Birds of a feather and all that. We tend to cluster around people like ourselves, don’t we? This is more than just a social quirk, though. It seems to be a basic requirement of culture wars: All of us spend more time talking to people who tend to agree with us. We are made more confident that all right-thinking folks agree. When it comes to academics and intellectual life, this basic truism might have devastating consequences. But is it true? Do you ever/often/sometimes/always talk with people with whom you have fundamental culture-war disagreements?
Academics have a well-earned reputation for ivory-tower insularity. For the past century or so, as I found in the research for my new book, conservative critics have blasted academics time and time again not only for being biased, but for being unaware of life outside of their cloisters.
Renowned historian Gordon Wood, for instance, took to the pages of the conservative Weekly Standard recently to accuse his colleagues of a failure to communicate. The academic echo chamber had become stifling. As Wood put it,
College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.
Wood’s charges elicited a flurry of outraged responses, and, for the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that they struck me as a strangely curmudgeonly diatribe from such a prominent personage. Our personal politics aside, however, more scholarly inquiries have backed up Wood’s charge that too many academics are out of touch with reality.
In her study of elite academics, for example, Elaine Howard Ecklund found them to be jaw-droppingly ignorant of general trends in American religion. Many professors had no idea even of the vital religious practices going on at their own elite universities.
And, as Neil Gross argued in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?, the professoriate tends to perpetuate its own leftist biases. Not by scheming cadres of devious commie professors, but simply by creating an atmosphere that tends to attract like-minded left-leaning people.
If it is true that elite social scientists are really skewed toward a particular political perspective, and if it is true that many academics are woefully ignorant about the very social realities they purport to study, it must shake our confidence in any “expert” testimony. And, when that’s the case, the reassuring bromides of our close culture-war allies can seem all the more convincing.
To my mind, the only remedy is for each of us to find out more about people different from us. To talk with people with whom we disagree.
Of course, for blog-readers, I guess this is preaching to the choir. Bloggers tend to consume all sorts of other blogs. Creationists might read the Sensuous Curmudgeon. Scientists might read the BioLogos Forum and Around the World with Ken Ham. Conservative Christians read Jerry Coyne, and Professor Coyne might read Agellius’s Blog.
Do any of us do this in real life, though? Does anyone have regular conversations about culture-war issues in which we share fundamental disagreements? We all have an uncle, mother, or neighbor who might differ from us on these issues, but we often politely avoid such impolite topics.
Or is that just me? Do YOU talk to lots of types of people with whom you disagree?