Is Academic Rigor Racist?

The latest casualty of the Left's Academic-Industrial-Complex.

If you’re a parent who is giving consideration to refinancing your home for the sake of sending your child off to a university, you may want to reconsider.

Most parents, doubtless, regard college as nothing more or less than a means to the end of a lucrative profession for their children. Still, even some of these may be of one mind with those parents who expect that, while pursuing their degrees, their children will and should receive a decent education.

Unfortunately, however, the view of Donna Riley, a professor of engineering education at Purdue University, is representative of a growing number of academics from around the country.  In “Rigor/Us: Building Boundaries and Disciplining Diversity with Standards of Merit,” an article featured in the most recent edition of the journal Engineering Studies, Riley writes that rigor—“the aspirational quality academics apply to disciplinary standards of quality”—actually “accomplishes dirty deeds” in the fields of “engineering, engineering education, and engineering education research [.]” 

To repeat: Academic rigor serves dirty deeds.  

These “dirty deeds” are “disciplining, demarcating boundaries, and demonstrating white male heterosexual privilege.”

Riley trades in the Newspeak that we’ve come to expect from contemporary leftist academics.  This lends to her prose an aura of Gnosticism, the semblance of esotericism.  Ultimately, though, Riley’s thesis is hardly original.  In fact, it is but another expression of the dogmatic, Politically Correct status quo of her peers.  It goes something like this:

Traditional academic standards, being the legacy of straight white men, are not unlike any other legacy of straight white men insofar as they “privilege” straight white men.

In other words, academic standards like that of rigor are “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “classist,” and so forth and so on.

Looking carefully at Riley’s “dirty deeds” we see that the act of disciplining and the activity of demarcating boundaries between academic disciplines or areas of specialization are inseparable from one another. The point seems to be that in carving up the intellectual landscape into distinct domains—in building “walls” or “borders,” we might say, between kinds of knowledge—those who are “demarcating” these “boundaries” perpetuate patterns of exclusion

And since it is and has always and only ever been heterosexual white men—or white males, as leftists like Riley denigratingly refer to the members of the one group at whose feet they lay the sole blame for all of the things that they think have ever gone wrong in the universe—that have engaged in these activities, “disciplining” and “demarcating boundaries” benefit them to the exclusion of all others.

Rigor “is used [by heterosexual white men] to maintain disciplinary boundaries,” Riley contends, “with exclusionary implications for marginalized groups and marginalized ways of knowing.”

Continuing, she writes that one purpose served by rigor is to function as “a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero) sexuality,” for the notion of rigor “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness [.]”  The “sexual connotations” of rigor, Riley insists, “and [its] links to masculinity in particular…are undeniable.”

But Riley goes further. “Rigor may be a defining tool, revealing how structural forces of power and privilege operate to exclude men of color and women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, first-generation and low-income students, and non-traditionally aged students.”

Rigor can be used to “reinforce gender, race, and class hierarchies in engineering, and maintain invisibility of queer, disabled, low-income, and other marginalized engineering students.” Ample research, Riley says, substantiates the existence of “a climate of microaggressions and cultures of whiteness and masculinity in engineering.”

Riley is blunt, maintaining that “scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonizing,” and in the field of engineering specifically there is an “inherent masculinist, white, and global North bias” disguised under a mask of “neutrality.”  

Academic rigor “reproduces inequality,” Riley claims.  In a nutshell, Riley’s argument is powered by the leftist’s singular obsession with realizing his or her vision of Equality. 

However, since this conception of an egalitarian paradise is so wildly at odds with anything that has ever appeared in the real word, leftists like Riley tend to perceive virtually anything and everything as impediments to its realization in the here-and-now.  In Riley’s case, it leads her to see something as seemingly innocuous, as apparently universal a benefit as academic rigor as an obstacle to she and her fellow ideologues take to be the greatest of moral goods: Equality.

Alternatively stated, and this is important to grasp, because inequality is grossly unjust for the Rileys of the current academic world, such traditional canons of educational excellence as rigor must be viewed as a grave injustice.

Rigor, Riley submits, must be “relinquished” entirely, relegated to the dustbin of history (or is it _her_story?).  “This is not about reinventing rigor,” but, rather, “doing away with the concept altogether so we can welcome other ways of knowing” and “ways of being.”

These “other ways” are necessary to help us “critique rigor, and to find a place to start to build a community for inclusive and holistic engineering education” (emphasis added).

The Racism-Industrial-Complex (RIC) is a sprawling industry with tentacles reaching into practically every area of our culture.  There is no place that it has impacted to quite the degree that it has impacted academia.  In fact, the emergence and growth of RIC has corresponded to and fueled the emergence and growth of the Academic-Industrial-Complex.  The two intersect and blend with one another.

Parents with college-bound children, particularly (but certainly not only) white parents, should bear this in mind.