Unassailable Ideas (Fall 2020)

In Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), John Villasenor and I describe and analyze the current state of discourse in academia and beyond. We 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, we 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. 


Our 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. We 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.


We explain that nearly all of the challenges we identify can be traced to a particular way of seeing the world that dominates in American higher education. We describe the contours of this worldview and how it directly and indirectly shapes the academic endeavor.

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