All posts by Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

Angry Students Turn on Another Progressive Prof at Evergreen

Evergreen State College Biology professor Bret Weinstein is surprised. Indignant. Alarmed.

Weinstein is the new Allison Stanger—the progressive Middlebury professor still suffering a concussion from the attack by the masked anti-Charles Murray rioters on March 2. Weinstein is also the new Laura Kipnis, the progressive Northwestern professor hauled up on Title IX charges in 2015 by her university after she published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she criticized the “sexual paranoia” of some of her fellow campus feminists.

Kipnis now faces a “Jane Doe” lawsuit from a former Northwestern student Kipnis called “Nola Hartley” in her book, Unwanted Advances.   Weinstein also has some kinship with Jordan Peterson, the social democratic professor at the University of Toronto who has been mobbed by protesters for his objections to proposed legislation that would require faculty members to use “non-binary pronouns” such as “zhe” and “zir.”

Weinstein, Stanger, Kipnis, and Peterson are all left-of-center faculty members who are—or were—at peace with the progressive agenda whipping through higher education like a wind-driven prairie fire in a drought.  And they all found themselves suddenly on the wrong side of the flames.

Year of the Shout-Down

Judging by his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Weinstein remains puissantly in favor of Evergreen College’s progressive approach to higher education and its octopus embrace of diversity, racial grievance, and victim identity.  He is no backslider from the core doctrines of contemporary academe as advanced by the last generation of leftist ideologues. He just hasn’t kept up. He’s aware of the new positions, which have evolved from the old ones, but he somehow cannot get himself to march to the new music.

The essence of the Weinstein story is that he was perfectly good with Evergreen’s “Day of Absence,” when “students and faculty of color” left campus for a day to remind those left behind how much the community as a whole was enriched by their everyday presence.  But this year Evergreen flipped the theatrics and asked the white students, staff, and faculty to make themselves scarce. Weinstein objected, and then met his classes as usual on the day in question, April 12. Nothing happened.  But someone was keeping track, and on May 23, some fifty students invaded his class, yelling obscenities, calling Weinstein a racist, and demanding that he resign. He now lives under a threat of violence from these students, and Evergreen’s president, George Bridges, has allegedly told the campus police to “stand down.”  Weinstein is left to fend for himself.

That last detail would seem hard to believe except that it so closely matches what has happened on other campuses. Stanley Kurtz has put together a nice compendium of “The Year of the Shout-Down,” and more than a few of the incidents involve college authorities simply deciding not to enforce their institution’s own rules against disruptions.  Middlebury president Laurie Patton “vowed” accountability to the disruptors, but then handed out wrist slaps of a leniency similar to a mandatory application Oil of Olay hand cream.

Patton and the other presidents who stand by and do nothing are not just appeasers of the student mobs; they are diffident admirers. They dare not say outright that the raw authenticity of black students tearing the place up with the connivance of white “allies” gladdens their progressive hearts. They know the alumni wouldn’t like that.  But these presidents will do all in their considerable power to protect their cohort of mischievous social justice warriors.  Those mobs threatening conservative speakers and insufficiently enthusiastic progressive professors are a badge of honor for the college presidents whose greatest fear is that they will be left out of the Great Historical Moment.

White Racism—Is It Relentless?

Perhaps the biggest question for those outside the academy is: What is that Great Historical Moment?  It is probably best grasped as Ferguson, though it could as easily be named Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, or even the Obama Era.  It is the moment defined in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, in which the fading residue of institutionalized racial discrimination is amped up to a belief that white hatred of blacks pervades every aspect of American society, and nothing short of a revolution will end it.

The less actual evidence there is of racial animosity coming from whites, the more important it is to conjure its insidious presence, and the more urgent it is to teach the coming generation of black Americans to ground their lives in victimhood, resentment, and robust resistance to surrounding society.  This apotheosis of resentment, of course, is not limited to blacks.  Any collection of people willing to band together into an identity group based on a history of victimization can do the same thing.  Women, Hispanics, Native Americans, illegal immigrants, and sexual minorities of all sorts can adapt both the logic and the techniques of revolutionary existential despair.  But black Americans define this territory; the others merely emulate.

The Great Historical Moment comes with the realization that this movement must discard all the old forms of civility that governed society in general and the university in particular.  Willingness to listen to arguments on the other side is a sign of weakness.  Toleration of dissent from the views being asserted today only vitiates the solidarity of the movement.  Deference to the individuality of people in all their diversity dilutes the purity of the group’s will to power.

Professor Weinstein is blind to most of this.  He persists in thinking that he is engaged in a defense of liberal or even progressive principles.  In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he sees himself as a critic of President Bridges’ campaign to substitute the principle of “equity” for the formerly reigning shibboleth, “diversity.”  The “equity agenda” at Evergreen ramps up the demand for hiring people on the basis of race rather than ability or accomplishment.  The diversity agenda, of course, did the same thing, but lightly disguised the proceedings with an appeal to the good will of all involved.  “Equity” removed the velvet wrapper from the iron fist.  And Weinstein sees this as finding support among the campus postmodernists.

Here Comes the Equity Agenda

He is not wrong about the postmodern element.  He is speaking of those academics who can no longer credit the idea that there are foundational truths, and who instead see the world is little more than fragments of attention spent on a perpetual struggle for power and privilege.  These folks, holding forth in the humanities, have no basis on which to stand against an organized grievance group.  Unable to oppose it, they either accede to it or adopt it as their own.

Jonathan Haidt has drawn some plausible conclusions from the Weinstein affair, coming on top of other such descents.  Haidt observes that the rules appear to be: (1) “Never object to a diversity policy publicly”; (2) “Do not assume that being politically progressive will protect you”; (3) “If a mob comes for you, there is a good chance that the president of your university will side with the mob and validate its narrative”; and (4) “If a mob comes for you, the great majority of its members will be non-violent, [but] you must assume that one or more of its members is willing to use violence against you.”

Alas, these are sound points.  But they probably do not go quite far enough.  What I have called the Great Historical Moment is a delusion that lives in the heads of a great many faculty members, college presidents, and even some trustees.  It has found fertile ground in the minds of a generation of students who have been marinated for their entire education in progressive ideology and who have but the thinnest comprehension of human nature, civilization, the rule of law, and American history.  They have a rage to destroy, and only utopian fantasies to put in place of what they would tear down.

Like all utopian movements, this one will also fail.  The great Historical Moment is a figment of their collective imagination.  But the failure is bound to be costly, not only to the students themselves but also to the institutions that have fostered it.

Evergreen College was a somewhat silly experiment when it was started in 1967.  It belongs to a small category of “alternative” colleges opened in that era, including Hampshire (1970) and Prescott (1966), which replaced traditional curriculum with a surfeit of progressive novelties. What the Weinstein affair really teaches is that the experiment has run its course.  But it may take a few years for Evergreen to realize that.

Some New and Narrow Versions of Academic Freedom

The right to breathe is not generally understood as the right to choke others.  The right to move freely is not widely understood as the right to slip into your neighbor’s house in the middle of the night unannounced.  The right to listen to Neil Diamond’s greatest hits is not universally interpreted as the right to make other people listen to “Sweet Caroline.”

And yet these days more than a few people have decided that “academic freedom” guarantees your right to silence other people who are attempting to express views you disagree with.

This sounds like a joke, but it has been put forward in earnest by many student protesters in the last few years.  I first heard the “I’m-exercising-my-academic-freedom-to-shut-you-up” rationale in connection with the Black Lives Matter protesters who invaded the Berry-Baker Library at Dartmouth in November 2015.  But it has since become the common currency of lawless protesters, whether at Berkeley, Middlebury, or Claremont-McKenna.

Perhaps the open letter from Pomona College students to President David Oxtoby demanding that he “take action against the Claremont Independent editorial staff for its continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds,” is the perfection of this conceit.  The Pomona students decided that “free speech” has become “a toll appropriated by hegemonic institutions.”

Campus Life Not Like a Baseball Game

Actually, on that last point, they are right.  Colleges and universities are “hegemonic institutions.”  I don’t know if those students understand their own catchphrases, but translated into plain English, this simply means that colleges impose broad control over their community of faculty members and students.  They have rules above and beyond the rules of the surrounding society.  If you go to a baseball game, you are free to boo the other team and scream at the umpire if you think he made a bad call.  On campus—at least in principle—you must listen quietly when someone argues a point you disagree with, and if the moderator in a debate makes what you think is a bad call, your only legitimate option is to explain why you think it is wrong.

Those rules are part of what we mean by “academic freedom.”  Clearly, academic freedom is not the natural way people behave towards each other.  It is an artificial thing, a “social construct,” as we say these days.  And because it is artificial, it only works in special circumstances where people agree to forego their right to boo the other team, shout imprecations at the umpire, or move beyond words to the kind of hard buffets that put professors of political science in the hospital.

Three cheers for institutional hegemony, without which no would have academic freedom.  “Good times never seemed so good,” Sweet Caroline.

