How “Woke” Is Academia, Really?

We Americans harbor all sorts of prejudices about all sorts of things.

One of the problems with racism, anti-Semitism, and similar tribal bigotries is that such attitudes ignore individual differences. When you criticize “those people” (whoever “those people” are in your particular worldview), you inevitably sweep with far too broad a brush.

That impulse–to generalize from anecdotal experiences–isn’t limited to our attitudes about marginalized racial or ethnic groups. It has become a ubiquitous–and extremely annoying– element of America’s polarized political world-views. There is, for example, a widespread–and dangerously oversimplified–belief that America’s universities are bubbling cauldrons of “woke” indoctrination. That charge has become part of the Republican Party’s current war on evidence, science, and accurate history.

Before I retired from my position on a university faculty, I was periodically accused of being part of a liberal “brainwashing” enterprise by people who clearly knew very little about academic life, my particular campus, or –for that matter–the huge differences around the country among institutions of higher education.

I was reminded of those discussions when I read a rant on the subject that had been posted to Daily Kos.

The posted diatribe was triggered by a televised exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher on the latter’s show, in which the two of them decried the “wokeness” of today’s colleges and universities.

I have likely spoken at more colleges in the past 15 years than Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan put together. The difference is that they speak at select elite colleges and I speak everywhere else. For instance, next week I speak at Hastings College in Nebraska.

Most colleges really aren’t that woke. In fact, being too liberal when I speak is always in the back of my mind. For example, eleven years ago I spoke at New Mexico Tech. From my perspective, it was one of my best nights as a speaker. I performed two shows in a full theater and received a standing ovation. Nevertheless, the woman who booked me refuses to ever bring me back, because a few people walked out and complained. I actually noticed the walkouts, and they did it right after a section in my show where I talked about global warming and childish Republicans who renamed French fries “Freedom fries” and French toast “Freedom toast” in the congressional cafeterias to protest France not participating in the Iraq War.

Additionally, one religious college politely asked me not to speak about evolution, and another booked me under the condition that I not speak out against Donald Trump. Other colleges outright won’t book me because I’m too liberal (i.e. woke). That’s okay. I’m not going to whine about it. I mention it only because people like Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan are clueless about what life is like in the real world.

He’s right.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. as of the 2019-2020 school year. Believe me–and believe the author of the quoted rant–very few of them look like Harvard or Berkeley.

One of the numerous faculty committees on which I served was the admissions committee, where we reviewed applications for entry into our graduate programs. Those applications were frequently submitted by students from undergraduate institutions I’d never heard of.

When my husband and I are driving out of state, we constantly pass road signs announcing that such-and-such town is the home of such-and-such local college. These are almost always schools that– despite the fact I was “in the field”– I’d never heard of.

The sheer number of these small and often-struggling schools is intriguing; I sometimes wonder about their ability to attract competent instructors, the focus and breadth of their curricula, and the career prospects they offer their graduates.

It is likely that  the quality of these institutions varies widely. I would bet good money, though, that very few of them are “woke.” (To the extent that they are “indoctrinating,” it is likely to be with denominational religious views–and those are most unlikely to be “liberal.”)

Judging all post-secondary schools as if they are all alike shares the same fallacy that characterizes racial and religious bigotry–the notion that all Blacks or Jews or Muslims or immigrants–or Republicans or Democrats–are alike and interchangeable. One of the many, many defects of our current media environment is its tendency to find an example of something–generally an extreme example–and suggest that it represents an entire category that we should either embrace or reject.

Reality is more complicated than prejudice admits.


  1. Pat: Sorry.
    “Woke” as used today means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”
    “we need to stay angry, and stay woke”

  2. As a past high school teacher my focus was to motivate the students to critical thinking and problem solving. Also, taking responsibility for our actions. I guess many people would think that would be too liberal. What is education for?

  3. Just a moment, please.
    Dear Professor:
    I can’t name everything you’ve taught me in the past decade by just reading your “blog.” I’ve learned how you cannot run a country like a business and what critical race theory actually Is. I’m forever grateful for that knowledge you’ve shared freely. You make me feel smarter for just reading your thoughts and then learning even more in the comments. Take a bow.

    Carry on.

  4. If college faculty members tend to be a bit more liberal than the inhabitants of the right-wing prefer, perhaps that is because those graduate students who specialize in business and law know they can make a lot more money in industry, and especially on Wall Street, than teaching in “Podunk Univ.” And who would major in business or law if that were not their ultimate preference?

