Decades ago, the philosopher Allan Bloom famously warned about “the closing of the American mind” on university campuses. In particular, Bloom worried about academia’s growing embrace of moral relativism. “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power,” he wrote.
From our modern vantage point, many of Bloom’s deepest fears about social justice, victimhood culture and political correctness have proven to be prophetic.
However, on the matter of moral relativism, Bloom has recently been challenged. Research published in the journal American Sociological Review suggests that we’re actually witnessing the growth of moral absolutism on college campuses instead.
“These students differ from earlier relativists in their willingness to claim there are definite moral truths,” authors Miloš Broćić and Andrew Miles write. “The moral relativism of years past is transforming into a form of liberal moral puritanism.”
The reason? The authors believe that the humanities, arts and social science disciplines have become particularly good at instilling absolutist beliefs among impressionable students. These departments, they write, promote “a moral profile characterized by a progressive belief ... accompanied by a conviction that there are definite moral truths.”
Moreover, the authors found that the more time a student spends on cloistered campuses, the greater the odds that he or she will exhibit these traits.
Relying on a sample of thousands of American youth between 2002 and 2013 from the National Study of Youth and Religion, the report is a striking indictment. It’s worth remembering that “wokeness” hadn’t even entered mainstream consciousness until roughly 2015, which means that today’s students are likely undergoing a significantly more potent strain of moralization.
The findings quantify what many outside observers have long suspected. Earlier researchers had documented how a majority of nearly 500 sociology professors believed that their discipline had a “moral mission.” It logically follows that their teaching would be at least somewhat evangelical in nature.
Bloom, then, was on the right path. Some departments within academia have become so influential that Broćić and Miles draw parallels to religious fundamentalism. Indeed, the religious inflection of modern university life — the performative purity tests that identity politics and wokeness demand — now lead to the excommunication of campus “heretics.”
It is cancel culture of the highest order. Nonconforming academics are now an endangered species.
As the paper outlines, while nearly 30% of professors in 1969 described themselves as conservative; by 2013 that number had declined to 12%. This isn’t a sampling error.
Examining the political identification of 5,000 faculty members, a 2018 study found the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans in communications was 108 to zero. In anthropology, the ratio was 56:0; in religion, 70:1; and in English, nearly 50:1.
In other words, the researchers couldn’t find a single conservative in their sample of communications or anthropology departments. Student-facing administrators, “those who are most responsible for shaping student experience on campuses” as Broćić and Miles describe them, fair little better, boasting a 12:1 liberal to conservative ratio.
Further illustrating the problem, an examination of 2022 graduation ceremonies found the disparity between liberal and conservative commencement speakers to be 53:3.
Such intellectual homogeneity enshrines groupthink. The problem-child departments are, by now, well-known. Disciplines such as whiteness, gender and women’s studies offer students moral certainty for which activism — not dispassionate inquiry — is the yardstick of truth.
These fields were publicly embarrassed during the “grievance studies controversy” as scholarly journals published hoax stories that passed unscathed through supposedly rigorous peer-review processes. Articles such as “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon” and “Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding” — now retracted — are just the most ridiculous examples of what meets the bar for “scholarship” within such fields.
Broćić and Miles tell how students leave school believing that “society must change to remedy historical (and current) injustices.” As always, the tools utilized to resolve such social ills are partisan and one-sided: flourishing progressive policies on campuses today include trigger warnings, microaggressions and implicit bias training, as well as diversity, inclusion and equity mandates.
Restricting, rather than enlarging speech, is a direct consequence of such moralization. Such pitfalls of emotional reasoning inspired Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s 2019 bestselling book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which warned of the dangers of infantilizing young adults.
Another sober observer of the intellectual extremes on both left and right is Jonathan Rauch, who sketched out a constructive framework for combating such excesses in his book “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch outlines that the “reality-based” community’s norms derive from core principles — among them, the acknowledgement that “no one gets the final say.”
That idea is sorely missed in our civil discussions today; few of us are willing to admit that our own fallibility is not only possible, but more than likely.
In a conversation I had with the study’s co-author Andrew Miles last year, he said the research “is hardly the final word.”
“Good science is cumulative, which means any one study can only do so much,” Miles said.
It is a sentiment that would make Rauch proud. No final word. No ultimate authority. Simply curious individuals on a never-ending journey to learn. That’s what the university experience was once about.
Ari David Blaff is a Canadian freelance journalist whose writings have appeared in National Review, Tablet, Quillette and the Institute for Family Studies.