But how is it that good old Hegemony U has found itself so incompetent in upholding its most basic rules of the road?   Observers have offered some pretty persuasive answers to why Middlebury President Laurie Patton has been so feckless; why UC Berkley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks displayed the steadfastness of a saloon door; and why Claremont McKenna President Hiram Chodosh has risen to the occasion with the moral dignity of a fidget spinner.

The answers include the continuing descent into postmodern insouciance, where no encompassing principle presides; the swarming animosities of identity politics, which have stung all the beekeepers into submission; and the progressive left’s willingness to kick away the ladder of free speech by which it climbed to dominance, lest anyone else try that ascent.

Up for Grabs for a Century

I have one small addendum to that list of explanations for why our defenders of academic freedom went out to lunch and never came back.  I suspect that some of them got confused by the menu.  “Academic freedom,” an artificial thing, a “social construct,” isn’t amenable to scientific precision.  It isn’t Mars or Jupiter, sitting in the heavens as a definite planet.  It is more like Pluto or one those other trans-Neptunian objects with strange names, such as the dwarf planet Haumea:  detectable but not settled into any plain definition.

Because “academic freedom” isn’t any one, definite thing, it has been up for grabs for over a century.  The grabbing began in 1915, when the newly formed American Association of University Professors offered its “Statement of Principles,” that in twenty-some pages of stately syntax and high-minded declaration laid out a commanding vision of the intellectual rights of America’s university faculty.  The 1915 AAUP statement didn’t settle anything.  For the next 25 years, the AAUP and college presidents went on wrangling, with numerous summits and unsatisfactory attempts to reach

For the next 25 years, the AAUP and college presidents went on wrangling, with numerous summits and unsatisfactory attempts to reach an agreement.  In 1940, they did, at last, reach an agreement of sorts and issued a much shorter and—in many ways—less satisfactory statement.  The 1940 AAUP Statement remains in force at the vast majority of American colleges and universities as their basic position on academic freedom.  But having discovered the fluidity of the idea, the academic world could not stop with just two statements.

There are in fact now many thousands of statements, interpretations, codicils, redactions, and expostulations about academic freedom.  The World Catalog lists nearly 100,000 books on the topic.  “Look at the night and it don’t seem so lonely,” Sweet Caroline.

My colleague David Randall and I have undertaken the task of providing a little bit of order to this chaos.  We have just posted a chart that offers an easy comparison of what we take to be the top ten authoritative treatments of academic freedom.  It gives the reader the opportunity to see at a glance which definitions are rooted in the pursuit of truth, which ones connect tenure, and which ones call for sanctions against violators, and so on through 25 categories.  It is a work in progress if we are still allowed to talk about progress in the post-modern anti-hegemonic hegemony.

I offer this in part as a service to Presidents Paton and Chodosh and Chancellor Dirks. They can now pick the definition that best lends itself to doing nothing while their students riot, or imposing “sanctions” on violators that have the permanence of a Snapchat message.  “Charting Academic Freedom: 102 Years of Debate” may also, however, prove to be of some value to others who have found little clarity in the swirl of conflicting claims about academic freedom.

Explore, and find the most compelling definition and sing in your best imitation of Neil Diamond, “How can I hurt when I’m holding you,” Sweet Caroline.  Well, you can and will, but you will still be better off knowing that some definitions of academic freedom are a lot better than others, at least if you care about creating a civilized place for learning.

Printed with permission from the National Association of Scholars

The Dangerous Rise of ‘The New Civics’

The following are excerpts from a report released January 10 by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) on MAKING CITIZENS: HOW AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES TEACH CIVICS. The full report includes case studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder), Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado and the University of Wyoming.                                                                                   

National Findings: Traditional civic literacy is in deep decay in America. The New Civics, a movement devoted to progressive activism, has taken over civics education. “Service-learning” and “civic engagement” are the most common labels this movement uses, but it also calls itself global civics, deliberative democracy, and intercultural learning. The New Civics movement is national, and it extends far beyond the universities. The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as “progressive activism.” The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as channeling government funds toward progressive nonprofits. The New Civics has worked to divert government funds to progressive causes since its founding in the 1960s.

The New Civics redefines “volunteerism” as labor for progressive organizations and administration of the welfare state. The new measures to require “civic engagement” will make this volunteerism compulsory.  The New Civics replaces traditional liberal arts education with vocational training for community activists. The New Civics shifts authority within the university from the faculty to administrators, especially in offices of civic engagement, diversity, and sustainability, as well as among student affairs professionals. The New Civics also shifts the emphasis of a university education from curricula, drafted by faculty, to “co-curricular activities,” run by non-academic administrators. The New Civics movement aims to take over the entire university. The New Civics advocates want to make “civic engagement” part of every class, every tenure decision, and every extracurricular activity.

By Peter Wood, NAS President

What is most new about the New Civics is that while it claims the name of civics, it is really a form of anti-civics. Civics in the traditional American sense meant learning about how our republic governs itself.

The New Civics has very little to say about most of these matters. It focuses overwhelmingly on turning students into “activists.” Its largest preoccupation is getting students to engage in coordinated social action. Sometimes this involves political protest, but most commonly it involves volunteering for projects that promote progressive causes. Whatever one might think of these activities in their own right, they are a considerable distance away from what Americans used to mean by the word “civics.”

In issuing this report, the National Association of Scholars joins the growing number of critics who believe that some version of traditional civics needs to be restored to American education. This is a non-partisan concern. For America to function as a self-governing republic, Americans must possess a basic understanding of their government. That was one of the original purposes of public education and it has been the lodestar of higher education in our nation from the beginning.

The New Civics has diverted us from this basic obligation.

While many observers have expressed alarm about the disappearance of traditional civics education, very few have noticed that a primary cause of this disappearance has been the rise of the New Civics. This new mode of “civic” training is actively hostile to traditional civics, which it regards as a system of instruction that fosters loyalty to ideas and practices that are fundamentally unjust. The New Civics, claiming the mantle of the “social justice” movement, aims to sweep aside those old ideas and practices and replace them with something better.

Complications: New Civics has appropriated the name of an older subject, but not the content of that subject or its basic orientation to the world. Instead of trying to prepare students for adult participation in the self-governance of the nation, the New Civics tries to prepare students to become social and political activists who are grounded in broad antagonism towards America’s founding principles and its republican ethos.

But a casual observer of New Civics programs might well miss both the activist orientation and the antagonism. That’s for two reasons. First, the New Civics includes a great deal that is superficially wholesome. Second, the advocates of New Civics have adopted a camouflage vocabulary consisting of pleasant-sounding and often traditional terms. Taking these in turn:

Superficial wholesomeness. When New Civics advocates urge college students to volunteer to assist the elderly, to help the poor, to clean up litter, or to assist at pet shelters, the activities themselves really are wholesome. Why call this superficial? The elderly, the poor, the environment, and abandoned pets—to mention only a few of the good objects of student volunteering—truly do benefit from these efforts. The volunteering itself is not necessarily superficial or misguided. But, again, context matters. In the context of New Civics, student volunteering is not just calling on students to exercise their altruistic muscles. It is, rather, a way of drawing students into a system that combines some questionable beliefs with long-term commitments.

These seemingly innocent forms of volunteering, as organized by the patrons of New Civics, are considerably less “voluntary” than they often appear—especially since more and more colleges are turning such “volunteer” work into a graduation requirement. Some students even call them “voluntyranny,” given the heavy hand of the organizers in coercing students to participate. They submerge the individual into a collectivity. They ripen the students for more aggressive forms of community organization. And often they turn the students themselves into fledgling community organizers.

Camouflage vocabulary. The world of New Civics is rife with familiar words used in non-familiar ways. Democracy and civic engagement in New Civic-speak do not mean what they mean in ordinary English.

A Dictionary of Deception. This is exemplified in a catchphrase used by Syracuse University’s civic program: “Citizen isn’t just something you are. Citizen is something you do.” The idea is that students aren’t getting a full education just by reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers, speaking in class, debating with each other, and participating in the social life of the college community. They must also “learn by doing.” Another phrase for this is that students should “apply their academic learning” or “practice” it in the real world. “Active” always means “active in progressive political campaigns.”

The “aware” student is up to date with the progressive party line and knows the current list of oppressions that need to be righted. The “aware” student knows the true meaning of words: “academic freedom,” for example, is really “a hegemonic discourse that perpetuates the structural inequalities of white male power.” “Awareness” requires politically correct purchases and social interactions—reusable water bottles, fair-trade coffee, a diffident approach to pronouns—but it does not require active participation in a campaign of political advocacy.

Civic Learning: “Civic learning” is learning how to be properly civically engaged; civic learning, in other words, teaches students the content of progressives’ political beliefs, how to propagandize for them, and the means by which to enforce them on other people via the administrative state. New Civics advocates are trying to make progressive propaganda required for college students by calling “civic learning” an “essential learning outcome.” Civic learning is supposed to become “pervasive”—inescapable political education.