    When I taught Geology at IUPUI, in the 80s and 90s, I served on faculty committees with faculty in several of the “colleges” that made up the university. I was aware that some of my colleagues were more Conservative than I was, and still am), and some were about as, or more, Liberal as I was, and am, but I do not recall ever having political discussions with anyone outside of my department. Perhaps I was more reclusive than most, but I was there to teach students how to think about how the world around them “works,” not how people in Washington think it should work. I had opinions about such things, but they were not relevant to the job of explaining the things that happen as mountain ranges form, or what is going on when earthquakes occur. I suspect that other faculty members concentrated on things such as the structure of a poem by Keats or how the ocean tides form. If, walking down the hall with a students, they might have grumbled about the members of the state legislature, but that is not what I would think of as “indoctrinating,” it is carrying on a conversation with another adult.

  5. And here I thought “woke” meant being spiritually awake versus being an automaton. I guess there are different versions since I thought I woke some 20+ years ago when I had my first spiritual awakening. It turns out that was just the beginning.

    I believe academia is in for a rude awakening in the coming years and I believe it will be swift. I don’t need a bachelor’s degree to work in retail and service positions. The speed at which society is changing is growing exponentially. What the kids are learning K-12 needs upscaling drastically as well.

    I keep reading global articles with the words “reimagining” and “critical innovation” along with mini-certificates versus diplomas. Even those who’ve received formal college training will need to relearn or learn new skills needed for the jobs coming which many haven’t even been created yet.

    Why do we need thousands of professors teaching political science in thousands of classrooms all across the US? And why are kids/parents paying a fortune for a diploma and books in a digital age? One book per subject online is sufficient.

    Once it comes, it will feel like blinding speed, but change is inevitable and it will be coming extremely fast.

  6. The more individualized effect of being part of a generalized group by a sweeping definition is to be reduced to a single faceted entity with no ability to have exceptions to the generalization.

    The drive to categorize by race, gender or ideology is all part of that “big sort” that the Professor has so frequently mentioned as a source of our discontent. We see the results of catering to that tendency in the gated communities, private clubs, defacto red lining of neighborhoods or just the tendencies to socially marginalize those who look, act, sound or believe differently from ourselves.

    Academia is no different than the overall culture of the place where the institution resides. The same social forces of sorting occur in those institutions. Just ask any female hard science/technology academic, especially those of color, how an academic institution generalizes by gender, race, ideology, religious or otherwise.

    Being “woke” is just the latest iteration of categorizing people as means of dismissing their often individual responses to their own anecdotal experiences. It works both ways. Sadly, it often results in further separation no matter whether the marginalized or those who have the power to marginalize them have much more in common than not.

  7. I think who Republicans are referring to as “woke” would be people that have the ability to think critically, and possesses problem solving skills and that won’t swallow propaganda hook line and sinker. That could technically make any university a hotbed for “wokeness”.

    Beyond that, it’s another weaponized and loaded political label used by the intellectually lazy to cut off any meaningful discussion with an overly broad stereotype.

    My only college experience was IUPUI and if there was any leanings left or right, I am not sure I ever saw them. The really eye opening part of my education was that more I learned, the more I didn’t know and that very few things can be taken at face value.

  8. That conversation between Sullivan and Maher was about decrying “wokeness”. It wasn’t really about woke colleges and universities. It seems Sullivan had been accused of not being woke enough. The point of the conversation was that we have to look at many factors before determining the rightness or wrongness of a person or thing. I get really tired of people condemning others for what was done sometimes centuries ago. It was a vastly different society and should not be examined and rated based on today’s societal norms. There is, or should be, context even in history.

  9. Yes, well… Once again Republicans define themselves as willfully ignorant, terrified of the truth and, to put a rotten cherry on top, totally resistant to critical thinking. In my book “Killing the Dream”, I included the actual line item in the Texas Republican platform that called for the elimination of teaching critical thinking in public schools. So, teaching ANYTHING that doesn’t serve the leaders of the sheep is anathema.

    Republicans are owned and operated by corporate/banking America. Yes, Todd, some Democrats share that fetid position. Then, the way our election system is set up, candidates need to go where the money is to fund their campaigns. Thank you SCOTUS and the highly overrated Antonin Scalia.

    Republicans are, therefore, compelled to find conspiracies where none exist. Since they have no intention of serving the greater good of the majority of citizens, they must comply to their donors’ wishes or lose funding. That’s CORRUPTION 101! Until we publicly fund elections, make election day a national holiday and limit the campaign season, we will spiral down the rat hole of every other third-world despotic nation.

    Every complaint should have a posited solution. The above are the top two on my list. I used critical thinking and the understanding of history, truth and facts to bring them up. If that makes me “woke”, I’ll take the win. Not being a Republican is really a joy.

