Blogs > Cliopatria > The Perils of Groupthink

Sep 22, 2005 9:31 pm

The Perils of Groupthink

The best recent analysis of contemporary academia that I've read was Mark Bauerlein's 2004 essay on the anti-intellectual nature of"groupthink." I accidentally encountered a perfect illustration of the Bauerlein thesis a few days ago.

The CUNY B.A. program is one of the shining lights of the university. The program allows talented students, in consultation with a faculty mentor, to design their own majors and then take approporiate courses from any of the 19 CUNY campuses. The last two CUNY B.A. students I have advised are both now getting their History Ph.D.'s--one at Cornell, the other at UCLA.

A CUNY B.A. administrator recently sent around an e-mail alerting students to an essay competition sponsored by Vanity Fair, which has a top prize of $15,000. Given the quality of CUNY B.A. students, it seemed that one might be competitive for the prize.

Here was the announcement from the administrator.

In 1,500 words or fewer, explain what is on the minds of America's youth.

What's on the minds of America's youth today? More than 30 years ago, young people across the country staged sit-ins for civil rights, got up and protested against a misguided, undeclared war, and actually gave a damn if a president lied to them. Although a lot has changed since then, there are still racial divides, and America is once again mired in a largely controversial war. Back in the 1960s and 70s, a similar climate motivated great numbers of young people to act, organize, and take to the streets in defiance. Today it seems as if younger Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle with their game players, follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica, and Paris, and assume the hard work is being done for them by others. What has changed? Is it simply that we do not have motivating factors such as a draft or Kent State to bring us together, to anger us? What is going on inside the minds of American youth today? In 1,500 words or fewer, explain what is on the minds of America's youth.

I was surprised that Vanity Fair (of all magazines) would sponsor an essay contest that was so openly ideological. So I checked the magazine's website.

Here's the Vanity Fairannouncement:

Essays must address the following topic: What is on the minds of America's youth today? Essays must not exceed 1,500 words of text (not including title, notes, bibliography, and other written materials). Essays must be in English. Essays must have a title. Essays must be double-spaced, in 12-point type, and should follow standard essay format.

No glorifcation of 1960s protests. No bald assertion that"today it seems as if younger Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle with their game players, follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica, and Paris, and assume the hard work is being done for them by others." No statement as fact that"there are still racial divides" comparable to those of the 1960s. No comparison of Iraq to Vietnam.

These ideas, of course, are all basic tenets of the"groupthink" Bauerlein described. And, in this instance, there's no reason to believe that the administrator's intentions were anything but honorable--she undoubtedly couldn't imagine that anyone would find these assertions at all controversial, and expected that laying them out would help the students focus their essays. Instead, of course, the administrator dramatically restricted the paths that any CUNY B.A. student could take to answering the open-ended question from Vanity Fair, and ensured that the student would come up with an unimaginative essay that reflected the basic outline from the administrator's e-mail.

Groupthink in action.

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More Comments:

Beth Kneller - 3/14/2006

Hello Professor Johnson,

I am pleased you think so highly of the CUNY Baccalaureate Program.

I am the administrator who posted this announcement. Perhaps you are not familiar with how the internet works, but this announcement was forwarded to me, and I forwarded it to our student listserv. I did not edit it or doctor it in any way. So if the statement was changed, it was not changed by me, the administrator whose intentions are always honorable, and who works as a very dedicated and loyal CUNY administrator in the service of helping students advance in their studiese and careers in many ways, including providing them information of scholarships and awards. I restrict no one's path.

Beth Kneller
Deputy Director, CUNY Baccalaureate Program

Tracy Beth Elsen - 9/28/2005

The guidelines laid out by the CUNY administrator came from the Vanity Fair competition. The magazine advertises the competition within its physical pages with exactly the text that the administrator sent out, the whole statement about the undeclared war and Brad and Jen and so on. Online, they have, for some reason, removed this section. However, if you check any issue of the magazine between July and now, you will find in the front pages the contest advertised exactly as the administrator sent it to her students.

colin william elliott - 9/25/2005

" And what is your doctorate in, Dr Venkman?"

Timothy James Burke - 9/23/2005

No, I don't think they would be embarrassed.

