Bad Ideas Are Born in Bad Universities

How our academies are enabling the instruments of tyranny.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

In 1726 Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels gave us a brilliant satire of the folly of research divorced from common sense, practicality, and reality. When Gulliver visits the Grand Academy of Lagado, he finds “Projectors” busy with research projects like extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the roof down, and converting excrement back to food.

It’s hard not to think about Swift’s Projectors when you consider today’s loony ideas driving our social mores and even laws. And for that we can thank our universities, where most of these preposterous notions have their genesis. Multiple “gender” identities, “toxic masculinity,” “microaggressions,” and occult “racism” are just a few examples of speculative nonsense that have escaped the university asylum and now roil our politics and infect our laws.

Like most social and political dysfunctions, this degradation of the university is a product of the Sixties. Professors always have had political and ideological preferences, but in the Sixties, universities institutionalized left-wing identity politics in various “studies” departments and programs. Yet faced with aggressive public complaints that women and minorities had been ignored in academic research and teaching, administrators did not address the alleged shortcomings in their curricula from within the protocols of university disciplines like English or history. For example, the topics of black or female history, literature, or social history should be studied with the same professional methodologies and protocols that govern those disciplines. Training in those professional standards could then become the foundation of research and teaching, subject to the professional oversight and judgment of similarly trained peers.

Rather than adjusting and correcting curricula within the framework of existing disciplines, however, universities simply created separate but equal academic sandboxes to quiet noisy activists and buy (they thought) some peace and quiet. Nor did they consider the consequences of sacrificing professional standards in order to display their political correctness.

For example, this segregation guaranteed that these “studies” programs would be politicized and oriented to political activism rather than intellectual work, and that faculty would be left to their own devices in establishing standards of evaluating research and teaching. Spurning traditional professional constraints, identity-based programs were founded on ideologies like Cultural Marxism rather than on professional competence or training, or advancing the university’s mission to teach critical thinking as the foundation of intellectual freedom. Political activism became their mission rather than truth and knowledge based on evidence and sound argument. And without professional protocols governing research, these fields became prey to intellectual and political fads and fashion.

Probably the most consequential program for generating and perpetuating bad ideas has been Women’s Studies. As early as the Seventies, various goofy ideas were starting to colonize academic feminism. We can find the seeds of today’s “toxic masculinity” in the “Goddess” fad of the Nineties, the fanciful history of prehistoric Europe that contrasted a matriarchal, Goddess-worshipping, peaceful, nature-loving, egalitarian culture with the vicious Kurgans, the patriarchal, horse-riding Aryan raiders from the eastern steppes who invaded and destroyed this idyllic way of life. The Kurgans brought with them war, inequality, oppression, slavery, pollution, sexism, and all the other ills that have marred Western history to this day. Today white male Westerners are the Kurgans, their “toxic masculinity” devastating the earth and its peaceful peoples with capitalist greed, global warming, and colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples.

This fake history has reinforced another dubious notion popular among academic feminists: that men are fundamentally inferior to women, who are by nature more community-minded, nurturing, tolerant, and inclusive; while men are naturally more violent, domineering, intolerant, and selfish. Hence the complaints about “manspreading,” “mansplaining,” “white male privilege,” and dozens of other bigoted, dehumanizing clichés. Hence the despicable caricature of some Catholic schoolboys at the Lincoln Memorial accused of bullying a “Native American” who was, in fact, bullying them. When the paradigm becomes truth, print the paradigm.

These stereotypes derive from decades of women’s studies curricula that have replaced knowledge with propaganda slogans. Worse yet, they have seeped out of the academy and shaped our laws. The idea that systemic sexism reflects the “toxic masculinity” which males have institutionalized in social mores and laws, and that women need protection from these feral predators, led to Title IX anti-discrimination strictures being applied to relations between the sexes on college campuses. The result has been the star chambers run by administrators and other campus functionaries, in which Constitutional and legal rights of those accused of a tendentiously defined “sexual assault,” such as the presumption of innocence and the right to confront one’s accuser, are ignored.

Once a fringe fad of the academy, “toxic masculinity” has now been recognized by the American Psychological Association as a mental disorder requiring therapeutic intervention. As such, this dubious idea now has the imprimatur of a respected professional organization, which means that from health insurance companies to Congressmen making laws, “toxic masculinity” is mainstream and an accepted reality backed up by the “scientific” experts of the APA.

Behind this evolution from bad idea to recognized social and psychological reality, however, lies something deeper––the master narrative of modernity and its politics.

In this narrative, nature and nature’s God, as the Founders believed, no longer establishes the character and limits of human identity and action. Nature and faith have to give way to man-made ideals and the vagaries of human will. Pseudo-sciences claiming to understand human behavior “scientifically” can be fashioned to put these ideological revisions of traditional knowledge and common sense beyond debate. Those upholding traditional views of sex identity as biologically determined are slandered as superstitious bitter-enders too fearful to accept the brave new world of justice, equality, and peace that their neurotic beliefs impede. For everything tradition and common sense believe to be true is in reality a delusion used to justify the power and privilege of white heterosexual, “cisgendered” males.

This ideological prejudice can be seen in the subtle alteration of words to reinforce the idea that human will and power can recreate reality to match our desires. Take the use of the word “gender” to mean what for centuries we called “sex.” The use of “gender” to mean “sex” became common with modern feminism, which downplays natural and biological causes and focuses on social, political, and cultural ones. But “gender” properly understood is a linguistic term for identifying nouns by certain characteristics: not just sex, but also ideas like “animate” or “inanimate,” as in many American Indian languages. The significant point is that any quality can be a gender in a language; it is to a certain extent arbitrary, dependent on the different environments in which a particular language develops. As such, a language can have an unlimited number of genders.

To use the word “gender,” then, is to validate the modern beliefs that there are no limits to human identity and action created by nature or God. Sex identity and its defining characteristics are not fixed by nature, but are “constructed” by cultures according to the interests of those monopolizing power. This oppressive restriction of people’s identities should be removed, and every variation and combination of sex identity and sexual practice should be considered legitimate, protected by discrimination law and given access to federal resources, just as today Medicaid pays for sex-change operations.

Similarly, rights are not “natural,” bestowed on humans by a Creator and thus beyond the power of earthly kings or rulers, but are infinitely expandable depending on what people happen to consider good and desirable at the time. As Progressive Mary Parker Follett wrote in 1918, we shouldn’t just protect Constitutional rights, but turn our efforts into “creating all the rights we shall ever have.” And if some rights cease to be considered good––like the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and religious liberty, or the Second’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms, or the Fifth and Fourteenth’s protection of due process––they can be justly curtailed or eliminated.

In the end, however, such radical rejections of the human wisdom and obvious truths accumulated over centuries will meet with resistance. Culture will have to be reshaped, language altered and policed, laws changed to enforce the new paradigm, “science” abused to provide authority for novel ideas, and schools compelled to teach them. And most important, coercive power will have to be brought to bear against those resisting the brave new world.

And so it is that our own Academies of Projectors––the colleges and universities that once taught the traditions and skills of free thought, critical reasoning, and respect for reality––are now enabling with patent nonsense the instruments of tyranny.