Fraudulent research that serves ideological projects, professors who promote censorship, students more committed to “canceling” colleagues, teachers and employees than to understanding, in depth, the nuances of reality and human nature (which should be the aim of the so-called “liberal arts”, in English-speaking countries, or just “human sciences”). If, on the one hand, university corruption is far from being an exclusively Brazilian problem, on the other hand, the solution to this vicious cycle seems simply too far away. Should “quotas” be established for teachers who are minimally critical of progressivism? How to make conservatives heard and respected in the university environment? How to guide victims of cancellation?
Founded in 2015 by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, co-author of the best seller “The Coddling of American Mind”, the Heterodox Academy is one of the most courageous and successful projects in the world. world to pursue the mission that is increasingly urgent in higher education: the diversity of ideas. In January of this year, political philosophy professor John Tomasi, from Brown University, took over the helm of the organization, which has more than five thousand members in more than 26 countries. In an unprecedented interview with Gazeta do Povo, the president of the Heterodox Academy (HxA) talks about the value of a university environment where conservatives feel comfortable and guarantees that the model is replicable in Brazil.
How long has the lack of diversity of opinions in academia been catching your attention?
Actually, I have been interested in this subject for some years, since the beginning of my academic career. I had students who told me they had never learned to think from both sides of the political spectrum, and that was in the United States. I was nice to these students. In 2005, I started a project at Brown University to value the importance of diversity of opinion. Many years later, when Jonathan Haidt conceived Heterodox Academy, he invited me to be one of the founding members.
How would you define Heterodox Academy? Is this a project to defend freedom of expression in academia?
The first important thing to say is that there is a difference between freedom of expression – a constitutional right in the United States – and the broader, more ambitious concept, which we call free inquiry, is the guiding principle of the Heterodox Academy. It’s similar to free speech, but it’s bigger than that. Free inquiry involves asking questions and sharing ideas without fear of being censored or criticized just for asking the question. Of course, your idea can be criticized – even the reason why we defend this principle is precisely so that we can decide together which are the best ideas.
Furthermore, free inquiry is a way to encourage listening and goodwill to try to understand the world. In my opinion, the main difference between HxA and our biggest critics is the fact that we really believe in democracy. We truly believe that it’s possible to work with people who don’t think like us, and that’s what democracy is all about. It’s not just about deciding who to vote for, coming to power or the dirty tricks to stay in it, but believing that as a society we can move forward because of our differences. We are aware that this is a very high ideal, and it is the most important message of the project.
How do you evaluate the results of the work of the Heterodox Academy in the last seven years? years old?
I think there are two different aspects. The situation in universities has worsened a lot, especially in the last five, ten years. The forces that oppose free inquiry and that favor authoritarianism have grown stronger in American society. I won’t speak for Brazil, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I knew that the scenario is similar.
You have no idea…
I understand. I follow a little from a distance, but I don’t know enough to talk about it. Overall, the climate of political discourse in society is worse than it was a decade ago. On the other hand, HxA is a relatively new organization and has been growing consistently as academia has gotten worse. Currently, we have about 5 000 members in 26 countries, we have very active groups in South Korea, New Zealand, Sweden. We’re not very strong in South America, but I hope it won’t take too long.
Our main job is to bring people together and get them on the high moral ground of not just criticizing the bad things, but build good things; remind people what democracy is and that people who disagree with you are not necessarily your enemies. And the university is a privileged place for this.
In Brazil, there are some attempts to make the academy more plural. They are, however, punctual and generally muffled. Is the Heterodox Academy model replicable in other countries?
I would say not only that the model is replicable, but that people can literally join the Heterodox Academy. Any researcher, professor or academic staff member from any country who shares our principles can participate. Our commitment is to three ideals: the first, as I’ve mentioned, is free inquiry. The second is diversity of views, the idea that members of a group or community approach problems in different ways is a positive thing. The third is constructive disagreement, the understanding that we are all fallible, none of us owns the truth and that goes for politics and other ideas, and that we can learn from each other.