Loyalty to and Enthusiastic Participation In A Social Justice Cause: “Commitment” is an enthusiastic form of being “active.” It signals a student’s readiness to make a career as a progressive advocate in a “community organization,” university administration, or the government. It also signals to progressives entrusted to hire new personnel that a student is a trustworthy employee.

Tactics to Increase the Power of the Radical Left, Following the Strictures of Saul Alinsky: “Community organization” as a process refers to the Machiavellian tactics used by radical Saul Alinsky to forward radical leftist goals. New Civics advocates use community organization tactics against the university itself, as they try to seize control of its administration and budget; they also train students to act as community organizers in the outside world. “Community organization” as a noun refers to a group founded by Alinskyite progressives, with Alinskyite aims. Community organization signifies the most intelligent and dangerous component of the progressive coalition.

Consensus, a Loudly Shouted Progressive Opinion, Verified by Denying Disbelievers the Chance to Speak: Consensus means that everyone agrees. Progressives achieve the illusion of consensus by shouting their opinions, asserting that anyone who disagrees with them is evil, and preventing opponents from speaking—sometimes by denying them administrative permission to speak on a campus, sometimes literally by shouting them down

Critique, Dismantling Belief in the Traditions of Western Civilization and American Culture: To be critical, or to engage in critique, is to attack an established belief on the grounds that it is self-evidently a hypocritical prejudice established by the powerful to reinforce their rule, and believed by poor dupes clinging to their false consciousness. “Critical thought” sees through the deceptive appearance of freedom, justice, and happiness in American life and reveals the underlying structures of oppression—sexism, racism, class dominance, and so on. “Critique” works to dismantle these oppressive structures. “Critical thought” and “critique” is also meant to reinforce the ruling progressive prejudices of the universities; it is never to take these prejudices as their object.

Deliberative Democracy, Thoughtful, Rational Discussion of Political Issues That Ends Up With Progressive Conclusions: Deliberative democracy is a concept that political theorists have drawn from Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. While formally about the procedures of democratic decision-making, it aligns with the idea of a transcendental, quasi-Marxist Truth, toward which rational decision-making inevitably leads. New Civics advocates in Rhetoric/Communications and Political Science departments frequently use “deliberative democracy” classes and centers as a way to forward progressive goals.

Progressive Policies Achieved by Arbitrary Rule And/Or The Threat Of Violence: New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.” They also use “democratic” to mean “disassembling all forms of law and procedure, whether in government, the university administration, or the classroom.” A democratic political decision overrides the law to achieve a progressive political goal; a democratic student rally intimidates a university administration into providing more money for a campus New Civics organization; a democratic class replaces a professor’s informed discussion with a student’s incoherent exposition of his unfounded opinion. A democracy in power issues arbitrary edicts to enforce progressive dogma and calls it freedom.

Lectures by Progressive Activists, Intended to Harangue Dissidents Into Silence: In “dialogue,” or “conversation,” students are supposed to listen carefully to a grievance speaker, usually a professional activist, and if possible echo what the speaker has to say. The dialogue is never between individuals, but between representatives of a race, a religion, a nationality, and so on. The structure of dialogue thus dehumanizes all participants by making them nothing more than mouthpieces for a group “identity.”

Diversity, Propaganda and Hiring Quotas in Favor of the Progressive Grievance Coalition: The Supreme Court used “diversity” as a rationale for sustaining the legality of quotas for racial minorities in higher education admissions, first in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and then in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.”

Disaffection from American Citizenship in Favor of a Notional Membership in a Non-Existent Global State: “Global citizenship” is a way to combine civic engagement, study abroad, and disaffection from primary loyalty to and love of America. A global citizen favors progressive policies at home and abroad and is in favor of constraining the exercise of American power in the interest of American citizens. A global citizen is a contradiction in terms since he is loyal to a hypothetical abstraction, and not to an actual cives—a particular state with a particular history. A global citizen seeks to impose rule by an international bureaucratic elite upon the American government, and the beliefs of an international alliance of progressive nongovernmental organization upon the American people.

Putatively Non-Hierarchical Progressive Community Organizations: The “grassroots” have democratic authenticity—they’re not professional politicians claiming to speak for the people, and they aren’t made to conform to any sort of hierarchical authority. Real grassroots— citizens coming together to lobby legislators—is intrinsic to the American political system, but when progressives claim to speak for the grassroots, and they mean a drive funded by George Soros and organized by paid activists.  These activists declare that “consensus” has been reached by “the people” outside the formal structures of representative democracy. Since “consensus” is achieved by shouting down moderates, compromisers, and gentle souls, genuine progressive grassroots organizations make unaccountable ideological fanaticism the source of decision-making. See Black Lives Matter.

Interdependence: “Interdependence” universalizes the language of needs and rights, and therefore justifies the expansion of the progressive state to extend to every aspect of life.

The Idea That Every Component of the Progressive Left Must Support All Other Components of the Progressive Left: “Intersectionality” is a way to align progressives’ competing narratives of oppression and victimhood by making every purported victim of oppression support every other purported victim of oppression.

Pervasiveness, Making New Civics Inescapable at the University: The New Civics seeks to insert progressive advocacy into every aspect of higher education, inside and outside the college. A Crucible Moment summons higher education institutions to make civic learning “pervasive” rather than “peripheral.” “Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class. It also justifies the insertion of progressive advocacy into every class, as well as making progressive activism a hiring and tenure requirement for faculty and staff.

“Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class.

Service-Learning, Free Student Labor for Progressive Organizations: “Service-learning” was invented in the 1960s by radicals as a way to use university resources to forward radical political goals. It aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists. It draws on educational theories from John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Mao’s China. Since the 1980s, “service-learning” has used the name “civic engagement” to provide a “civic” rationale for progressive political advocacy. Civic engagement, global learning, and so on, all are forms of service-learning.

Social Justice, Progressive Policies Justified by the Putative Sufferings of Designated Victim Groups: Social justice aims to redress putative wrongs suffered by designated victim groups. Unlike real justice, which seeks to deliver individuals the rights guaranteed to them by written law or established custom, social justice aims to provide arbitrary goods to collectivities of people defined by equally arbitrary identities. Social justice uses the language of law and justice to justify state redistribution of jobs and property to whomever progressives think deserve them

Service-learning aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists.

“Reciprocal” is a sign that progressive organizations have seized control of university funds.

21st Century Skills, Digital Media Skills Used to Forward the Progressive Agenda: The ability to use social media and graphic design for progressive propaganda and organization. The emphasis on “skills” generally argues that universities don’t need to teach any body of knowledge; the particular emphasis on “twenty-first-century skills” further argues that universities don’t need to teach anything discovered before the year 2000. Recent college graduates use “twenty-first-century skills” as an argument that they should be employed despite knowing nothing and having no work experience.

These definitions we have sketched voice our distrust of the New Civics movement. Its declarations about its aims and its avowals about its methods can seldom be taken at face value. This isn’t a minor point. Civics in a well-governed republic has to be grounded on clear speaking and transparency. A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

We began this study in the hope of finding out how far the New Civics had succeeded in becoming part of American colleges and universities. We came to a mixed answer. New Civics is present to some degree at almost all colleges and universities, but it is much more fully developed and institutionalized at some than it is at others. In our study, the University of Colorado at Boulder stands as our example of a university where New Civics has become dominant. But even at universities where New Civics has not attained such prominence, it is a force to be reckoned with.

A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

The word “civics” suggests that students will learn about the structures and functions of government in a classroom. Some do, but a major finding of our study is that there has been a shift of gravity within universities. New Civics finds its most congenial campus home in the offices devoted to student activities, such as the dean or vice president for students, the office of residence life, and the centers for service-learning. Nearly every campus also has some faculty advocates for New Civics, but the movement did not grow out of the interests and wishes of mainstream faculty members. A partial exception to this is schools of education, where many faculty members are fond of New Civics conceits.

The positioning of New Civics in student services has a variety of implications.

First, it means the initiative is directly under the control of central administration, which can appoint staff and allocate budget without worrying about faculty opinion or “shared governance.” Programs like this can become signature initiatives for college presidents, and few within the university, including boards of trustees, have any independent basis to examine whatever claims a college president makes on behalf of New Civics programs. In a word, such programs are unaccountable.

Second, the positioning of New Civics as parallel to the college’s actual curriculum frees advocates to make extravagant claims about its contributions to students’ general education. New Civics is full of hyperbole about what it accomplishes, and even so, it vaunts itself as deserving an even larger role in “transforming” students. Its goal is to be everywhere, in all the classes, and in that sense to subordinate the teaching faculty to the staff who run the student services programs.

Third, the New Civics placement in student services tends to blur the line between academic and extra-curricular. New Civics advocates may hold adjunct appointments on the faculty. Frequently they push for academic credit for various forms of student volunteering. In general, they treat the extra-curricular as “co-curricular,” which is rhetorical inflation.

New Civics is about seizing power in society, and the place nearest at hand is the university itself. New Civics mandarins are ambitious, and what starts in student services doesn’t stay there.

