Amid Anti-Woke Panic, Interdisciplinary Programs Inherently VulnerableRoundup
tags: culture war, ethnic studies, colleges and universities, interdisciplinarity, Woke
Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University.
Conservative attacks on critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs and anything labeled “woke” have rekindled a national conversation over the proper role of the university in society. Academics have attempted to uphold higher education’s status quo by defending the idea that professors have the right to formulate and promote contrarian ideas within their area of expertise. While this tactic has well served the champions of academic freedom for the last century, it is now threatening to unwittingly jettison my home department, ethnic studies, from its besieged bastions.
Antiwoke laws have explicitly carved out vast areas of scholarship as “controversial” topics that may no longer be taught in state institutions of higher education. Most famously, in 2022, Florida passed the Individual Freedom Act (also known as the Stop WOKE Act), which effectively prohibited research or teaching about theories of unconscious racism, structural racism or remedies for racist discrimination. An exception was made for teaching such concepts “in an objective manner without endorsement,” which is a caveat whose implementation would require investigation into the tricky issues of what viewpoint counts as being objective and what speech constitutes endorsement. Ohio’s Legislature has recently followed suit and is considering a similar bill.
So far, one federal district court in Florida has ruled that the Individual Freedom Act constitutes “blatant viewpoint-based restrictions on protected speech once the subject at issue is included in the curriculum. In other words,” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote, “simply because the State of Florida has great flexibility in setting curriculum, it cannot impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoint about the content it allowed within university classrooms.” This logic, by dividing a state’s legitimate and legal interest in defining the content of its institutions’ curricula and Florida’s unconstitutional attempt to ban certain perspectives on prescribed subjects, leaves the state free to banish entire courses and programs in diversity, equity and inclusion, or the study of race and gender itself.
Lawmakers in Florida seized upon this opening and sought to get around Walker’s injunction by simply proposing the elimination of any program that is “based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.” While this provision failed to make it into the final version of the bill, it nevertheless highlights the direction that antiwoke censorship may take in the future. Indeed, Christopher F. Rufo, the culture warrior widely seen as the originator of the anti-CRT movement, recently urged lawmakers to “propose the abolition of academic departments that have abandoned their missions in pursuit of shoddy scholarship and ideological activism.”
Organizations dedicated to defending academic freedom have long attempted to widen First Amendment protections shielding professors by emphasizing the unique and exceptional contributions universities make to society. As the American Association of University Professors declared in 1915, the modern university was “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.”
This argument is grounded in the idea that intellectual discovery and progress depend on the freedom of experts to pursue truth even in realms that are popularly seen as frivolous, dangerous or heretical. Such formulations draw power from and reinforce an older genteel notion of professionalism and traditional disciplinary organization. Bound to them is a presumption that threatens to leave interdisciplinary fields outside its ramparts—namely, that academic freedom exists only within the boundaries of a professor’s expertise in a defined area of scholarship. AAUP’s official position on academic freedom defines “freedom of research” as being “grounded in the exercise of professional expertise.”
Ethnic studies, because its subject of inquiry is viewed as being uniquely charged with political and partisan controversy, is often viewed as lacking the sort of neutrality that would rise to the standard that is credited as the mark of professionalism. Because it lacks an easily definable disciplinary home, its claims to unique expertise are often suspect.
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