Anyone who believes this can join us. And from there, we provide tools on our website, we have a very active blog where we talk about the most complex issues that teachers and administrators have been facing, about the problems that have been happening on campuses in recent years. Universities are talking a lot about race, for example, and about new ways of looking at racism. Many of them are positive, but some elements are closing doors to people who question the approach. We talk about it on the blog and podcast, and we provide tools that members can use in the classroom. For example, we have syllabi that guide the teacher to create an environment in which students feel encouraged to speak.
Do you provide any type of training?
Yes, we provide training for deans, administrators and teachers. I took over the HxA presidency in January, and my idea is to start organizing our members into supportive communities. We are in every US state, but so far most of our members work individually. We have a very active online community and some of these groups are organized by country or region, but we also have divisions by area – “HxA Political Sciences”, “HxA Exact Sciences”, “HxA Hispanic Studies” and so on. Anyone who joins HxA can participate in these communities and meet teachers in their areas who share these ideas. They can tell what problems they are facing and seek solutions at their own universities.
Philosophy professor Peter Boghossian (read his interview with Gazeta do Povo here), pursued by opposing identity activism, he says that the dean of the university where he taught said he was “proud” to see his institution poorly placed in the HxA ranking, which lists the universities most conducive to free inquiry. What are the biggest difficulties faced by HxA today in its mission?
I think the biggest problem is the growing lack of trust in democracy, a growing feeling both at right and left that the democratic system is bankrupt and has turned into an arena of cultural warfare. It so happens that the most extreme sides of this war have no respect for freedom of expression or frank dialogue. They believe they have the truth, and if they can shove it down their throats while silencing people, they will be satisfied. I don’t know who the dean Boghossian mentioned is, but he has a similar idea to others I know. There are universities that feel imbued with the truth, instead of understanding themselves as an instrument for students to seek them out. These will not be shy about imposing their ideas.
Speaking of radicals: due to the predominance of left-wing professors, conservatives view the university with suspicion and, in many cases, they even avoid the university environment. On the other hand, the left believes that giving space to conservatives means validating “hate speech” and “denialism”. How can conservatives contribute to quality higher education?
I believe that the greatest contribution of conservatives and free speech advocates is to remind people of the principles basics, to go back to the original questions, to the nature of arguments and debates. They are the ones that remind us to ask: what is democracy? Do we believe her? Does it require certain people to be silenced? At the base of all this is respect for human dignity. Radicals think that their truth is more important than democracy and dignity, they are not willing to do the serious, slow work of seeking social change. Progress only happens when you convince people, little by little, to follow a better path.
You mentioned the “serious, slow work” of the search for changes. Isn’t that a conservative principle to be extolled?
Without a shadow of a doubt. And I think it’s very important that conservatives make this connection between the principle of preservation, the knowledge accumulated by previous generations and the value of democracy. Because a democratic regime requires a slower way of advancing the agenda in society, it requires a certain prudence.
Again, you can be progressive and be a true democrat, but this prudence is usually associated with the conservatives, who tend to seek wisdom in the past, in traditions, while progressives are anchored in reason, in what is new, in the future. There is wisdom and blind spots on both sides. That’s why democracy needs these two groups to be able to talk.
Furthermore, if you threaten to bring down the entire institutional system, instead of anchoring yourself to the values of the Constitution, you become vulnerable to movements of the radicals. It is hijacked by the ideological pendulum. It is another principle to be upheld.
Many progressives advocate affirmative action to redress racial and gender inequalities in academia and other institutions. Does the Heterodox Academy advocate this type of action to achieve diversity of points of view? Do you advocate, for example, that there be a quota for conservatives?
Firstly, when I talk about diversity of opinions, I am referring to a much more broader than mere political parties. Of course, we can start to think in terms of right and left, and it’s important that both sides are represented on college campuses, which unfortunately doesn’t happen often. But it is important to say that the diversity of thought defended by HxA is greater than politics.
