriculum. So, what is the connection? I think the relationships are very complex, and I do not know of any simple answer to the question. But underlying all the complexity there is, I believe, this simple structure: those who want to use the universities, especially the humanities, for leftist political transformation correctly perceive that the Western Rationalistic Tradition is an obstacle in their path. In spite of their variety, most of the challengers to the traditional conception of education correctly perceive that if they are forced to conduct academic life according to a set of rules determined by constraints of truth, objectivity, clarity, rationality, logic, and the brute existence of the real world, their task is made more difficult, perhaps impossible.”5
Woke activists see the pillars of the western rationalistic tradition as impediments to their social and political program, and therefore they believe those standards must be jettisoned. Viewing the western rationalistic tradition through the lens of critical theory, woke activists see attempts to retain the standards, norms, assumptions, and expectations of the western rationalistic tradition “not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities.”6 Thus, they view attempts to retain the western trationalistic tradition as an attempt by the dominant culture to maintian it's power at the expense of oppressed groups.
To use a vast oversimplification, when there is a conflict between the methods which the western rationalistic tradition uses to seek truth and the ideological goals of the woke activists, it is the methods that seek truth which are tossed aside.
To quote Mike Nayna, woke activists have turned the University from an “is” machine into and “ought “machine. They have taken a truth seeking enterprise and turned it into a machine that is geared toward political and social change, and they have sacrificed the truth in the process.7
I would like to close with an observation that has been made by by the Psychologist Jonathan Haidt. 8
Every institution must have an orienting principle, a goal, a purpose, a “telos” that defines it’s mission and purpose. The telos functions as the thing around which the institution is planned and organized. If an organization attempts to have more than one thing that serves as its telos, at some point those goals will come in conflict with each other and one will have to made subservient to the other. No man can serve two masters, and no institution can have more that one defining telos.
In a University that purpose, goal, or “telos” has traditionally been seeking truth. But now a new telos has been suggested: achieving “social justice” as it is understood through the lens of wokeness. As these goals come into greater and greater conflict there will be ever increasing pressure for one of those goals to take precedence. As it sits right now, the woke vision of social justice is quickly becoming the goal that takes precedence in the Universities, and this will continue to be the case as long as universities continue to be ideologically captured by woke activists.
The way to stop the ideological take over of universities by activists is simple. That does not mean that turning the tide will be easy because while the solution is simple to describe, it may prove difficult to implement.
The solution is for university faculty and staff who run these institutions to make sure that every policy, goal, rule, by-law, and decision is made in the interests of seeking truth. This means that the people who are in the universities who still value truth must fight to make sure that truth seeking is the lighthouse, compass, and anchor of the university. That means:
Showing up to and participating in every call, conference, and meeting where the overarching goals of the university are up for discussion.
University decision makers must exercise judgment and discretion in order to make sure the university is oriented towards seeking truth.
Tenured faculty who see the problems with dethroning truth as the central goal of the university must stand up and be counted. When there are pushes to make wokeness the orienting principle of the university tenured faculty must use the protection offered by tenure to stand up against changing the central mission of the university away from truth seeking.
Faculty and staff must refuse to participate in rituals (like land acknowledgements) which seek to make elements of wokeness the de facto ideology of the university.
Governments must enact legislation that protects the freedom of speech and freedom of thought of students so that agreement with wokeness does not become a requirement for graduation, or student participation in university life.
While these might seem like simple and obvious steps, it takes tremendous courage to stand up to the tactics of ruthless and relentless woke activists. These steps are very simple to describe, but it will take incredible courage to implement them.
We cannot allow our societies institutions of truth seeking to have the moral and political ideology of wokeness be their defining principle. If we do not have institutions that put truth seeking first, we are going to end up losing sight of the truth. Since reality is the thing that you crash into when your beliefs are false, and since reality always gets the last word, losing sight of the truth is destined to end is disaster.
Thank you for reading.
John R. Searle, Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition. As found in: Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference. Ed, John Arthur and Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995.) P.55
John R. Searle, Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition. As found in: Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference. Ed, John Arthur and Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995) P.55
Alison Bailey. (2017). Tracking Privilege‐Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes. Hypatia, 32(4), 876-892.
John R. Searle, Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition. As found in: Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference. Ed, John Arthur and Amy Shapiro. Routledge, 1995. p. 55
Alison Bailey. (2017). Tracking Privilege‐Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes. Hypatia, 32(4), 876-892.
youtube.com/watch?v=OniD-CHLryE (The point begins at 48:00)
This is from a talk by Jonathan Haidt found here: youtube.com/watch?v=Gatn5ameRr8