Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education (Fall 2020)
In Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), Ilana and co-author John Villasenor describe and analyze the current state of discourse in academia and beyond. They argue that the climate for research and teaching in American higher education is shaped by a series of assumptions that are held in place, at least in part, through social media. While free speech is an important aspect of the contemporary university climate, they focus on broader issues, such as the ways in which pressures to conform shape what research can and can't be done, what can and can’t be taught, and academic freedom more generally.
Their thesis is that two trends—the newly emergent role of social media in creating disincentives for engagement on sociopolitically sensitive topics, and a campus culture in which the questions that arise as a result of open inquiry are sometimes viewed as threatening—have fundamentally reshaped higher education. They argue that, without the open inquiry that has underpinned America’s historical intellectual vitality, the size of the academic enterprise ensures that vitality will be at risk outside of universities as well.
Redstone and Villasenor explain that nearly all of the challenges they identify can be traced to a particular way of seeing the world that dominates in American higher education. They describe the contours of this worldview and how it directly and indirectly shapes the academic endeavor.
"In Unassailable Ideas, Redstone and Villasenor identify several assumptions that have come to act as dogmas in academia, and they show what happens when faculty and others run afoul of the new dogmas. Outrage and censorship cause problems not just for the faculty involved, but also for those
watching, who must be careful to avoid running afoul of the dogmas themselves, and for everyone who has a stake in health of universities and the quality of the scholarship they produce. For anyone trying to get a better understanding of what's been happening at American colleges and universities
and wondering how serious the threats to free speech and academic freedom actually are, this book is a must-read."
--Bradley Campbell, Professor of Sociology, California State University, Los Angeles
"Redstone and Villasenor use an interesting and important lens to view timely, challenging issues facing American higher education. Their synthesis of how social media and certain sets of beliefs can stifle discourse is worthy of serious consideration."
--Michelle Deutchman, Executive Director, University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement
"Anyone under the impression that all that happened on college campuses in the mid-2010s was a few student protests getting a little out of hand should read this brisk, penetrating book. The issue is a nearly medieval ideology that has taken hold of academic culture over the past 25 years, and
we ignore it at the peril of young American minds."
--John H. McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
"Is free speech under threat on our campuses? As this smart little book reminds us, that's the wrong question. The real danger to higher education isn't a cabal of jack-booted censors, but the much subtler forces that discourage us from critiquing our dominant assumptions about
multiculturalism, discrimination, and identity. A truly liberal campus would engage in a full-throated argument about these principles, instead of trying to place them beyond debate. Let's hope that this book sparks precisely the dialogue that our colleges and universities have suppressed."
--Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History, University of Pennsylvania