Tag Archives: post-secondary education

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.