Nov. 17 years old, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker shot down Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE Act, which bans Florida institutions of higher education from teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT), as well as “prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring awakened CRT consultants.” While the practical implications of this decision will attract the attention of the media and academics, the arguments behind Walker’s decision, which make strong normative statements about the role of academia in American politics, are worthy of further study.
Walker argued that “our professors are critical of a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints deserve coverage and which should remain obscure matters to all of us.” He added that “if our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on defiant ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.”
Whether one sees the Stop the Awakening Act as a necessary measure to stop the acceleration of critical racial theory, or as an unconstitutional violation of professors’ free speech rights, Walker appears to look at scientists and academia in general through rose-colored glasses. that the comparison of professors with priests makes this clear. But Walker’s description of scientists as the holy saviors of democracy could not be further from the truth: democracy is not a religion, and professors are not its priests.
Walker is not the first to take this position. As early as the late 19th century, American Democrats had already begun to view civic education as a religious experience. In 1899 the Scottish-American philosopher Thomas Davidson concluded “not only that Americanism is a religion, but that it is the noblest of all religions, the one that best ensures the realization of the highest masculinity and femininity and points them to the highest goal – the goal that they should pursue throughout all eternity . approach without reaching out.” Ideal[s] American Democracy” ruled everything else.
By the 1950s, this view had evolved into the view expressed by Walker. Professors, many of whom were persecuted by the US government for refusing to renounce communist ideas, clung to to their role as truthful people to protect themselves. They were supported by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who proposed the label “priests” in coincidence to Wyman W. Updegraffwriting that “to regard teachers – in our entire educational system, from elementary grades to universities – as the priests of our democracy, is not to indulge in exaggeration.”
But just because this view is outdated doesn’t mean it’s true, and Frankfurter was clearly exaggerating. Any claim that professors are priests of democracy implies that democracy is an end in itself. And institutions that see democracy as a goal inevitably become destructive.
In the American political tradition, the preservation of the freedom and security of society is of paramount importance. Democracy, or, in our system, a democratic republic, is considered by many to be the best institutional mechanism for this. In this sense, democracy is a means to an end, the goal of which is the preservation of freedom and security.
As Michael Munger of Duke University observable however, in 2005, democracy is dealing with team solutions, as opposed to public Decisions Government decisions, by their very nature, affect everyone (Munger gives examples of defense budgets and water pollution). Collective decisions “concern us all only because the majority is empowered to impose its will on all.” In other words, if democracy is the goal, then society’s goal is to achieve simple majority rule. And there is no guarantee that the majority will be interested in maintaining personal (or academic) freedom.
After all, scientists are notoriously hostile to any point of view that goes against established orthodoxy. Department of English at the University of Oklahoma encouraged professors to end any class discussion that is “rooted in the oppression and denial of humanity and anyone’s right to exist.” The University of Central Florida tried (and failed) fire a professor who committed the egregious crime of wrong thinking on Twitter. More recently, Phil Magness and Michael Macowey have been criticized for dare to argue that Karl Marx was a relatively obscure theorist prior to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.
If we take “democracy” in its pure, majoritarian form, then professors are its priests, if not gods. No one accepts dogma and groupthink like an academic. But no system of government, however efficient or liberating, should be held in religious veneration. Principles and people matter most.
If we ascribe to American democracy such qualities as academic freedom, free speech, aversion to censorship, and government skepticism, as Walker does, then we shouldn’t put academia on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve. If anything, scientists have cooled the very intellectual market that Walker seeks to preserve.