Just last week, federal prosecutors indicted 50 individuals for conspiracy to defraud the government and bribe university employees to help their children gain entrance into prestigious universities. The parents allegedly paid more than $25 million in bribes since 2011. While the scandal indicates something is rotten in the state of American higher education, the media’s focus on how this was accomplished seems misplaced. The better question: Why would parents think it worth paying such a price to get their child into an elite university?
Rich and famous parents were willing to risk damaged reputations, considerable fines, and jail to ensure their children attend brand-name colleges. Yet parents going to great lengths for a child to attend a top university is strangely relatable.
Capital Research Center’s Dangerous Documentaries is familiar with the corrosive attitudes pervading college campuses. While producing No Safe Spaces, we encountered open hostility to free speech and disturbing antagonism toward academic debate. One idea enshrined in the ivory tower—and thus immune from criticism—is U.C. Berkeley professor Judith Butler’s post-modern gender theory.
In The Architects of Woke, Dangerous Documentaries’ new web series, we report on academic theorists and intellectual acolytes who spread far-left identity politics and “woke” culture through college campuses and society at large. The first episode, “Judith Butler’s War on Science,” captures the gender theorist’s baleful influence.
Like many humanities professors, she works in the postmodernist tradition of French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who believed that most or all the concepts we use in language don’t reflect an underlying objective reality, but are instead social constructions enforced by the powerful. For Butler, this means denying that gender and even biological sex are objective facts of nature. Based largely on Butler’s philosophy, the notion that gender is an infinite spectrum with no necessary connection to biological sex has become popular on college campuses and is now spreading into society at large.
That notion is false. While obviously not every woman or man has every single trait associated with femininity or masculinity, they do fall within what’s called a bi-modal distribution (see example below).
There are of course edge cases where gender identity doesn’t align with biological sex, hence transgender persons, but overwhelmingly gender identity is causally linked to the biologically gendered traits one has. While there is much room for cultural attitudes towards gender roles to change, as it rightly has in many ways over the last two centuries, pretending that cultural attitudes towards gender aren’t at least in part naturally derived from the facts of sex difference flies in the face of common sense and science. But Butler actively ignores that common sense, writing in the preface of her book Gender Trouble that her postmodernist critique “refuses to search for the origins of gender.”
Her theory can be rebutted with a simple recognition of her refusal to engage the biological origins of gender, yet her obscure prose and those of her postmodernist intellectual progenitors obscure the weakness of her argument. In the 1990s, physics professor Alan Sokol submitted a hoax paper using such jargon to argue that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. This obvious nonsense was then accepted by the postmodernist journal Social Text in perhaps the worst academic scandal of the decade. The use of jargon to launder otherwise easily refutable ideas is why we call Butler and her colleagues’ frauds in our film.
Today, such methodology has conquered humanities departments in academia. Butler herself has served on the executive board of the Modern Language Association, a highly influential organization in the humanities. Other professors inspired by Sokol have tried to fight back against the influence of postmodernism in academia, which has put may of their careers in peril (see professor Peter Boghossian at Portland State University).
It’s hard to see how the choice to study postmodernism uncritically could rationally lead to better life outcomes. Clearly, higher education in the United States is broken. It has been reduced to a signal powerful enough to incentivize the rich and famous to abuse the system to maintain their place at the top.
There are new models of education that aim to disrupt this broken system. Hopefully this scandal can help our society move towards them.