Before I ever heard of Jonathan Haidt my search to understand American principles and politics, and through them my own, led me to Bernard Bailyn. It was after reading his The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and similar works like Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution by Forrest McDonald, and The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas by Carl L. Becker that I was shown Haidt’s 2008 TED talk by my office mate at work.
I was thrilled by how clearly and how well Haidt’s talk resonated with the principles, thoughts, and events I had learned about through my study of American history. It was in the glow of that thrill that I first wrote to Haidt, which eventually led to him inviting me to review a draft of The Righteous Mind prior to its publication.
Later, I read The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon S. Wood, a protégé of Bailyn’s, and other Bailyn works like To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Foundersand The Origins of American Politics. They all resonate in the same way.
In the latest issue of The Weekly Standard Gordon S. Wood reviews a new book by Bailyn; Sometimes an Art – Nine Essays on History. Wood’s description of current “fashions of academic history-writing” lend credence to the notion that the liberal tribal moral community of academic social psychology that Haidt describes actually extends beyond just that realm to include history as well. Note in this excerpt from Wood’s review that this phenomenon had been observed as early as the 1940s!
In one of his essays, Bailyn quotes Isaiah Berlin’s reactions to American universities and American students during his visit to Harvard in the late 1940s. In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” They found it hard to justify studying, say, the early Greek epic while the poor went hungry and blacks were denied fundamental rights. How, Berlin wondered, could disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing, flourish in such morally painful circumstances?
Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.
Steven F. Hayward recently spent a year at the University of Colorado at Boulder as the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy. He wrote of his experience in the cover story of the February 23, 2015 issue of National Review, observing that it’s not just the science of psychology that’s damaged and therefore risks marginalization as Haidt describes, it’s also “political science, history, English, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology:”
Between the stifling political correctness of the radical narrative, the increasingly esoteric hyperspecialization that renders boring much of the social sciences and humanities, and the out-of-control cost of higher education, it is doubtful that the university in its current form will survive. The number of students majoring in the social sciences (excluding economics) and the humanities has fallen by two-thirds over the last generation. At this rate, eventually many of our leading research universities will bifurcate into a marginal fever swamp of radicalism, whose majors will be unfit for employment at Starbucks, and a larger campus dedicated to science and technology.
In short, academia itself is rotting outward from its very core.