  10. In my view, the definition Sheila uses for “Woke,” is accurate. It is not about spirituality, not about categorizing people in any fashion, but “ALERT” to what is happening in the realm of injustice, that of any sort.
    I had no idea about how many degree granting institutions there were/are, in the country, but I must assume that they are not all alike, and if I may draw on an extreme example, I’m very glad that a place like Liberty Univ. is, I expect, an outlier. I do not know what it is like at other religiously themed,if that is the right word, schools, like the various Weslyans, or a Southern Methodist Univ., etc., but, then, to my knowledge, they were not founded with the intent of real brainwashing, in in L.U.’s case. Liberty University’s Law school, is infamous for teaching that the country’s founders meant this to be a Christian country, despite the male evidence from writings by those very founders that it was not.
    Returning to Sheila’s theme, one is going to be dismissing much reality by painting with a hugely broad brush, as in stereotyping, but that seems obvious.

    A little off the topic, someone, elsewhere, recently asked for a definition of intelligence, and I responded with something like “the ability to recognize the subtleties with an mutually agreed upon reality.” Those who live in black/white worlds miss out on everything in between.

    So, we are discussing “Wokeness.” Why? Because the reactionaries in our midst still can’t accept that their twisted, bigoted, world view is massively myopic? That it has hurt, and continues to hurt, so many fellow Americans, whom they would like to define as “Not Really Americans?” They seem to be so sensitive, perhaps understandably, to any slightest threat to their hegemony, that they are always finding newer concepts, issues, to attack in their defensive gas lighting enterprise. Perhaps the trend seen in the newest census results will gradually open their eyes to the overwhelming similarities among the country’s variety of people, as suggested yesterday.

  11. Two things:
    One: Vernon, you posted while I was writing my post, and so I did not get to see yours until this moment. I love it!
    Two: I came back here, now, to point out an unrelated issue, but one that might interest the so many folks here, from Indiana. Regarding the House Select Committee’s seeking of various phone, and the records in the process of its investigations, and Heather Cox Richardson’s discussion of the mythical American Rugged Individualism:
    “Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) immediately responded that “Congress has no general power to inquire into private affairs and to compel disclosure….” He urged telecommunications companies and Facebook not to hand over any materials, calling their effort an “authoritarian undertaking.” Banks told Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson that Republicans should punish every lawmaker investigating the January 6 insurrection if they retake control of Congress in 2022.”
    HCR went on to remind folks that Mr. Republican, Pres.Lincoln, had commented on the issue thusly:
    ‘For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

  12. It is quite the paradox that Republicans cry for freedom and yet think “Father knows best”, so to speak. They want freedom and yet want to line up under authoritarian leaders.

    I went to the Univ. of Indianapolis which was then called Indiana Central University. We did not discuss politics in nursing school. I would say, however, that Prof. Hanson was very awake. I appreciated the way he taught us regarding different controversies in the Christian church in “History in ChristianThought”. Alice Friman an English professor was liberal. She had grown up in New York. But most of my professors did not engage us in political discussions. She once said to me “The majority is always wrong.” Hmm. Always? I doubt that.

    We had convocation and respectfully listened to each speaker. One of them stated that in order to rid the country of increasing inflation, an elected president would have to put the country into recession. He was prophetic. We got Reagan as president.

    A good education aims to help students learn to use critical thinking which helps us to become informed citizens. It also helps in all decisions we make. i.e. What should I do if a friend makes a racist remark? How much of my money should I donate and to which charities?

    My bigoted father once said in my presence “Hitler should have killed all the Jews.” I was shocked! I said to him, “How can you say that? HOW can you say that, Dad?” Chances are he was drunk at the time. I was a young adult and had become awakened to anti-Semitism and racism. I was also a young feminist and was moving towards coming out to myself.

    The advantage of being a lesbian woman is that I have to be “woke” in order to survive. Having been the target of so much stigma and bigotry has sensitized me to the issues that other minorities face.

    What was it the Buddha said when someone asked him about who he was? He said “I am awake.”

    If only we could get the GOP out of denial about global warming and free them of the Big Lie which is denial turned into a delusion. I hope current professors are doing just that with their students.

  13. Mitch,

    Think you are right on as to what SHOULD be the definition, unfortunately, like so many words, concepts, etc. the RIGHT have weaponized it to mean tearing down statues, burning stores, taking over parts of Portland, OR, etc.