Let’s Rein in the Lawless Office for Civil Rights

John Fund, writing in the National Review last week, drew attention to the vote in Congress last year to increase by seven percent the $100 million budget of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education. Fund is especially critical of the Republican Congressmen whose vote seemed to reflect bizarre indifference to OCR’s role in creating a destructive regime of progressive ideology. Lacking statutory authority for many of its actions, OCR resorted to extras-procedural maneuvers such as “Dear Colleague” letters that superficially offer only “advice,” but are in reality backed by a hard threat of withdrawing federal funding from schools and colleges that do not obey.

OCR is notorious for its decisions in the last few years to lower the standard of evidence needed to convict individuals accused of sexual assault; to expand dramatically the definition of sexual harassment; to eviscerate due process for the accused; to transfer to Title IX coordinators vast new powers; to collapse the functions of investigator, counselor to both complainant and accused, judge, jury, and enforcer into a single extra-legal office; and to invent the new category of transgendered rights in a novel extension of Title IX of the Higher Education Act.

The National Association of Scholars has repeatedly called for OCR to desist from this crypto-regulatory assault, or, failing such a change in course on the part of OCR, we have called for Congress and presidential candidates to take the lead by announcing their intention to rein in or even abolish the rogue agency. Our statements include “How the Next President Can Fix Higher Education,” “The Office for Civil Rights Overreaches on Transgender Mandate,” and “The Feds Make a Mess of Sex and Gender.”

We join John Fund in deploring the decision of Congress to reward OCR’s egregious behavior with even more funding. Last year’s seven percent increase is not the end of the story. Fund cites Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) as one of 22 senators who proposed in May 2016 increasing OCR’s budget by 28 percent. That idea collapsed when OCR invented out of thin air its new “Dear Colleague” standard for transgendered bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers, but even after that Republican senators have supported a three percent increase in OCR’s budget.

Congress operates in mysterious ways. We might charitably guess that conservative legislators have struck some deal with their progressive colleagues to the effect that the spigot for OCR will continue to flow provided some project favored by conservatives is also funded. NAS is not close enough to the corridors of power to form a close guess as to why leaders elected to protect individual rights and liberties and the rule of law would be willing to cast crucial votes in favor of a lawless regime of identity-group authoritarianism.

NAS has an additional interest in these developments. As Fund points out, Gail Heriot along with Peter Kirsanow wrote a long letter to the chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, Thad Cochran and Hal Rogers. The letter drew attention to OCR’s misbehavior and called on Congress not to increase OCR’s budget. Heriot and Kirsanow serve on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and Heriot is also a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars.

Not only did the appropriation committees fail to heed the Heriot-Kirsanow counsel, but the Senate took the gratuitous step of adding to its budget report a small measure slapping them down by directing them not to send any more letters on U.S. Civil Rights Commission letterhead.

We at the National Association of Scholars deeply regret the decisions by Congress to enable the continuing mischief by OCR. There have been numerous expressions of outrage by members of the public and by institutions at OCR’s power grabs and poor judgment. We believe that outrage is warranted and that members of both parties in Congress should act to curtail OCR’s self-granted license to issue rules that lack any legitimate basis in law. We also deplore the Senate’s treatment of Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow who, more than any other Civil Rights Commissioners, have paid fair-minded attention to a new swarm of abuses stemming from OCR’s aggressive political agenda.  Their rights should be restored in the next legislative action on these matters—which we hope will also include a substantial decrease in funding for OCR.

Reprinted from the National Association of Scholars

AAUP Meeting Unanimously Backs Melissa Click—But Why?

Since its founding by progressive academics 101 years ago, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has had little affection for the governing authorities of colleges and universities.  Of course, when college presidents, trustees, and boards of regents bow in submission to its edicts, the AAUP will spare a few words of non-condemnation for the penitents.  But for the most part, the AAUP pursues its vision of higher education as best governed by the collective will of the faculty, by which it means the progressive faculty.

Related: AAUP Takes a Sharp Left Turn

The deep roots of this hostility to non-faculty governance are nicely documented in Hans-Joerg Tiede’s recent book, University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors.  Tiede is an AAUP man through and through, and sees nothing amiss in the organization’s long war for faculty domination of colleges and universities.  That war grew out of an earlier time when the non-faculty governing authorities had nearly unbridled control of their institutions, and faculty members served pretty much at the whim of plutocrats, clergy members, or other figures whose commitment to open intellectual inquiry was often dubious.

As Tiede puts it, “Since the beginning of higher education in the United States, institutional governance has ultimately been based on the lay governing board, which in a strictly legal sense, is the university.”

That “strictly legal sense” hasn’t changed despite 101 years of organized pushback by the AAUP and other bodies that aimed to transfer effective power to faculty members.  In Tiede’s account, this battle to overcome “the wanton power that presidents and trustees possessed” faltered early on.  The founders of the AAUP in this Game of Thrones hoped to secure all the power for the faculty, but a decisive early intervention by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching resulted in college presidents grabbing the scepter from the trustees. Faculty were left with the flyswatter of complaints about academic freedom, job security, and professionalization.

That’s a pretty fair summary of where things have stood for the last century:  strong college presidents dominate the boards of trustees and regents who, on paper—but often only on paper—hold the power to govern their institutions.  Faculty members have in some cases unionized to present a counterforce to the dominant presidents, but even where they are not unionized, faculty members typically range themselves as an independent third voice under the doctrine of “shared governance.”  This doctrine is often given a semblance of authority though formal agreements, but those agreements have also, time and again, proven to be a weak bulwark against college and university administrations.

The AAUP bellyaches about this, but the weakness of the faculty isn’t just an AAUP talking point.  Other observers have said much the same thing.  In The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011) Benjamin Ginsberg inveighed against what he saw as a “surrender” by the faculty to “rampant administrative blight.” Ginsberg, a highly regarded professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, didn’t seem to view the AAUP as a very effective antidote to this blight.  He cited a 2009 AAUP conference on academic freedom and shared governance as the equivalent of a Geneva Convention in which the participants hoped the treaty would protect them from “water boarding.”  These days the AAUP is investing a lot of effort into organizing adjunct faculty members, hoping against hope to stem the further dilution of faculty power.

Then there is Melissa Click: the unavoidable Melissa Click.

The AAUP membership at its recent annual meeting in Washington DC, voted unanimously to “censure” the University of Missouri at Columbia for—what else?—the decision by its Board of Curators to fire Melissa Click.

The story of Click’s outrageous behavior wasn’t lost on the participants.  He call for “some muscle over here” to eject student photojournalist, Tim Tai, from a November 9 Black Lives Matter protest, and her screaming profanities at police officers trying to clear protesters from a public street at a homecoming parade, gave plenty of evidence that she had overstepped her authority as a faculty member. That Click was a hard-core ideologue who had nothing of value to teach Mizzou students didn’t enter into the University’s rationale for firing her, though it ought to raise serious questions about “university governance” that she was ever hired in the first place.   Click’s scholarship and teaching involves studies of Lady Gaga and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Knowing all this, the AAUP members (I repeat) unanimously voted to censure the University of Missouri on the grounds that the university had denied Click “academic due process.”  Specifically, the AAUP believes that Click should have had the benefit of a faculty hearing, and a year’s salary or a year’s notice.

Related: The AAUP’s Ludicrous Declaration

Let me allow that Mizzou’s Board of Curators might have made some technical mistakes in its firing. One would have to go deep within the wreckage of Mizzou’s governance to see what foolish agreements were signed, what abridgements of governing authority were authorized, and what reckless precedents had been created before one could say with any confidence that the Mizzou Board of Curators acted in a way that didn’t expose them to AAUP’s patented petulance.

But let’s keep in mind that the AAUP’s membership has shown no such urgency in many other situations in which “due process” is in jeopardy.  At the same meeting in which the censure of Mizzou passed, the AAUP officially adopted its report, The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, which I previously reviewed.  This document faults the Office for Civil Rights as well as many colleges and universities for imperiling “due process rights and shared governance.”  The peril in the case of OCR’s systematic attack on the presumption of innocence, evidentiary standards, sloppy definitions, and more is many orders of magnitude greater than any inkblots left on Mizzou’s dishonorable discharge of Melissa Click.

But the AAUP has yet to find anyone to censure over abuses of Title IX.

Trustees ‘Come from Different Worlds’

So why the urgency on Click?  The Chronicle of Higher Education answers by quoting Howard J. Bunsis, chairman of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress.  Bunsis explains. “The attacks are not going to stop.”  It seems boards of trustees “come from different worlds than we do.”

Bunsis means that as a bad thing.  Imagine: Members of boards of trustees come from a world where college professors are expected to uphold freedom of thought and freedom of expression; where faculty members express some modicum of respect for the rule of law and police officers who are doing their jobs; where persuasion is valued over force; where civility is integral to the exchange of ideas.  Perhaps they even come from a world where people possess actual competence in the fields in which they are employed; where “activism” cannot be substituted for scholarship; and where people gain employment in higher education to teach students worthwhile subjects.  But if that were the case, it might well be that Bunsis’ worries are well placed.  Melissa Click is unlikely to be the only Mizzou faculty member hired to engage trivial research and feckless teaching.  As The Federalist headlined the story of her firing, “Melissa Click: One Bad Professor Fired, Thousands to Go.”