We think that there is a diversity of ideas that come from people’s experiences, from people of different classes, for example. It is important to have people with different social backgrounds. It is also important to have people of different races, different historical backgrounds in their communities, different families and sexuality. It’s also extremely important, I think, to have people with different beliefs – deep and genuine beliefs – on campus, and it’s essential that they feel like they can bring their religious perspectives into the conversation, alongside the secular point of view that tends to dominate universities.
Regarding affirmative actions, when we talk about this sign Besides, we are usually referring to quota systems and I think they cause a lot of problems. But I do think that the university has an obligation to be aware when diversity is declining in its classrooms, when students or professors of a particular political current or religious belief are not feeling more comfortable not because there is criticism of their ideas, but because they are seen as inherently racist, sexist or harmful.
In that sense, I think it is important, yes, that universities take their admissions criteria very seriously and question themselves : “Is there any bias here that we are not noticing? Are we privileging students just because they think a certain way? How can we fix this?”. Once this is established among the students, we can think about the professors, the administration and other teams.
It is worth remembering that universities are a type of community in which it is very difficult to participate: you have to face a lot of evidence and need to show that it is worthy of the investment. It is only fair that we try to promote the best conversations possible and that we ask ourselves if we are pursuing this mission or trying to impose a political agenda. Politics must be studied and debated in universities, but it cannot dominate them.
The Heterodox Academy gives some kind of recommendation for when its members are victims of attempts of “cancellation” or other forms of intimidation?
We know this is a very difficult situation. When the crowd is against you on Twitter, the very structure of the network makes it worse. On the Heterodox Academy website, we have some texts explaining what to do when this happens. We alert to the fact that teachers or students who are victims of the cancellation will certainly go through troubled times and should approach friends, family and people capable of reminding them that they are not alone.
It is also It’s natural for some to think they should fight back, but that usually makes things worse. Others want to apologize right away, and in our experience, that rarely helps—unless, after some reflection and without giving in to the pressure of the internet, the person realizes they did something wrong. Furthermore, it is necessary for the victim to maintain his integrity and to realize that he is not the only one in history to be unfairly attacked. No one who’s had this experience has found it amusing, but there’s something heroic about being attacked and politely, clearly and generously, keeping your head held high and avoiding treating your critics in kind. Joining a group like HxA can also be an important help. It pays to integrate these support networks even before the attack.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that reason, or the conscious mind, is like a tamer trying to control an elephant – which represents our emotions and biases. This suggests that moral problems are very difficult to resolve consensually – sometimes impossible.
Considering Haidt’s influence on the Heterodox Academy and the image of the tamer with the elephant, there is some hope of building consensus about the importance of diversity of opinions?
I think there is, and the first step is precisely to realize how difficult it is to reason in a free. The human mind is a very complex structure, studied for years by many people, and if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that reason comes second most of the time. Our reactions are mostly emotional and we try to rationalize them afterwards.
It is important to be aware that we all have such ingrained biases that it is simply not possible to get rid of them. And when we talk about organizations, institutions and universities, the way to respond to the fact that our brains are like an elephant led by a human being is to understand that we need institutions capable of counterbalancing trends. That’s the great insight into diversity of opinion, actually. If the truth will never be fully visible to me, the solution lies in the community experience, not the improvement of the individual mind.
At the beginning of our conversation, the You said that the ideological scenario in higher education is worse and I have already heard, more than once, from Brazilians and Americans, that it will get much worse before it starts to improve. Where do you get some hope from?
I think that hope is in always remembering that history usually goes through these dark times and, in these moments, the most important thing is to to be done is to look for points of dialogue so that we can make ourselves heard. There will always be people questioning the foundations of politics, universities and knowledge. Ultimately, it is an invitation for us to reflect once more on these values. Disagreements end up reminding us of what makes us human and our intrinsic need for connection. I have just received confirmation that there are 26 professors who are members of the Heterodox Academy in Brazil. It would be really cool for them to get to know each other.