Shouting people down in universities–or just in planning?

One problem with planning, particularly for planning in the academy, concerns its normative basis: the good city, the just city, etc. Recently, a commenter here said:

That describes what a university SHOULD be, but not what I have found most universities to actually be. Anyone that disagrees with the mainstream academic viewpoint is not engaged in discussion, but shouted down. Students aren’t encouraged to explore and come up with new ideas, but to validate the ideas of their professors. Seems like the “debate” (or lack thereof) is not longer intellectual, but political and ideological.

That comment meshes with my experience in the planning academy, but not my experience with social scientists. Social scientists have their own problems and limitations, but planning’s normative basis means that once consensus forms on what is good, deviations from that will be condemned not as misguided or inaccurate, but as evil. I’m not naive enough to believe the social sciences aren’t subjective or that they aren’t subject to ideological influences. But a common theoretical basis, such as that held in economics (however flawed), allows for deep divisions to run alongside a rigorous body of empirical work. That is, unless you’re in macro, where ideologies rule and big names bellow at each other like mammoths across the primordial swamp about how to interpret theoretical models that have a weak empirical basis.

Not unlike macro, the empirical basis for much of what is held dear in planning is so weak that what emerges is a consensus about preference, not a consensus about the best testable theories to explain the workings of human life or society in cities.

Maintaining a normative consensus values cohesion rather debate, and that cohesion is self-reinforcing because of the size of the field. Economics is big enough so that there are multiple dimensions to that discussion, and if you dissent, chances are there are enough people like you to form a posse. In planning if you dissent, you’re “that pro-sprawl, suburb-loving Republican who doesn’t want what’s right for our cities.” Debate means you will get punished. And while you are being subjected to ad hominem arguments in response to your attempts at debate, you will be told that, of course, debate is valued. Not because debate is really valued, but because people like to think of themselves as open-minded and fair even as they are convinced they are right and really want you to shut your pie hole, but amicably, of course. Now you’ve been listened to. cough.

Perhaps that cohesion is very beneficial to planning practitioners. It could be.

However, in the academy, cohesion valued over debate means that innovation and intellectual rigor are valued less than contributions to validating collective preference. In fact, to the degree that innovation leads to dissent, both questioners and innovations are punished.

Valuing cohesion over those other factors kills a field intellectually because cohesion provides few directions for new scholarship. In planning, are there any debates left? I look around and I see the only people left standing are the advocates who, with a few interesting exceptions, spend most of their time shadowboxing with people like Harry Richardson and Peter Gordon who got bored and dropped their (outward) position of dissent in planning 15 years ago in favor of making contributions to the field of regional science.

So JAPA has a much-ballyhooed issue coming up on sprawl and Smart Growth. I’m really excited about it, except for the fact that every issue of JAPA for the last 20 years has had at least one stylized fact paper interpreted as a causal study about some iteration of Smart Growth. What’s left to say? Maybe some iconoclast will get all crazy and tweak form-based codes! Won’t that just set us a-twitter?