So in that sense, the AAUP vote makes perfect sense.  But it also reveals the AAUP as a body acting in the spirit of trade unionism to protect its members no matter how incompetent or reprehensible.

The AAUP was in a censorious mood at its convention.  It aimed its peashooter not only at Mizzou, but also at the Iowa Board of Regents and the College of Saint Rose in New York, and it leveled a “sanction” against Union County College in New Jersey.  The Board of Regents at the University of Iowa hired a new president without adequately involving the faculty.  Saint Rose, faced with financial exigencies, laid off 23 professors.  Union County College likewise failed to consult faculty members on various matters.

Lapdogs of College Presidents

Let’s remind ourselves of Professor Tiede’s observation:  “the lay governing board…in a strictly legal sense is the university.”  The governing boards of the great majority of our colleges and universities have for a long time acted as lapdogs of college presidents.  Every once in a while a board rouses itself form its usual torpor and attempts to exercise some portion of its legal rights.  These steps may be awkward because college and university governing boards are used to the supine position and walking is, at first, a novel experience.  But we should encourage the exercise.  If they at first knock over a lamp or break a vase, it is a small price to be paid for the prospect that, with a little practice, they will begin to walk upright and hit a steady stride.

I know a good many individual trustees who are ready and able to do this, but they are conjoined to boards that have been padded out with friends of the college president, sports boosters, and sentimentalists who have no real idea of what happens in the classrooms of the institutions they are supposed to oversee.  When these independent trustees show some sign of wanting to exercise their authority, bad things happen. In 2008, at Dartmouth, the president successfully launched a board-packing plan, akin to FDR’s court-packing plan.

When the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors in 2012 tried to dismiss its egregious president Teresa Sullivan, she successfully mounted a campaign to be reinstated.  Sullivan went on to preside over (and foster) the campus hysteria that followed Rolling Stone’s confabulated account of a rape at a campus fraternity.  In 2014, when Regent Wallace Hall at the University of Texas at Austin started asking hard questions about the operations of the university, he was brought up on charges by the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations for “misconduct, incompetency in the performance of official duties, or behavior unbefitting” a holder of state office.

A Resurgence of Trustees? Not Really

So challenge a college president’s domination of “governance” is plainly no easy task.  The law almost always invests authority in the trustees, but the power is firmly in the hands of the president.  Stories about the resurgence of trustee authority need to be taken with a grain of salt.  But exceptional events can change that. The catastrophic meltdown of administrative authority at Mizzou was one such instance in which the board was, in effect, forced to step in and exercise its genuine authority.  When boards do that, they ought to expect that the AAUP and faculty activists will be incensed.  And then they should do it some more.

I say this not because I have such high confidence in our current boards of college trustees, but because I have such low confidence in our current college presidents and college faculties.  The presidencies are held in overwhelmingly numbers by careerists who are deeply indebted to the campus grievance marshals and the dynamics of identity-group politics.  The faculties are dominated by progressive activists who have intimidated their colleagues into silence. Fear of being labeled a racist, sexist, homophobe, or a conservative keeps nearly everyone in line.  The result of all this is that “shared governance” has become a code word for the hard left’s dominion in American higher education.  A 101 years ago, the problem may have been “the wanton power” of presidents and trustees.  Today it is the wanton power of the faculty activists.

The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

The great threat to academic freedom today arises not from plutocrats determined to weed from the campus garden any sprouts of pro-unionism; nor from censorious divines on the hunt for misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount; nor yet from defenders of the flag who suspect disloyal thoughts among the cosmopolitan professoriate.  Those were demons of another age.  Perhaps in honor of the great liberal scholar who dedicated much of his life to fighting those demons, we can call it the Age of Hofstadter.  Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published Academic Freedom in the Age of the College in 1955—a masterly work on the sectarian squabbles that bedeviled American colleges through the 19th century.

Related: The slippery Use of Social Justice

Hofstadter famously championed progressive causes and idealized university education right up until the point in spring 1968 when student thugs occupied and trashed the president’s office at Columbia and made a point of defecating on his desk.  In Hofstadter’s 1968 Columbia commencement address he enunciated once again his vision of the university as “committed to certain basic values of freedom, rationality, inquiry, [and] discussion.”  He insisted that the university is “a citadel of intellectual individualism” and stands for “the most benign side of our society.”

Professor Hofstadter, meet Melissa Click.

The Age of Hofstadter has clearly passed. What we have now is the age of cry bullies, trigger warnings, safe spaces, Black Lives Matter, dis-invitations, and all the other cogs and gears that make up the tyrannical machinery of “social justice” on campus.  Professor Melissa Click’s call last year at a University of Missouri Black Lives Matter protest for “some muscle” to eject a student reporter from the event was no worse than some of the other things that radicalized professors and students did on campuses across the country, but it was caught perfectly on video and can stand as metonym for the moment.  The Age of Click.

Related: Liberals Who Drifted Toward the New Illiberalism

In the Age of Click, academic freedom is mainly at risk from academicians.  This is hardly news.  It has been amply documented at Minding the Campus.  But how do we explain how Hofstadter’s beloved university, founded on freedom and rationality and “a citadel of intellectual individualism,” flipped into a bastion of proud ignorance and our society’s greatest engine of aggressive intolerance?  What caused our most “benign institution” to become its opposite?

British education writer Joanna Williams is the latest to attempt an explanation.

Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, joins a handful of others, including Kim Holmes’ The Closing of the Liberal Mind (2016), Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (2015), and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012), as an autopsy of the old liberal university. It’s an indictment of the new progressive campus and a call for some kind of resurrection.  Holmes, Walsh, and Haidt are American observers.

Williams, the Education Editor of the UK journal Spiked, brings an off-shore perspective to a shared problem.  This difference alone makes her book of serious interest to American readers, who will be struck by the divergent forms of protest and controversy surrounding what look like the same set of underlying principles.  What does the debate on academic freedom look like in a social order that has no equivalent of America’s First Amendment?

Williams commences where no American writer would: with legislation pushed by the government to “prevent students from being ‘radicalized’ into joining extremist groups.” The UK “Prevent” strategy has no exact equivalent in the U.S., although the Patriot Act opened up some minor pathways to government monitoring of American colleges and universities.  Does anyone recall the hubbub among librarians in 2006 when the reauthorization of the Patriot Act allowed that the federal government might want to know which books potential terrorists were borrowing? They went into a frenzy about something far more mild than what had become standard practice in Britannia.  In any case, American campuses have not become significant conduits of recruitment for Muslim terrorists.  Thus, the basic framing of the debate over academic freedom in the U.K. and the U.S. differs.

Inappropriate Sighing

But in other respects, our countries act in parallel ways, even down to the level of bureaucrats magnifying petty sleights to take down people they disagree with.  We learn, for example, of Warwick University English professor Thomas Docherty, famous for criticizing British higher education policy, who was suspended from his position for nine months.  The official reason for his punishment, of course, was not the substance of his criticisms.  Rather, he was “insubordinate” as evidenced by his use of sarcasm and “inappropriate sighing in job interviews.”

“Inappropriate sighing” seems like something from a Monty Python skit, but there must be a cultural equivalent somewhere in America.  One possibility:  Marquette University professor John McAdams.  He faces an effort by his institution to strip him of tenure because he published the name of a graduate student who had peremptorily refused to let a student in her ethics class bring up his criticisms of gay marriage.  As in England, the pretext is process, but the real cause is dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

British activists took the lead in developing the practice of “no-platforming.”  We know that practice mainly in the form of dis-invitations, based on the idea that proponents of certain views should be prevented from speaking on campus.  Williams cites feminist “critical” lawyers as among the pioneers of this stratagem.  A group of such lawyers at the University of Kent, for example, published in 2013 a petition calling on the London School of Economics to no-platform two writers, Helen Reece and Barbara Hewson, who had expressed doubts about the prevalence of “rape myths.”  Reece and Hewson had been invited by LSE to be part of a public “debate.”  Excluding people from a debate because you disagree with their views is an odd conceit, but odder still is that the practice has rapidly gained credibility on both sides of the Atlantic as morally valid.

Justice Only for the Left

Williams holds that academic freedom lies at “the heart of the university” and is “integral to the collective enterprise to critique and advance knowledge.”  She is, in other words, a time traveler from the Age of Hofstadter. Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity sets out to dismantle the now pervasive left-wing conceit that academic freedom is “an elitist principle” that deserves either to be re-defined in the name of “justice” as a right to be reserved exclusively to the left itself, or banished altogether.  Williams counters these political claims with the argument that “knowledge should be evaluated solely on the basis of intellectual merit.” In this light, censorship of controversial ideas is never justified.

