Does Modern Academia Encourage Unthinking Acceptance of Authority?

This post is based in large part on an article titled
Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill

Is there a current tendency to consider those who cherish and seek to preserve our rights, including those under the First and Second Amendments, mentally ill for that reason? Interesting for the focused question it poses directly, the article should raise broader but similar questions about the current nature of academia in general.

I have had no direct contact with academia since my years in undergraduate school (1959 – 63) and in law school (1963 – 66). “Back in the good old days,” we were encouraged toward independent thought and away from authoritarian notions that discourage it.

John BlumOne of my favorite teachers at Yale, John Morton Blum, was an academic and a liberal (not a “librul” as I have come to use the word) in the classical sense. A student of both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, he had recently done much research at Hyde Park reviewing FDR’s papers and discussing them with his widow, Eleanor. On the day following her death, he asked whether we would object if, rather than cover his intended subject matter, he extemporized about Mrs. Roosevelt, whom he had got to know quite well. We approved and he did.

Mr. Blum’s twice weekly lectures on American political history were very popular and were therefore taught in the largest auditorium available. They were attended by several hundred students. We were divided into seminars of fifteen or so taught weekly by post doctoral teaching assistants. The TA who led my seminar, previously a labor organizer, once gave me a bad grade on an essay he had told us to write on “whether slavery was a good preparation for democracy.” A one word response, “no,” would not have served and it was evident that he wanted us to criticize slavery on the ground that it was not; I decided not to do so. Instead, I took and supported the position that it had not been intended for that purpose — much as an automobile, not intended for the purpose, would be an inadequate means of transport across the Atlantic Ocean. There were many valid grounds for criticizing slavery. That slavery did not fulfill a propose for which it had not been intended was not among them. When I challenged him, he seemed initially hostile but nevertheless rethought the matter and within a day or two gave me a much better grade. I do not know whether he consulted Mr. Blum on what to do, but suspect that he did.


Others in various fields also sought to encourage independent thought. Brand Blanshard, for example, taught an undergraduate philosophy course. A rationalist, he “espoused and defended a strong conception of reason during a century when reason came under philosophical attack.” Reason is the antithesis of ideological conformity and of its beloved cousin, political correctness. Mr. Blanshard’s lectures were simultaneously entertaining and designed to encourage us to think independently. He retired at the end of the school year during which I attended his classes and we gave him a standing ovation. Emotionally overwhelmed or joking (I never knew for sure which), he walked off stage into a broom closet (where he remained until after we had left) rather than through the door he had customarily used.

My major field of study was economics. Arthur_Melvin_OkunAuthur Okun, my honors thesis adviser, adhered to the same traditions. He encouraged me to pursue the subject of my paper (impact of the Robinson-Patman Act on the automotive replacement parts market) without preconceptions as to where it should lead and seemed pleased that I had done so.

Viewing modern academia, including even public primary and secondary education —  only from a distance and mainly by reading — it strikes me that those who encourage the questioning of authority and independent thought may now be exceptions. Zero tolerance policies in primary and secondary schools — which themselves discourage rational thought by teachers and administrators in favor of reliance on overly broad applications of inflexible policies — may be symptoms of this decline. To the extent that their own rational thought processes are discouraged, might they be unlikely to encourage them in their students as well?

Toward the end of the article on which this post is substantially predicated, the author says

Why Mental Health Professionals Diagnose Anti-Authoritarians with Mental Illness? Gaining acceptance into graduate school or medical school and achieving a PhD or MD and becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist means jumping through many hoops, all of which require much behavioral and attentional compliance to authorities, even to those authorities that one lacks respect for. The selection and socialization of mental health professionals tends to breed out many anti-authoritarians. Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities. Thus for many MDs and PhDs, people different from them who reject this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one. [Emphasis added.]

Please read the entire article.

Do comparable attitudes now prevail generally in other fields of academia? If so, are they recent phenomena or have they been progressing steadily downward for many years? It occurs to me that the now commonly sycophantic “legitimate media” acceptance and regurgitation of (currently) leftist or librul political talking points may have roots pointing downward to the education received by many journalists. (I used the passive word, “received,” rather than the active word, “taken,” purposely.)  The recent questioning — even by some in the “legitimate media” — of the Obama Administration Benghazi talking points is a refreshing change. I wonder how long it will last, how far it will go, in what directions with what consequences.

Many factors that the linked article suggests plague the study of psychology and psychiatry seem likely to operate broadly as well in the “social sciences” in general. They could provide fields for potentially fascinating research should anyone competent chose to pursue them.

About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.
This entry was posted in 2016 Obama's America, Arthur Okun, Brand Blanshard, Conservatives, Constitution, Democracy, Dep't of Information, Economics, Education, Franklin Roosevelt, Freedom, Government reliance, History, Ideology, Integrity, John Blum, Liberals, Libruls, Media, Obama, Olden Days, Political class, Political Correctness, Politics, Principles, Propaganda, Reason, T. Roosevelt, the Basics, United States, Yale University, Zero tolerance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Does Modern Academia Encourage Unthinking Acceptance of Authority?

  1. Pingback: The Moon is Down? In the U.S.? | danmillerinpanama

  2. Mike says:

    It’s a shame we have come so far in so little time regarding the destruction of independent thinking. This same thought struck home for me in 2005 on an overseas flight. I was next to a gentleman from Kenya. He told me he was a Rhodes Scholar and was heading to London to present his final paper on the British Colonialization of India. Intrigued, I asked for an oral summary. Instead, he handed me the paper… so I read.
    Once finished, I asked why he chose that topic. He explained that the lasting negative effects on India by the British and their desire to exploit the natural resources found there have never fully been recovered from. And, it was a lesson all should be made aware of.
    I offered that the “exploitation” of India was well documented and comparable to the exploration of WWII. I then quickly followed with the question of why he had not chosen to illustrate the beneficial legacy of British Colonialization in India. He looked at me like I had three heads. (Keep in mind, this remained friendly throughout the flight.)
    It was at this point that I realized I was speaking with a Rhodes Scholar who could not conceive of a single benefit left behind by the British. So I rattled off a few beginning with a parliamentary system of government, infrastructure improvements, means of manufacture, sophisticated trade channels etc. Yet he still couldn’t seem to believe anyone in their right mind would take such a position.
    This is when my heart sank as I knew it was not just unbelievable to him such an argument could exist… it was impossible for him to think of such an argument. So it wasn’t so much that anyone would take such a position, but that such a position could even exist.
    To make a long story longer, it is no surprise to me that independent thought should now become an illness. The nail that sticks out must be hammered down. Particularly if you are going to rise to the level of a Rhodes Scholar… it is very sad indeed. As you note, we cannot have any distractions from our Utopian goal.
    As a side note, there were several people around us who had taken notice of our conversation which delved into ancillary topics from Marx to Smith. I think the interest was due to our speaking on these things in a simple, easy to understand, manner. That was the only positive I took away from the flight… aside from meeting a very nice, if misguided, Kenyan.
    I viewed the interest of fellow passengers surprising, but it seemed to illustrate a fact. If one can deliver these ideas sans the “academic speak”, used like a guild language, then even the common man can embrace them.
    You don’t have to post this Dan, it’s really just a note to you. Thanks as always for a great post… and bringing a lost memory back to life. Cheers, Mike.

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