When ‘heterodoxy’ is orthodoxy (letter)

In a salvo published in the usually even-handed Inside Higher Ed, “Diversity Statements Are the New Faith Statements,” an emergent threat to academic freedom and intellectual honesty emerges. Professor of philosophy at small, highly-localized liberal arts Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, Justin P. McBrayer is also a “writing fellow” at Heterodox Academy (HxA). In this statement, he contradicts reputable philosophers and honest proponents of academic freedom and free speech.

As it brands itself on its website, HxA is neither heterodox nor an academy. It is an orthodoxy struggling to emerge to the right of traditional conservatism. It is the university-based equivalent of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the defender of “free speech” for only those with whom only it agrees. This is not Free Speech as the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the AAUP, the ACLU, or most universities and colleges define it. (I refer readers to HxA’s website and scan its blog posts. They do not read like a scholarly group. They also fudge the size of its membership, a great many of whom are not faculty with whose rights they are avowedly concerned.)

While serving as a “writing fellow” of HxA, according to his personal website, McBrayer is also a dean of liberal arts and an instructor in philosophy, including logic, ethics, and epistemology. His “new book” appears to be his only book. It is not a work of philosophy.

Despite his critical comments on religious institutions’ “statements of faith,” his time at Fort Lewis College is inseparable from personal and professional religious activities including service on the Executive Committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers. The College website lists him as associate dean not dean.

As a “writing fellow,” McBrayer acts as an official representative of HxA, a promoter who violates accepted practices of philosophical method, logical interpretation and analysis, norms of rhetorical practice, uses of evidence, and scholarly honesty. In this, he speaks on behalf of the professed radical and anti-intellectual orthodoxy of HxA.

From the words of his title, McBrayer violates the basic tenets of responsible intellectual life. Not only are the wide variety of different forms of “diversity statements” not a single or simple generalizable unit, but they are not synonymous with “statements of faith.” That assertion can only be advanced by ignoring all reliable evidence, engaging in false equivalencies and illogic, and committing a roster of unacceptable rhetorical tricks. To all intents and purposes, that is McBrayer’s and HxA modus operandi, a redefinition of philosophy: a leap from logic, scientific method, and epistemology, to radical metaphysics and a new old orthodoxy rarely heard in the halls of respectable higher education. It bears no relationship to accepted practices of academic freedom or free speech.

Returning to HxA’s platform for the politics of falsity, one undefined generalization follows another, never with systematic evidence or analysis. Rhetoric ranges from “When I was in graduate school and applying…. My applications fell into two piles….” He falsely distinguishes “religious” from “secular institutions” without defining either or noting their many variations. He then completely erases all distinctions. These are rhetorical games not philosophical arguments.

McBrayer offers four short snippets from job descriptions with only highly selective, very short bits of quotations, two from private and two from public institutions. This does not a foundation for generalization. The evidence and the snippets repeatedly contradict each other. This is not philosophy practiced as acceptable academic conduct.

In the end, McBrayer implies that readers should accept his illogical, undocumented rhetorical “statements of faith” on no more than faith. This only half-nod to systematic data is one reference to an American Enterprise Institute “report on DEI statements.” By itself, that cannot be taken on either faith or as evidence about DEI.

Justin McBrayer, where is your logician’s, methodologist’s, or plain text reader’s lens? “Diversity statements” do not “function like faith statements…. They” do not “function in similar ways and have structurally similar effects.” Not even the AEI “report” makes that argument.

You fill a full page with self-contradictory and-free assertions about “all sorts of claims” with evidence no anecdotal nor more necessary systematic evidence, clear rhetoric of argumentation, and awareness of the fundamental norms of scholarship and academic speech itself.

Or am I misreading you? Are you attempting a poorly executed parody? Drawing on your own rhetoric, may I borrow your “dog whistle” to ask “eminently” the answer to this semi-serious question?

–Harvey J. Graff
Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar
Ohio State University

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