Contradictions of the Heterodox Academy

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here’s a viewpoint

Perhaps you have never heard of Heterodox Academy. Perhaps you have. From its Wikipedia entry, we learn that:

Heterodox Academy is an organization focused on improving “the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement”.

Okay. Viewpoint diversity. Here we go again. What requirement does it make of its members in this regard? Again from Wikipedia:

Each member endorses the statement: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity — particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.”

So, in other words, every member of this viewpoint diversity movement must have the same homogeneous viewpoint on viewpoint diversity. There must be no dissent in the opinion that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity. Also note that they must all believe that people with diverse viewpoints should feel free to speak up and challenge each other, or, in other words, that universities must be a safe space for different viewpoints.

A recent project of the Heterodox Academy is their heterodoxy rankings of colleges and universities in the United States. Let us first note the absurdity of a single ranking system being published in the context of viewpoint diversity. Where is the viewpoint diversity in an institution publishing a single list of heterodoxy rankings? But, that aside, let’s investigate their definitions and methodologies to see how they’re assessing colleges. From their Methodology section:

The Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges aggregates all the information we can find on the degree to which each school is likely to be a place that welcomes diverse viewpoints and open discussion about politics and politically charged social issues.

In developing the scoring method and weights, we tried to put ourselves in the place of a high school senior who is applying to colleges and who wants to avoid the “walking on eggshells” culture of fear that many students are now reporting. Where should a curious, open-minded student apply? Which schools should she avoid?

So they want to avoid the “walking on eggshells” feeling. This echoes the language Harvey Mudd professor, Debra Mashek, used in her announcement that she is taking a leave of absence to serve as the executive director of the Heterodox Academy:

“Over the past couple of years, colleges — especially small liberal arts colleges — have seen an increase in ideological polarization, tribalism and hostility,” says Mashek. “Students and professors talk about ‘walking on eggshells’ in their conversations both within the classroom and beyond. This state of affairs really concerns me; core academic values of constructive disagreement and open inquiry are at stake.”

We can see from this language that Heterodoxy advocates clearly do not like the feeling of walking on eggshells. They advocate for a space where they will not be subject to such uncomfortable feelings, where these feelings will not pose a challenge to them. Let’s look further into their rating system methodology to see the metrics they propose helps people avoid this feeling:

The information sources used in our guide, with their weights, are:

1. Endorsed Chicago: Whether the university has endorsed the Chicago Principles on free expression(Yes = +1, No = 0).

From Wikipedia, we learn that “the “Chicago principles” are a set of guiding principles intended to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression on college campuses in the United States.” We also see specific examples of what this means by way of learning that “The University’s commitment to free speech gained national media attention in August 2016, when Dean of Students John Ellison sent a letter to the incoming freshman class of 2020 affirming the free speech principles and stating that the University did not support the use of trigger warnings or safe spaces.”

We can take this to mean that Heterodox Academy is explicitly opposed to trigger warnings and safe spaces. Continuing, we find the third element of their rating system is as follows:

3. ISI Rating: Obtained from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) guide to Choosing the Right College 2014–15.

This is a guide aimed at conservative and libertarian students. We presume that open-minded progressive students would prefer not to attend a school at which students who are not on the left are hesitant to speak up.

RED: Unsafe zone (0 points)

YELLOW: Potentially unsafe (.25 points)

GREEN: Generally safe (+1)

UNRATED: No ISI rating (.5 points)

The ISI rating contributes 25% of the overall Heterodoxy score for each school.

So, on one metric, Heterodox Academy increases an institution’s score if it adopts the Chicago principles which explicitly oppose safe spaces, and on another metric, Heterodox Academy increases an institution’s score if it is seen to be a safe space specifically for conservative and libertarian students.

Needless, to say, this is not heterodoxy. This is a thinly-veiled attempt to push a very specific political agenda and mask it in the language of free speech advocacy. You cannot be a free speech advocate who pushes the narrative of the value of the exchange of ideas and of having ideas challenged, but who also wants libertarians to not experience the feeling of “walking on eggshells.”

Part and parcel to the notion of the value of a marketplace, arena, or battlefield of ideas, where viewpoint diversity is championed so as to allow any and all ideas to be discussed, is that bad ideas should, in theory, be rejected, and people who advocate bad ideas must face consequences. Generally, the consequence will be something as innocuous as learning something new and reshaping your world view. However, feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells” is also a consequence of your ideas; it is not anyone else’s fault that eggshells are these fragile, white things that are so easily broken. If you don’t want to feel like you’re walking on eggshells, but you don’t have the courage to stand by your own ideas, what it means is that you want to be able to say whatever you want and feel good about it; you don’t want to be challenged. You want a safe space for your ideas.

The scantest analysis, then, reveals this entire operation to be a sham. They are absolutely not pushing for meaningful viewpoint diversity. They are pushing for protected status for conservative and libertarian viewpoints. They are simultaneously giving academic institutions positive ratings for being explicitly opposed to safe spaces, yet also giving institutions positive ratings for being safe spaces for conservative and libertarian viewpoints.

Just the facts: Writer. Gamer. Feminist. Educated in Astrophysics. Professional Gambler. Student of Language. Satanist. Anarchist.

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