Afrochemistry? Identity politics is killing academia

Even the hard sciences are falling to woke ideology.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Identity Politics Science & Tech World

The scandal-hit Claudine Gay may have resigned as president of Harvard University, but American academia’s problems are far from over. Her rise and fall have exposed the rot of identity politics within higher education. At Harvard, woke notions of privilege and oppression have given a green light to anti-Semitism, following Hamas’s pogrom in Israel. Moreover, the politics of diversity has encouraged a kind of tokenism that allowed Gay, an unremarkable academic and (as we now know) prolific plagiariser, to rise to the very top.

But identity politics has not just encouraged bad ethical conduct among the academic leadership. It has also corrupted disciplines and produced bad, politically warped forms of knowledge. Witness the introduction of ‘Afrochemistry’, a new module in Rice University’s undergraduate chemistry degree. Students who choose this module will ‘apply chemical tools and analysis to understand black life in the US’ and ‘implement African-American sensibilities to analyse chemistry’, according to Rice’s website. ‘No prior knowledge of chemistry or African-American studies is required for engagement in this course’, it assures prospective students.

How, precisely, does ‘black life’ affect chemistry – an objective, scientific discipline? And what exactly are these ‘African-American sensibilities’? Do Rice academics believe they have stumbled upon the ‘essence’ of being a black American, as if black Americans are a homogenous cultural bloc? And even so, what does all this have to do with chemistry? This is all hokum, bunkum, superstitious and retrograde. Such mythical thinking might have a place in artistic practice, but not in the study of the hard sciences.

Terms like ‘black life’ and ‘African-American sensibilities’ may have some delimited use within certain disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and politics. But they are not generalisable concepts of knowledge. Furthermore, these buzzwords gesture to a racialised belief system, political discourse and social practice – the sort of things you’d find in DEI policies. They have nothing to do with the pursuit of scientific truth.

We are at risk of undermining the very foundations of academia. The production and improvement of our collective knowledge, along with the testing and verifying of knowledge claims, has been at the heart of modern Western research universities since the Humboldt University of Berlin opened in 1810, inspired by the work of Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Afrochemistry appears to be the pet project of Brooke Johnson, the ‘preceptor’ (whatever that is) in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) department at Rice. Johnson obtained her PhD in chemistry from Princeton, but it seems that the ‘intersection of science and social justice’, as she puts it on her university profile page, is her primary academic passion.

Rice University – based in Houston, Texas – is not an Ivy League institution like Harvard, but it is a prestigious private research university that has a strong reputation for work in the natural sciences. Rice’s James Tour is making significant contributions to the field of nanochemistry and to improving treatments for cancer. I wonder what he makes of his department’s newfound commitment to the field of Afrochemistry.

Of course, not every discipline will have as many applications to the real world as nanochemistry. But chemistry, as with all disciplines, functions under its own internal standards of proof. And surely Afrochemistry doesn’t meet any of them. It would be more at home in the field of religious study, not the natural sciences. Rice’s chemistry department should be thinking long and hard about whether going along with this nonsense is compatible with its institutional ethos of responsibility, integrity, community and excellence.

‘Take a chill pill’, some might say. It’s only one module at one university. But accepting things like Afrochemistry as a legitimate chemistry module risks eroding important epistemological and ethical boundaries that have contributed to our collective progress. Plus, those who think this identitarian disregard for knowledge and academic standards is confined to US universities are in for a rude awakening. This problem clearly afflicts Western academia more broadly.

If intellectual boundaries are not understood, valued and respected, the future does not look bright for our universities.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is director of campaign group Don’t Divide Us.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics Science & Tech World


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