This is where I think you have to think more widely than academia: you have a kind of tunnel vision. There's an entire subculture out there based around collecting silly memos from corporate workplaces, which has led to a couple of published compilations of said memos. There's a genre of entertainment that riffs off this same phenomena ("Dilbert" or "The Office") Most workplaces have apparatchiks or middle managers who think nothing of sending off a silly or crudely thought out memo; in many cases, they get away with it not because of groupthink but because of workplace hierarchy, which is not at all the same thing.

Really, honestly, this sort of thing happens in most American workplaces. Routinely. It's not specific to academia.

Robert KC Johnson - 9/23/2005

I definitely think there's an element of nostalgia here--and agree completely that the email is crude and not really well thought-out.

That's what so struck me when I read the email. This clearly isn't advanced thinking (I agree that committed academic leftists would find it silly). But this type of document (a mundane, run-of-the-mill matter) seems to be the type of issue about which Bauerlein is talking. In any type of intellectually diverse environment, someone would be embarrassed to put these thoughts down on paper, because of a certainty of ridicule.

Katrina Gulliver - 9/23/2005

This is not just an example of groupthink, but arrogance on the part of the writer: the question was what is on the minds of youth, and this person outlines this with their critique of what SHOULD be on the minds of today's youth (in that author's opinion).

Timothy James Burke - 9/23/2005

As you know, I agree that academia is prone to groupthink and to parallel problems, like collective smugness or insularity.

But I think there probably ought to be a maxim rather like, "Never attribute to groupthink what can be adequately explained by solitary banality". The language of the "improved" essay contest isn't so much even ideological as it is generic: it's like listening to some person rant about how the world is going to hell in a handcart or how kids used to walk to school in snowstorms and they LIKED IT, etcetera. I suppose that's why you see it as groupthink, because banalities require a kind of shared mindset in order to flourish and circulate, but the mindset if so in this case is not limited to or bound to academia, professional-class liberals, or anything particularly specific. If there's a groupthink here, it's huge and wide and found in PTA meetings and academic administrations and Starbucks coffeehouses and so on.

But I think more this is just a single person who is rather silly: I suspect even (especially!) committed academic leftists would find the "improved" advertisement embarassing in its crudity and banality. You're working a bit to hard to connect all the dots in these kinds of entries.

Hiram Hover - 9/23/2005

Sorry, KC, I’m not buying this as an illustration of “groupthink.” If your account is correct, the problem here isn’t with academics as a group but with a single administrator who didn’t distinguish between the terms of the competition (which she had a duty to relay accurately), and her additions/embellishments suggesting how students might approach the question (suggestions of a kind that classroom teachers often provide).

The only way this becomes the fault of a group rather than an individual is if you start with your own presumptions about liberal “groupthink” and then make inferences about what this administrator must have “expected” and “undoubtedly couldn’t imagine." You then use those inferences about her individual state of mind to condemn the group.

Which looks to me more like circularity in action.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/23/2005

I don't really disagree with your title or your analysis.

But when I look I looked at the first announcement, I see a yearning that I have seen in much of the opposition rhetoric since the younger Bush's election in 2000. A yearning for a time of energized clear opposition, when young people were will to work hard and put everything on the line for a good cause. A time when people couldn't simply run from the stuff that mattered by ducking into the Mall of America or switching to Channel 157 to watch some new sport like oiled sumo wrestling.

In short, I see nostalgia.

I don't want to make too much fun of this. It is right to try to identify the evils of ones times and then address them. There is no reason to assume that the evils that one generation faces will not be the evils of the next, and there is nothing wrong with looking to the young to carry on an important fight.

But whether right or wrong about the causes, so much of this seems wrapped in a given style. It's as if the only ways to work for change were minted in the 1960s, complete with the era's chants and styles of clothes. As if the only way to be good and young is "to take to the streets in defiance."

The longing for style as well as substance is what reveals the nostalgia at the heart of that call for papers.

One more thing. This is very human and not just another weirdness of the baby boomers. This is the confusion of age as it watches the young live different lives; this is the longing of age for youth, for a way to "turn [their] memories back into dreams again."