Peter Boghossian of the University of Austin on ‘wokeness,’ higher ed

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Peter Boghossian has become one of the central figures challenging the decline of academic institutions to the tide of political correctness and educational coddling. “It’s time to build new institutions,” the philosopher and professor writes on social media in response to articles about what he considers ideological madness at American universities.

When Boghossian and two other researchers were able to publish farcical papers about “fat bodybuilding” and “rape culture in dog parks” in academic journals, their work became popularly known as the “Grievance Studies Affair.”

But outrage and harassment from students and administrators led Boghossian, 56, to publicly resign from Portland State University, where he was an assistant professor of philosophy. Today, he is a founding member of The University of Austin, an attempt to reinvigorate academia as a haven for free speech and intellectual inquiry.

What separates Boghossian from many intellectuals today is his remarkable willingness to engage university students in thought exercises that would get most academics canceled or put on academic leave. In recent weeks, his YouTube channel, which has 88,000 subscribers, has featured discussions about abortion, systemic racism, gender politics and transgender athletes.

He spoke recently with the Deseret News over FaceTime about how wokeness infiltrated American universities, the future of higher education and the most important question that we can ask each other.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Blaff: My attention span for YouTube videos is very short, but I find myself watching yours for 20 minutes. You’re one of the few people having good, constructive conversations, the kind that I think are not really happening on campuses a lot. Why not?

Peter Boghossian: I think it’s that they don’t know how to do it. But even if they knew how to, they don’t value it. They have different objectives; they have different goals. Their goals are to lead people to certain moral conclusions. That is certainly not my goal. My goal is to help people calibrate the confidence that they have in their belief — to the evidence and the reasoning they have for their beliefs. And those are not just different goals. They’re opposed.

AB: How do you keep your cool? You seem very balanced and very well behaved for a person who probably gets a lot of flak. You seem very patient and understanding and willing to let stuff go like water off a duck’s back.

PB: I get asked that question a lot. A few things: I’m genuinely curious about what people believe. And I really want to hear people out when they tell me they believe something. If you notice in the rooftop video, when the social workers came down from the rooftop, I really listened to them. You’ll notice that when people who were trained, for example, at Portland State University, when they’re trained at an ideology mill, they live in an echo chamber. They can’t answer direct questions, and they don’t.

Peter Boghossian, a philosopher associated with Portland State, attends a lecture at the university in Portland, Ore., in 2020.

Peter Boghossian, a philosopher associated with Portland State, attends a lecture by Mary Grabar at a colloquy of the Oregon Association of Scholars presented at Portland State University in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 22, 2020. Grabar presented a polemic against Howard Zinn’s 1980’s “People’s History of the United States.”

John Rudoff, Associated Press

That’s kind of related to what we’re doing at the University of Austin. But for me, it’s just about figuring out what people believe. Really listening and figuring it out and then asking them if they agree with themselves.

Do I have my own beliefs about these things? Yeah, very much so. But more importantly, if I’m wrong, the only way to realize that would be to hear opinions to the contrary. That’s why I find it fascinating to listen to people.

AB: I think one of the best questions you ask is what it would take for them to change their opinion: What level of evidence they would need to see before they moderate or become more certain. This framing shows whether someone’s really an ideologue who’s committed to one point of view, or if they’re willing to change based upon the presentation of different evidence. 

PB: I wrote about that in my last book,How To Have Impossible Conversations” (co-authored with James Lindsay). I just think it’s the most important question, and people will live their whole lives and no one will ever ask them that question. Literally, their whole life, no one will ever ask them that. 

They’ll be asked, ‘Oh, why do you believe that?’ But they won’t be asked, ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ It’s the single most important question you can ever be asked for epistemic hygiene.

AB: This and the other tools you apply in your conversations seem to be something which should be a very basic or a fundamental thing that a lot of university students should be learning. But they’re not. People don’t know how to have those difficult conversations, to ask those questions, to consider what evidence might actually sway their opinions.

PB: You are operating from the assumption that the purpose of education is to help people think critically and clearly, to evaluate their beliefs and make sure they track the evidence to help them do that. But that’s not the purpose. That’s not what the purpose of education has become. 

The purpose of education is to forward moral conclusions, particularly conclusions about race, gender, sexuality, et cetera, and have people parrot those back. That’s what it’s become. So they wouldn’t even want to learn how to do what I do, which isn’t particularly complicated. It’s that they don’t value those things. They think they have the truth so they want to lead other people to their conclusions.

AB: What do you tell teenagers and young adults who are interested in going to a university today? What would you advise young kids to do?

PB: I’ll tell you exactly what I’ve advised my daughter, who’s going to be college age pretty soon, to do: Don’t go to the universities. Get a trade, go into vocational school, be an electrician. 

AB: Do you think that the liberal arts education, as it is at this moment, is irredeemable?

PB: I do. I think it’s corrupt. They have jobs for life. They have tenure. But it is something that I don’t wanna sit around and moan about anymore. I want to build something new to give people an alternative. 

AB: How much of a problem is wokeness today? Some people have said it’s not that big a deal, it’s not influential.

PB: I think they said that in 2018, maybe 2019. I don’t think anybody believes that anymore. It feels surreal. It feels surreal because I have been screaming about it since 2013. Nobody listened. 

It went from, ‘There is no problem, this is a few fringe nutcases in fringe departments in the academy’ to ‘This is just in few departments in the academy, it will never leak.’ Then it goes to institutional governments, and people said, ‘Oh, it’ll never leak out into the broader society.’ 

Now look where we are. It’s the dominant value in the system. The ideology controls the colleges of education that are responsible. To get teaching certificates, you can’t just walk in and teach K through 12, you need a certificate. It’s all predicated on the core tenants of woke ideology.

Ari Blaff

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