In 2002, I left my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years and entered higher education full time.
I genuinely loved teaching high school, specifically teaching teenagers. But that part of my career had significant personal costs because I was always an extreme outlier in terms of ideologies among my peers.
Faculty were overwhelmingly religious and most of my colleagues voted Republican (this was South Carolina in the 1980s and 1990s).
As I entered higher education, I must admit now, I had an idealistic view of academia that was shaped by the standard view that colleges and professors are liberal.
However, once in the halls of academia, I recognized that once again I was an outlier.
Higher education is populated by performative progressivism; yes, many if not most professors are moderate to progressive on social issues.
But in their professional roles, college professors are overwhelmingly conservative and traditional. The normative culture of higher education is firmly conservative.
Also, despite what the public thinks, many professors are ideologically conservative about teaching and knowledge and conduct their classes and research in highly conservative ways because those traditional norms are expected and rewarded.
How should a professor teach? With an objective pose that simply exposes students to a wide range of (normative) perspectives.
How should a professor conduct research? Experimental/quasi-experimental studies are by far the most rewarded, quantitative and objective.
Should a professor conduct public work or activism? Not no, but hell no.
Professors that conform to and perpetuate the most conservative views on disciplinary content (seminal works, classic thinkers, essential knowledge), the most conservative research (scientific), and the most conservative teaching practices (objective, not political) have the easiest paths to full professor and also have the highest prestige in the university, holding key chair positions on the committees that drive the university—Faculty Status, Curriculum, etc.
“Conservative” is grounded in having normal established and endorsed; the entire basis of scientific research is normative, finding generalizable conclusions from randomized data.
The implication is always that normal is right, and being outside that norm, abnormal, is wrong.
Of course, the key problem with generalizable research is that it excludes outliers, perpetuating the idea that everyone, even those outliers, should conform to that norm.
The marginalized (lesser status) approach to research is descriptive, qualitative, and allows there to be value is simply exploring one event or person. The non-normative approach to research is open to possibilities that what has been scientifically determined to be “normal” may in fact not be right (or even true beyond a scientific truth), at least for some.
Research and science helped create the norm, for example, that humans are sexually straight and that gender is binary. That sexuality and gender may be fluid, and that we are considering that because of the life stories of individual people, challenges not only our norms about sex and gender, but our scientific norms.
Science has proven the superiority of races, the frailty of women, and even designated homosexuality as a mental illness.
To think that the scientific norm of higher education isn’t conservative takes a great deal of mental gymnastics.
We are currently witnessing how any challenge to what has been determined as normal, especially under the guise of science, is viewed in melodramatic ways.
As a cultural example, despite the US overwhelmingly being Christian, Christians often claim to be oppressed, notably each season fighting a manufactured War on Christmas.
Somehow uttering “happy holidays” threatens the very fabric of the largest cultural holiday in the US celebrated by the overwhelming majority, Christians, while non-Christians are compelled to join in with the ubiquitous acknowledgement of Christmas from Halloween through the New Year.
The much protesting we are seeing from conservative academics is exactly like the performative crisis espoused by Christians each Christmas holiday season.
Academia is extremely conservative—scientific research, objective teaching, authorized disciplinary knowledge—and that conservative norm has allowed for many decades mediocre people (mostly white, mostly men) to thrive and even excel.
And yet, Neanderthal academia has been reanimated (not revived, because it never died).
Conservative academics are shouting that they have been canceled.
Conservative academics bemoan their university’s “woke” curriculum.
Conservative academics cry that they are being threatened by “woke mobs” of students.
This, you see, is all theater, melodrama, by people who are not really relevant and are fighting desperately to be relevant in a world continuing to question what is normal
In fact, the fight against woke agendas is clearly a manufactured drama in which these Neanderthal academics have cast themselves in leading roles with predictable lines:
“Marketplace of ideas!”
It is genuinely embarrassing when people with the most power shed so many tears into the chilling effect of their histrionics that the result is a blizzard that will soon leaves us all snow blind.
I have spent 39 years as an extreme ideological minority within my profession, and frankly, most situations of my life. Yet, you will not see me crying “cancel culture!” or “woke mob!” because I can see clearly from the margins.
Neanderthal academia is not just alive and well, but it is reanimated in ways it hasn’t seen since the glory days at mid-twentieth century when minoritized people “knew their place,” being contentedly white-man adjacent if not subservient.