    Will Liberals/DEMS (not PROGRESSIVES) ever learn to weaponize words/phrases that mean good things to most people? We (my project) have tried doing that with “common good” with some success. Yes, the RIGHT do try to decry those words as somehow tramping on individual RIGHTS, but have had little success except with the most hardened…

  14. Woke to me, implies trying to consider all the different parts that make up the whole. Our society is very complex. You could gather up all the parts of a 2021 Honda Odyssey mini-van or a 767 jet plane and lay them out. They would be just parts sitting there.

    An entire team would be needed to assemble all the parts and make sure it was done correctly. The complexity of American History can be be presented with significant parts left out. It would seem to fit only if the finished product is what you want to see.

    The debacle in Afghanistan is a good example. For decades we were told by Elected Officials, the Pentagon and other appointed officials that our product a reliable, well armed Afghan Security Forces could resist the Taliban. We lavished the Afghan’s with equipment. All the parts were there or so we were led to believe.

    All the Generals weighted down by medals reported with glowing reports of progress. It was Vietnam all over again, most did not want to “see” this. Failure was an option – Not on my watch though – Far easier to let the next guy take the Hit.

    With breath taking swiftness the Afghan security forces and government were swept away by the Taliban. Will we as a nation have the courage to look at this debacle in Afghanistan and address it honestly?? No Way, I say, too many influential Oxen will be gored.

  15. Today’s GOP uses “Woke” in a very specific and old way:
    Woke = Liberal = Socialist = Communist = ungodly Spawn of Satan

    It is 21st Century Red Baiting

    I will posit an old differentiation for the “conservative/liberal” divide. It is one dimensional and does not encompass “conservatives”, just one aspect of SOME “conservatives”. That is Authority. Some of the split along this dimension goes like this:

    Liberal Universities teach their students to question authority (the earth is not flat); Conservative Universities teach their students to accept authority (the bible says – according to our interpretation which is the only correct one – or the South has always been this way)

    Now to be all academic here – three items: Generalizations, Saliency, and Scope

    Generalizations – Let me start – all generalizations are false including this one.
    Life is complex, and sometimes snap decisions are required. As much as I hate playing evolutionary psychologist, we are hard wired to categorize to make it easier on ourselves. Is the animal/stranger/plant dangerous? The hope is that with time, loss of the immediacy threats, evolution, education, or a bit of all, we learn nuance. Some people don’t. It is too much work.

    Saliency – Let me give an example from the ‘60s. “Broadcast news is Liberal.” The major features were civil rights protests and pictures from Vietnam. On those issues, broadcast news was telling the story and they had a liberal outlook. On financial matters, the record is less clear. They weren’t as liberal in reporting economics, but that was less visible.

    Another example – College campuses were a hotbed of protest, especially in the ‘60s. It made the news, so everyone saw it. They didn’t see peaceful Calvin College, or other quiet religious institutions. [Calvin College is a Calvinist college in western Michigan with a reputation for academic excellence.]

    One more example – Who is asked to speak on news shows? Are they Professors from Oral Roberts U., Liberty U., or even Calvin College? More likely Harvard, Johns Hopkins, or some state university from a “blue” state.

    Another historical point – Before the ’70s, the “top” universities were the private east coast ones, the UC system, Stanford, Cal Tech, and the state universities in the industrial Midwest. Those states poured money into education. Then Texas poured a bunch of oil money into their universities and lured top talent from across the country. The state schools in the Midwest began to suffer from tight economics. States that believed in education used to put their money there.

    This leads into my last point.

    Scope – When you look at the top “research” universities, be they private or public, they are likely to be “liberal”, questioning authority. They also attract that type of student body. The large number of small, religious colleges, and the newer crop of ideological universities (often with a religious affiliation) tend to educate in quiet obscurity. If you look at research universities, there is a definite liberal tilt. If your scope includes every university and college, the playing field shifts considerably. This may change some, as the newer ideological universities gain a voice, but since today’s GOP/Fox News, doesn’t think much of science, they may not tap them for guest opinions.

  16. I went to Yale. A small but exceptionally vocal minority was ‘woke.’ An enormous majority were completely clueless about the real world, for socioeconomic reasons.

    Which is why I absolutely cannot bear to read the NYT, WaPo, the Globe, etc. The people there think they’re perceptive and informed, when in fact they’re utterly out of touch hacks. And sometimes garden variety liars. But their target demo is other members of the 10% so no one cares.

    You still find real information if you dig for it, but it was better when we had Ivins, Barry, even Safire, et al.

  17. I taught Medicine for over fifty years.Always took the centrist path! Review the evidence,investigate the evidence,and make a decision based n that evidence! It is a historical fact that all the great advances in Medicine took years for the profession to change from eminence based to evidence based! EG the bacterial causation of ulcer disease took at least ten years for the physicians accepted the Nobel Prize winning proof!

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