Williams is not engaged in an idealization of the academic past.  For her, there was no “Golden Age,” but she is alert to the particular dangers right now.  In a chapter on “Conformity in the Academy,” she takes up the implications of treating students as consumers to be “flattered and appeased rather than challenged.”  This is surely a key element in the emergence of “snowflake” students, who demand that the university cater to their psychological fragility.  Williams also nails the sorry feedback loop between self-censorship by scholars and the peer-review system that rewards those who “merely confirm that which has gone before.”  The chapter is of particular value, however, in Williams’ lucid account of what happens when “knowledge” is severed from the pursuit of truth.

The effort to make knowledge into a construct of its own apart from whether it is true is not just a giddy conceit of the post-modernists.  It is also the stock-in-trade of supposedly practical people interested in data, information, skills, and “human capital.”  Utilitarianism has limited interest in what is true; what matters is whether something works. As Williams notes, this blurs knowledge with skill to the disadvantage of knowledge.  Knowledge is reduced to instrumental knowledge.  The post-modern left, the social justice crowd, and the utilitarian right find common ground in pushing the pursuit of truth to the margins.  The result is a university where “many academics feel more comfortable concerning themselves with nurturing students’ employability skills or personal values,” than they do in helping students come to a true knowledge of the subjects they study.

The Trap of Global Citizenship

Williams’ strictures on this provide a new way to look at higher education’s strange new emphasis on the imaginary category of “global citizenship.”  As she points out, the term doesn’t stand for “any particular knowledge about the world,” but rather “changes in students’ attitudes” mostly in the form of rejection of “national identity.” Global citizenship “connects private feeling and qualities such as care, empathy and awareness, with the global issues of the day.”  It thus “places whole areas of knowledge beyond debate.”  The “homogeneity of political views” on campus is thus driven as much by efforts to manipulate the psychological vulnerabilities of students as it is by the effort of faculty members to steer away from the hard task of attempting to sort truth from opinion.

Williams herself doesn’t flinch in that effort.  Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity is a short (198 page) book written in lively English and rich with examples, but it is thick with thought-provoking arguments on exactly how the “benign institution” of the university somersaulted to the frequently malign institution we have today.  She finds some of impetus in what happened in the academic disciplines, and more of it in the pernicious influence of academic feminism.  These are compellingly presented, but American readers will note that Williams has next to nothing to say about “diversity,” race, and multiculturalism as the anvils on which academic freedom in our universities has frequently been crushed.

 

The absence of these topics from a book about enforced conformity on campus is arresting, and serves perhaps as testimony to the “exceptional” character of America’s descent into leftist intolerance.  Our campuses share with Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world an invasive new hatred of intellectual freedom.  But we have added to it our own homebrew of racial grievance and identity politics.  Britain certainly has experienced the woeful side of multiculturalism as well, but Williams treats it as secondary thread.  For us, in the Age of Click, it is primary.

Britain’s example shows that the intolerance endangering academic freedom is not tied to a particular grievance, but has become a force in its own right.

Liberals Who Drifted Toward the New Illiberalism

Liberal. Progressive.  Liberal progressive.  Progressive liberal.  Radical.  Social democrat.  Democratic socialist.  Occupiers.  Social justice warriors.

What do we call today’s leaders of the political left?  Where do they stand in the eye of history?  Answering these questions resembles sometimes trying to grab an eel with your bare hand.  Most likely it will slip away, but it may bite as well.

Related: The Strange World of Social Justice Warriors

Kim Holmes, a historian who served as assistant secretary Closing of Liberal Mindof state under Colin Powell, has undertaken an ungloved eel-hunt in The Closing of the Liberal Mind (Encounter, 2016).  It is not an entirely thankless task in that there are those of us who will thank him.  (Thank you, Dr. Holmes.)  But a book such as this will win no friends in places such as The New York Times or The Chronicle of Higher Education, which are among those who insist that today’s leftist priorities are the plain extension of the same principles that animated the leftist priorities of past generations of liberal activists.  Holmes opposes that narrative.

Holmes’ thesis is that “progressive liberals” are not “really liberals,” but are “postmodern leftists.”  The eel is touched.  What, in turn, is a “postmodern leftist”?  The postmodern part, says Holmes, is the belief that “ethics are completely and utterly relative” and human knowledge is whatever people say it is.  (Truth, fantasy, error, and lies flow together in the endless stream of consciousness.)  The “leftist” half of “postmodern leftist,” in Holmes’ unpacking, is “radical egalitarianism” along with “sexual and identity politics and radical multiculturalism.”

Related: The Power of Buzzwords like ‘Dispositions’ and ‘Social Justice’

This is certainly a serviceable definition.  One could—and Holmes does from time to time—annex other pieces of the left’s core agenda.  Let’s not forget sustainability and radical environmentalism, or the apocalyptic element in the left’s agenda; or transnationalism (turning us all into “citizens of the world”); or radical feminism’s war on marriage and the family; or the numerous importations from Marxism.  How much of the “postmodern leftism” is the legacy of Barack Obama, and how much was Barack Obama just the cork floating on the wave of postmodern leftism?  Holmes starts with the easier clarification that the two go together.  Postmodern leftism is “the predominant worldview of Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.”  That seems to me an objective truth of the sort postmodern eels squirm away from.  Holmes sets himself the task of holding on tight.

Two Closings: Bloom and Holmes

The Closing of the Liberal Mind echoes Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but while Bloom put his primary emphasis on the university as the door-closer, Holmes sees a whole army of door-slammers at work as much in the media and politics as on campus.  But as this is Minding the Campus, I will attend to just the academic portion of his argument.

Holmes’ point of departure is the 18th century Enlightenment, which he divides into the “moderate” Enlightenment (Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, the American Revolution) and the “radical” Enlightenment (Spinoza, Bayle, Diderot, Rousseau, the Reign of Terror, socialism, communism, and postmodern ideas of egalitarianism.)  This is an important distinction that is familiar to readers of intellectual history but Holmes presents it lucidly for readers who aren’t.  The line from Spinoza’s 17th century materialism to today’s academic ascendency of leftist utopians passes through the New Left of the 1960s.

A large part of the story Holmes tells is how the New Left revived the radical egalitarianism of the radical Enlightenment and gave it a new home on the college campus, where it shortly found its postmodernist component in the likes of French theorists such as Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  It also found its anti-liberal lodestars in Frankfurt School Marxists such as Marcuse and Adorno.  The cast of relevant characters is large, but Holmes is excellent in pinning them to their places in the story of how old-style American liberalism, with its emphasis on liberty and individual rights, transformed to the new-style postmodern leftism, with its emphasis on conformity, control, and group identity.

As an analyst of the contemporary university, Holmes’ great strength is, perhaps paradoxically, his decision not to lean too heavily on campus developments themselves.  For example, his explanation of the rise of multiculturalism puts as much emphasis on the residue of the “legal realist” movement of the 1920s, which attacked the ideal of legal neutrality and the notion of “general principles,” in favor of a view of law as essentially arbitrary.

As Holmes sees it, legal realism was the nihilistic blade that cleared the ground for feminists and other radical identity theorists to turn the law into a tool of their political agenda.  Without the radical multiculturalist legal theorists who moved into this vacuum, “there would be no talk of ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate crimes’” and “no expansive judicial interpretations of Title IX to force universities to act like courts in rape cases.”

The drift from liberalism towards illiberalism, Holmes says, is partially explained by the emergence of a new ruling class distinguished by “cultural habits.” He refers to David Brooks’ term for Baby Boomers who grow rich but persist in thinking of themselves as cultural outsiders, “bourgeois bohemians,” and he updates Brooks with Charles Murray’s characterization of the “cognitive elite” who dominate the professions.

These folks “think alike” and “live in the same kind of places, eat and dress alike, watch the same movies, read the same blogs and news sites, and listen to the same radio programs (All Things Considered, not The Rush Limbaugh Show.)” And they attend America’s elite universities. “The result is a high correlation between elite education and wealth. Murray observes that 31 percent of Wesleyan University graduates, for example, live in what he calls ‘Superzips’—the wealthiest zip codes in America based on median family income and education—and 65 percent live in zip codes at the 80th percentile or higher.”

This aristocracy plainly sees itself as superior to everyone else and Holmes says it is “ruthless” in maintaining its position. But members of this elite also “fashion themselves as hip advocates of equality.” The paradox has grown old.  Tom Wolfe’s depiction in Radical Chic of Leonard Bernstein’s posturing to a leader of the Black Panthers as angry about his own wealth and privilege goes back to 1970.  I pick up today’s New York Times to read in the letters a declaration from someone who says, “I, too, am a white male and work every day to overcome how I was raised, to recognize that I am not entitled to superior rights because I was born a white male of European heritage.” The moral vanity of people who say this sort of thing is the real enunciation of their elite standing.  Instilling that vanity is the principal work of elite colleges, which teach this exquisite form of self-regard far more effectively than they teach the heritage of Western civilization or the substance of any particular subject.

The subtitle of Holmes’ book is “How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left.”  Because the motherlode of groupthink and intolerance is the contemporary American university, Holmes has bright and shining examples by the truckload of such academic devilment.  Many of these are familiar, e.g. the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax and Marquette University’s effort to unseat tenured professor John McAdams. But even the familiar stories of academic groupthink and intolerance gain from Holmes’ careful contextualization.

