The best books on identity politics and political correctness in the university

Keith E. Stanovich Author Of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking
By Keith E. Stanovich

Who am I?

I’m an emeritus professor living in Portland, Oregon, officially retired, but still writing articles and books. Although I am a lifelong US citizen, I spent the heart of my career as the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. Most of my books are about aspects of rationality, especially cognitive biases. I have also worked on tools for measuring individual differences in rationality. Lately, I have focused on ways to reduce political polarization by taming the myside bias that plagues all human thought, and by reforming institutions (especially universities) that are currently failing in their role as knowledge adjudicators. 

I wrote...

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

What is my book about?

Myside bias is the tendency to evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our own beliefs. When studying the cognitive biases that indicate poor thinking, my research group discovered that myside bias was the strangest of all the cognitive biases. Unlike virtually all the other biases, the avoidance of myside bias is not correlated with high intelligence, education, or knowledge. It is just as prevalent among the cognitive elites of society as it is among nonelites.

Faculty in universities don’t recognize their own biases, and this has contributed to declining public trust in university research. It is also a factor in fueling our current ideologically polarized politics. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

Why did I love this book?

Lilla’s goal in this book is to show how identity politics threatens the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party. He argues that the party has thrown citizenship—the “we” in political conversation—out the window in favor of “personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender,” and that this will be electorally disastrous for the Democrats. But Lilla’s arguments show that it is disastrous for our national conversation as well. When we give personal identity weight in an argument (Lilla is superb at eviscerating the shopworn phrase “speaking as an X”) we turn the intellectual clock back to premodern times when arguments were settled by power and force.

By Mark Lilla,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Once and Future Liberal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the most internationally admired political thinkers, a controversial polemic on the failures of identity politics and what comes next for the left — in America and beyond.

Following the shocking results of the US election of 2016, public intellectuals across the globe offered theories and explanations, but few were met with such vitriol, panic, and debate as Mark Lilla’s. The Once and Future Liberal is a passionate plea to liberals to turn from the divisive politics of identity and develop a vision of the future that can persuade all citizens that they share a common destiny.


Book cover of The Assault on American Excellence

Why did I love this book?

Kronman is particularly good at describing the “tough” reasoning skills that underlie the thinking styles that have produced modern science and modern democracies. An example of these tough skills is what he calls the “ethic of depersonalization”: expressing arguments in a form available to all—a form not dependent on our emotions or personal experience. Identity politics, in contrast, gives weight to immutable demographic characteristics in ongoing political conversations.  It thus reverses centuries of progress in the intellectual march toward open, ecumenical inquiry, where personal characteristics do not trump rational argument.

By Anthony T. Kronman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Assault on American Excellence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I want to call it a cry of the heart, but it's more like a cry of the brain, a calm and erudite one." -Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal

The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish egalitarianism gripping college campuses today is a threat to our democracy.

College education is under attack from all sides these days. Most of the handwringing-over free speech, safe zones, trigger warnings, and the babying of students-has focused on the excesses of political correctness. That may be true, but as Anthony Kronman shows, it's not the real problem.

"Necessary, humane,…

Book cover of The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done

Why did I love this book?

Ellis chronicles the history of how the university turned from an institution of open inquiry into a political monoculture that requires those in it to adhere to a particular ideology. Ellis is particularly good at showing how the strengths of the traditional university were turned into weaknesses and allowed it to be captured by the adherents of identity politics. Old-style independent scholars are hard to organize, Ellis points out, because they are just that—independent. But these truly independent scholars were no match for the politically organized groups that wanted to use the university to advance a political agenda.

By John M. Ellis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Breakdown of Higher Education as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A series of near-riots on campuses aimed at silencing guest speakers has exposed the fact that our universities are no longer devoted to the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth. But this hostility to free speech is only a symptom of a deeper problem, writes John Ellis.

Having watched the deterioration of academia up close for the past fifty years, Ellis locates the core of the problem in a change in the composition of the faculty during this time, from mildly left-leaning to almost exclusively leftist. He explains how astonishing historical luck led to the success of a…

Book cover of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

Why did I love this book?

Campbell and Manning are sociologists who trace how a new moral culture of victimhood has given rise to political correctness. The new moral culture combines the properties of the old culture of honor and the old culture of dignity in a uniquely toxic way. The new victimhood culture borrows from honor culture its extreme sensitivity to insult, but borrows from the culture of dignity the tendency to call upon authorities and institutions to resolve disputes, rather than deal with them on a personal level. The victimhood culture is what has spawned the repressive campus environment of micro-aggressions, deplatforming, and bias response teams.

By Bradley Campbell, Jason Manning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rise of Victimhood Culture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Rise of Victimhood Culture offers a framework for understanding recent moral conflicts at U.S. universities, which have bled into society at large. These are not the familiar clashes between liberals and conservatives or the religious and the secular: instead, they are clashes between a new moral culture-victimhood culture-and a more traditional culture of dignity. Even as students increasingly demand trigger warnings and "safe spaces," many young people are quick to police the words and deeds of others, who in turn claim that political correctness has run amok. Interestingly, members of both camps often consider themselves victims of the other.…

Book cover of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Why did I love this book?

Lukianoff and Haidt do us a service by clearly differentiating two types of identity politics.  Common-humanity identity politics emphasizes a universalistic common ground to which we should aspire, but points out that certain groups are being denied rights. In contrast, common-enemy identity politics views society as composed of huge social forces working on large demographic categories.  The forces are power relations making people privileged or oppressed depending upon the conjunction of demographic categories (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) that characterize them.

The power politics of the common-enemy strategy is zero-sum:  it assumes that a gain for designated victim groups necessarily entails losses for oppressor groups. This is in stark contrast to the common-humanity identity politics of Martin Luther King, where we all gain when everyone is granted the full privileges of citizenship.

By Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Coddling of the American Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller * Finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction * A New York Times Notable Book * Bloomberg Best Book of 2018

"Their distinctive contribution to the higher-education debate is to meet safetyism on its own, psychological turf . . . Lukianoff and Haidt tell us that safetyism undermines the freedom of inquiry and speech that are indispensable to universities." -Jonathan Marks, Commentary

"The remedies the book outlines should be considered on college campuses, among parents of current and future students, and by anyone longing for a more sane society." -Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in identity politics, political correctness, and pop culture?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about identity politics, political correctness, and pop culture.

Identity Politics Explore 6 books about identity politics
Political Correctness Explore 16 books about political correctness
Pop Culture Explore 119 books about pop culture

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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