The Danger of Unassailable Ideas

The Danger of Unassailable Ideas by Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor for Discourse

Treating beliefs as truths makes it impossible for the academy to do its job

Open inquiry is supposed to be the foundation of the academic endeavor. And yet today, that endeavor is constrained by a set of unacknowledged beliefs that administrators, faculty and students at colleges and universities increasingly treat as unassailable truths.

As we argue in our new book, Unassailable Ideas, many of these beliefs have in recent decades migrated from the edge of academia to its very center. Three of these beliefs in particular now shape how the academy conceptualizes research, teaching and its administrative role, a phenomenon that restricts how classes are taught, which questions can be asked and how problems are solved.

The first of these beliefs is that any effort that aims to undermine traditional frameworks is automatically viewed as good. In making this claim, our aim is not to mount a defense of conventional discriminatory power structures. However, it should be possible to rightly condemn them and simultaneously point out that not all efforts designed to fight against them are well thought-out. Sometimes the goals of a particular effort will be worthy, but the methods to achieve them won’t be.

The second belief is that discrimination is the cause of all unequal group outcomes. In other words, absent discrimination, all intergroup differences in representation in various aspects of life—from education to family structure to employment—would cease to exist. While discrimination is clearly a force that should be combated, this second belief precludes any consideration of the potential role of preferences, priorities and culture that might also play a contributing role.

The third belief is in the primacy of identity, where identity is defined by attributes such as race, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, etc. We are not suggesting that identity along these lines isn’t important: it is. Rather, we are suggesting that there can also be value in non-identity-centered perspectives.

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