The Closing of the Liberal Mind is a synthesis that comes along at the just the right political moment.  As we ponder the shift in American culture that has made avowed socialist Bernie Sanders the most popular presidential candidate among college students and that has kept Hillary Clinton afloat on a platform of feminist exceptionalism, we are in need of some sober thinking about the decline of the old liberal tradition.  Postmodern leftism is a threat not just to higher education but to our Constitutional republic.  It may not be the only threat, but it is one that deserves focused, historically informed, and intellectually precise attention.  Holmes has reached into the basket of eels and given us that.

The Feds Make a Mess of Sex and Gender

The never-resting Office for Civil Rights (OCR) U.S. Department of Education and the equally insomnolent Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department have just issued their latest “Dear Colleague” letter advising the stewards of the nation’s schools of their newest responsibility.

The “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students” consists of five pages of text, three pages of footnotes, and a notice on “language assistance” in the event that non-English speakers are puzzled by the newly enunciated need to avoid discrimination against transgendered and gender-transitioning youth.

The number of such youth is, by all accounts, vanishingly small, but they loom large in current public policy deliberations.  Most notably, they have become hostages in the battle between the Obama administration and the state of North Carolina.  As has been widely reported and discussed, the Tar Heel State has ruled that individuals should use public restrooms corresponding to their sex at birth.

This has raised questions of post-modern epistemology.  As a matter of science, the sex of all humans is fixed at birth and is unchangeable.  That sex is present in the chromosomes of every cell in the individual’s body.  Even the most radical surgical, hormonal, and cosmetic interventions are powerless to change it.

But what is true of sex need not be true of the elastic concept of “gender,” which has been thrust on American culture as the all-purpose substitute for sex.  As it happens, my discipline, anthropology, bears some responsibility for this.  Way back in the 1930s, even before “gender” became the catchphrase, Margaret Mead was preaching the idea that cultures exhibit dramatic differences in the ways they define the proper temperaments of men and women.  Masculinity and femininity are, as we have learned to say with due solemnity, “culturally constructed.”  The men of the Tchambuli tribe in New Guinea, said Mead, are prissy and feminine by our standards; the women, all-business and managerial.

No need to elaborate.  For many decades, social science along with legions of Tchambuli-like American feminists have run with the idea that gender is “socially constructed.”  And what one Tchambuli can construct, another can deconstruct, and yet another reconstruct.  It took us a while to get all the way to the destination that people should feel free to make up their own genders, but at long last the Office for Civil Rights has set us straight.  Though that is probably not the right word.

But, as I said, we face epistemological complications.  The civil rights theory of transgender rights posits that “gender identity” is an inherent fact in the individual, which is to say that it sounds a lot more like what we used to call the individual’s sex.  If so, it is not “culturally constructed,” but somehow given in the nature of the individual.  In which case, it isn’t “gender” at all, and cannot be the basis for gender discrimination.

But let’s not quibble. Intellectual coherence isn’t what we require of federal agencies devoted to progressive social justice.  Progress is what we expect.  The “Dear Colleague” letter begins with a statement of seeming fact:

Schools across the country strive to create and sustain inclusive, supportive, safe, and nondiscriminatory communities for all students.

It is “parents, teachers, principals, and school superintendents” who are concerned about “civil rights protections for transgender students.” OCR is simply providing the answers that are needed in these troubled times.

It is small measure of how badly these answers are needed that I passed through 22 years of formal education and more than 25 in college and university teaching without knowingly encountering a single transgendered student.  I realize this now to my shame.  How many students did I address by cis-gendered pronouns while thoughtlessly assuming that their apparent sex matched their inner gender identities?

Well, perhaps none, but still it is possible.  It happens.  A faculty member at a large public university wrote to me this week on exactly this matter.  He incorrectly used the pronoun “he” in reference to a Japanese author whose “gender identity” he didn’t know.  A transgendered student in the class promptly filed a complaint with the university, which has summoned the faculty member to meet with the dean to ensure that such a transgression is not repeated.  The faculty member has so far not made his travail public, perhaps out of the hope of saving his university the ignominy of appearing on an OCR blacklist for its overly lenient handling of the case.

What the OCR letter provides, of course, is an astonishing annexation of new power to the federal government.  Humanity is capable of all sorts of twists and turns when it comes to sexual appetites and personal identities.  Societies attempt to impose some order on this, and Margaret Mead was not wrong in observing that the ordering ideas vary from place to place.  The social norms that prevail at 400 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20202, where the tribe of OCRians reside, for example, differ from the social norms in North Carolina and most other civilized places.

We need to make allowance for these differences lest we fall into a pattern of inadvertent discrimination.

By OCR’s account “Compliance with Title IX” requires that as a condition of receiving federal funds, schools “not exclude, separate, deny benefits to, or otherwise treat differently on the basis of sex any person in its educational programs or activities.”  When North Carolina boldly put itself in complete compliance with this law by insisting that “sex” means sex, it ran afoul of the OCR conception that “sex” means self-invented “gender identity.”  To that end, schools are supposed to provide transgendered students access to the “sex-segregated restrooms and locker rooms,” of their own choice.

OCR’s advice on athletics is a bit more complicated.  Schools can still differentiate among students on the basis of (real) biological sex provided they do not “rely on overly broad generalizations or stereotypes,” or act on “others’ discomfort with transgender students.”

I was briefly under the impression that “discomfort” was an index of oppression, and where discomfort exists, surely OCR regulatory assuagement must follow.  But no, the discomfort of transgendered students faced with normative expectations of sexual identity is a crisis.  The discomfort of the “cis-gendered” is just their tough luck.

I can’t unravel this mystery here, though I note that many commentators are giving it their best effort. The only thing clear to me is that OCR has reached such an apotheosis, that it now has the power to overrule nature and command our very chromosomes to obey its dictates.  We’ll see how that works out.

How Anthropology Was Corrupted and Killed

The knock against anthropologists used to be that they were all relativists.  Not anymore.  Many anthropologists today are hardcore moral absolutists.  The members of the American Anthropological Association are busy voting (until May 31) on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The proposed resolution jumps off in its first sentence in universalist language, claiming that Israel has denied Palestinians “their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination.”

I have voted against the resolution, because I oppose the politicization of an academic discipline. I also disagree with it on substantive grounds, but that’s beside the point.

The AAA’s anti-Israel resolution, of course, hasn’t materialized out of thin air.  It is part of the larger BDS campaign against Israel—Boycott, Divest, and Sanction.  Other academic associations, starting with the American Studies Association in December 2014, have gone down this road.  And the AAA has been politicizing itself for several decades.  Its virulent attack on the reputation of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in 2002 was a forerunner of what was to come.

And as the new resolution points out, in 1999 AAA adopted a Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights that committed the body to “promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity.”  That Declaration is a perfect springboard for all sorts of partisan action on behalf of one group and against another.

Related: BDS and the Rise of Post-Factual Anthropology

The “promotion and protection” sentence sounds so benign that it is worth pausing to see exactly where the mischief lies.  Anthropology is, in principle, the study of humanity.  It attempts to sort out what is fundamentally human and therefore shared by all, what varies from group to group, and how those variations can be explained.  In that perspective, the 1999 Declaration’s phrase “full realization of their humanity” is a puzzle.  Anthropologists used to regard “humanity” as the question to be asked, not the answer that is already in hand.  Does the “full realization” of some people’s “humanity” mean that we should make room for some tribe’s deeply felt need for child sacrifice, widow-burning, torture of captives, head-hunting, or numerous other customs well-attested in the ethnographic record?

Our “humanity” is, as anthropologists well know, an extremely flexible thing, and one that can be and often has been stretched to encompass some behavior that most of us would regard as far from humane.  But that doesn’t seem to be the idea offered up in the Declaration.  Rather, “the full realization of their humanity” turns out to involve things like “the right to education and academic freedom, for peoples around the world.”

To anyone acquainted with world ethnography that is a pretty strange conception.  What did the Trobriand Islanders of Malinowski’s day know of “academic freedom?”  What was the “right to education” among herders of the Central Asian Steppe?  Or hunters in the Amazon rain forest?  If these are the desiderata of a “full realization” of humanity, did anthropology decide once and for all that only people who have universities can be human?  Perhaps the “right to education” can encompass learning how to herd sheep or blowgun monkeys from the forest canopy, but that’s probably not what the Declaration meant.

Related: The Long PC Battle in Anthropology

The Declaration reflects a sentimental view of humanity, as though in our essence we are a tribe of suburban Californians dabbling in the human potential movement of the 1990s, eager to get our kids into good local schools and send them on to Berkeley or Reed.

That this could turn in 2016 to the thinly veiled anti-Semitism of a BDS-style resolution should not be too much of a surprise. Anti-Semitism is back in fashion.  It is this year’s Merlot. And academics whose minds are shaped mostly by intellectual fashion were bound to arrive there.

