CounterCurrent: Week of 9/12
Sadly, cancel culture in higher education is old hat. “So another professor said something unpopular and got fired,” you may be thinking. “So what?” It’s easy to feel jaded by the seemingly incessant barrage of cancellation stories—I track them closely and can certainly relate to the sentiment. Though we should never allow ourselves to grow comfortable with academic cancel culture as a “new normal.”
Cancel culture may have become a “norm,” in the sense that it is nearly ubiquitous, but it is still an ugly stain upon the academy, not an inherent feature of the academy itself. Our universities are straying from education, but they are not redefining education. They simply don’t have the power or authority to do that. What they do has no effect on the liberal educational ideal that has shaped Western civilization for millennia.
All of this said, how ought we respond? Many academics still hold out hope that our current higher education establishment can be reformed from within. If we just dig in our heels and continue teaching in a principled, disinterested manner, something might change. Others are not so optimistic, but still choose to remain in academia in order to pursue their research the best they can, put food on the table, and give their students some semblance of a real education. If 1 out of the 40 professors they have during their studies is a real educator, that must be better than 0, right?
There are a few who belong to a separate category altogether: those who have been canceled, who have weathered the backlash and kept their jobs, but who ultimately decide to resign by choice. The latest example of this relatively rare scenario comes from Dr. Peter Boghossian, who quit his job at Portland State University last Wednesday.
Dr. Boghossian was an assistant professor of philosophy at PSU for about ten years. In that time, he earned a reputation as a dynamic educator willing to engage with many ideological opponents. He also got into more than his fair share of trouble. He—along with frequent collaborator James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose—was behind the infamous grievance studies affair, in which the three authors wrote a series of satirical academic articles loaded with postmodern jargon, some of which were accepted by peer-reviewed journals. So Boghossian was a bit of a troublemaker, to be sure, but I’d argue that it was the right kind of trouble. He earned plenty of scorn, but at the end of the day kept his job and continued teaching.
So why the sudden change of heart? As Boghossian details in his open letter to PSU administration published on Bari Weiss’ Common Sense blog, he came to believe that 1) PSU is basically a lost cause and 2) his position was simply not worth the constant ridicule and harassment he endured day in and day out. PSU has abandoned true education and Boghossian was increasingly hated by his colleagues and students—why stay?
Portland State University has failed in fulfilling this duty. In doing so it has failed not only its students but the public that supports it. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught at Portland State for over a decade, it has become clear to me that this institution is no place for people who intend to think freely and explore ideas.
This is not the outcome I wanted. But I feel morally obligated to make this choice. For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?
I commend Dr. Boghossian for his brave decision and lament that he felt forced to make it. Abuse must end at some point; thankfully, Boghossian may move on to a place less acrimonious toward liberal education. This very well may become a new form of cancel culture fallout. Administrators won’t even have to discipline or fire their heterodox professors—they’ll simply make or endorse conditions so intolerable that their canceled faculty leave by choice.
CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.