This is, however, quite a journey for the field of anthropology. Not so many years ago, anthropologists were in a kind of arms race to see who could carry cultural relativism to the greatest extreme. Everyone knows roughly what cultural relativism is. If we can look at the world through X’s eyes, we can understand why X does what he does. If you just looked at the world through the cannibal’s eyes, you could see cannibalism was a sensible cultural choice.

No Generalizing about Humanity

Anthropologists circa 1980 seemed to come equipped with an internal alarm that went off any time someone generalized about humanity. If you said, “But all parents love their children,” an anthropologist of the era would be sure to say something like, “Not so! Among the Mundugamor of the Sepik River in New Guinea, parents consider their children a vile nuisance.” Generalizing about humanity based on the ideals of your own culture was “ethnocentrism,” of which there was no more terrible thing. To be ethnocentric was to be intellectually shallow and uninformed about the sheer variety of ways humans can go about being human.

But then anthropology touched its relativistic bottom. In the 1980s it collectively decided that anthropology itself was ethnocentric.  The things anthropologists studied such as marriage, family, and kinship were deemed no more than projections of the anthropologist’s own culture. This was in many ways absurd, but it caught on and many anthropologists decided their only option was start staring into the mirror. They wrote subjective stories about how they felt when confronted with “the other.” They studied their own communities. And increasingly they embraced ideologies that turned them into “post-colonial” activists, environmental activists, feminist activists, and so on.  The discipline of anthropology un-disciplined itself in favor of political action.

Anthropology Becomes Ideology

I wrote an essay on this for Minding the Campus January a year ago, “Ferguson and the Decline of Anthropology.” My perspective was considered sufficiently unusual that the AAA Newsletter picked it up and reprinted it, and this in turn set off a firestorm of criticism of the AAA editors for publishing such a disgraceful thing. One anthropologist took the trouble to post a declaration of his own: “Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously.

But I’m far from alone in regarding anthropology’s descent into ideology as an intellectual disaster. My colleague Glynn Custred recently posted a similar essay, “Turning Anthropology from Science into Political Activism.

This is not to say that politicized anthropology is a single ideology. What has emerged in the place of the old discipline is a many-sided feud over which ideology should dominate. The lead article in the newest issue of Current Anthropology, for example, pitches the importance of the “decolonizing” project carried forward by “Black scholars,” and argues that decolonizing has wrongly lost ground to the postmodern “ontological project” in anthropology.  What is all that about?

You can read Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology Since the Eighties.”  But be prepared for explanations like this: “While the ontological turn contents itself with the assertion of multiple ontologies as a corrective to enduring North Atlantic universals, the decolonizing project insists that even in multiple ontologies, the work of dismantling a hegemonic Western ontology—and its adjunct systems of colonials and racial capitalism—remains.”

Busy Attacking the West

Translation: Many anthropologists busy themselves attacking Western ideas about objective knowledge, but they don’t go far enough. You need radical Black anthropologists to finish the job of destroying the West.

Allen and Jobson are perfectly explicit about their larger goal.  Their essay, though turgid, is clear enough in its lament for the fall of Soviet communism:  “The fall of the Soviet Union was of interest—and destabilizing—to anthropology.” That’s because the end of “state socialist projects […] foreclosed a moment of revolutionary optimism.”

This essay, given prominent treatment in a mainstream academic journal, is nothing unusual in the field as it now stands.  If you wonder how and why the BDS movement could gain a sizable following among academic anthropologists in 2016, consider Allen and Jobson as a benchmark of where the discipline is.

This is anthropology in the mode of saying more and more about less and less. Most of the anthropologists I know and respect have long since left the American Anthropological Association. A small but determined faction hangs on in the hope that real anthropological scholarship will somehow survive this decades-long descent into intellectual drivel. My own view is that the written record of good ethnography written before the 1980s will endure because it is readable and important. And there are solitary monuments in the 1990s and after, as the boulders left behind by retreating glaciers, which attest to a now vanished form of rigorous academic inquiry.

Celebrating Victimhood

Scholarship requires a community of scholars who actively learn from and challenge one another. That community is fast disappearing.  Anthropology departments today typically include a few people who know about DNA and evolution, and a whole lot of people committed to “social justice” by celebrating one or another kind of victimhood. Calls for papers go out to those writing “anthropology fiction,” “lies that tell the truth,” and “gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  Those are items pulled from the top of the Anthropology News calendar. They capture the everyday business of a field that is busy talking itself into irrelevance to any serious intellectual endeavor.

What do anthropologists talk about when they talk about Africa?  “The relationships between the colonial/apartheid and the post-colonial/post-apartheid,” is on the docket at the African Critical Inquiry Programme.  This is the echo in that empty auditorium.  Africa like the rest of the world still has a great deal to teach us about what is fundamentally human and what varies from group to group.  But “postcolonial” theorizing is what we get after the serious questions go to bed.  It is post-anthropology.  And it is part of the fog, along with the proposed Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, and the skirmishes between neo-decolonialists, postmodern ontologists. Anthropology today is dominated by hatred of science and civilization.  Some of its practitioners express that hatred proudly; others try to muffle it a bit; and a few gray members of the old tradition hang on.  How does an academic discipline die?  Like this.

Mizzou Wipes Out Respect and Excellence

The University of Missouri has eliminated Respect and Excellence.  I have to write this in a hurry because it won’t be long before others will seize on this gift.  Respect and Excellence are the names for two residence halls at the University.  They are being closed because the University suddenly finds that its enrollments are plummeting.  Two other dorms were closed already in light of the crisis.

Let’s bask in the irony for a moment or two longer.  The University of Missouri arrived at this juncture by cravenly submitting to the demands of activists and the threats of football players who decided to abet the activists.  On November 9, System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned rather than face down those threats.

Respect—respect for the abiding values of higher education, respect for civic disagreement, respect for intellectual freedom—went on an unpaid leave of absence from the University of Missouri that day.  As for Excellence, it wasn’t all that clear that the University of Missouri was a congenial place for Excellence before November 9.  But on receiving the news that Demands were moving in, Excellence cancelled her lease and moved out.

Rumors are that she transferred to the Oklahoma Wesleyan University or possibly Ohio State.

Mizzou map

 

Title IX Tramples Free Speech and Fairness, So Now What?

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has just dipped its oar in the dank water of Title IX.  The AAUP’s draft of its new document, The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, leaves much to be desired.  But welcome to the fight, AAUP.  We’ve been wondering when you would show up.

From 1972 to Now

A refresher.  How did we get here?

Title IX is Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which was added to the 1965 Act as part of its 1972 reauthorization. The key sentence in it is, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

That seemed simple enough at first. Don’t discriminate against men or women on the basis of their sex, you American colleges or universities, or we will cut off your federal funds. “Financial assistance” referred primarily to federally guaranteed students loans, codified as Title IV of the Higher Education Act. By 1972, almost all colleges and universities had become addicted to the money flowing in from those loans.  The loans officially went to the students, but the dollars went to the college bursar offices, and the colleges had to be pre-approved by the Department of Education as worthy recipients.

So Title IX had instant clout. But it was also a bit murky.  Clearly it didn’t apply to single-sex institutions.  What forms of discrimination did it legislate against?  The answer emerged slowly, first through regulations issued by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1975 and later through litigation. The 1975 regulations suddenly made it clear that Title IX was going to be used to advance women’s sports on campus. But it took years of litigation to arrive at what Title IX would really mean: the destruction of many men’s sports teams to ensure that women’s sports were in parity with men’s sports.

Title IX soon began to grow in new and unexpected directions, sometimes in conjunction with court decisions that didn’t initially appear to have anything to do with higher education.  A good example is the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1986, which defined “hostile environment” for sexual harassment cases under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  It would take several more decisions and some creative thinking on the part of regulators to get to the idea that wherever an environment can be described as “hostile” there also is a Title IX discrimination case waiting to be framed and fitted out.

“Hostile environment” was supposedly limited by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education in 1999 to “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” sexual harassment, but OCR has seen no need to get so fussy.  It sees “hostile environments” created by harassment pretty much wherever it likes.

Complaints about how Title IX now runs roughshod over due process, academic freedom, and basic fairness are now legion. The basic picture is that the mere expression of some words and ideas is now at risk of being conjured into a Title IX complaint on the grounds that those words and ideas make some people uncomfortable.

Dissents

My organization, the National Association of Scholars, has been criticizing the new Title IX regime for years.  We also have an older history of wrestling with the excesses of the feminist-inspired attacks on academic freedom. NAS isn’t alone in this.  FIRE is a stalwart ally, among others. NAS’s 2014 “Compendium of Key Sources” on sexual assault provides a good summary as well as a gateway to other materials.

The AAUP has also on previous occasions ventured into this topic, most notably in its 2012 “Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures.” But the AAUP’s brand new statement ventures in a somewhat unexpected direction.  It seems, at least to some of its first readers, like a stronger check on OCR policies.

“A Slew of New Problems”

The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX impressed The New York TimesInside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education the same way:  as a complaint that Title IX rules have gone too far and are stifling free speech.

The New York Times leads with “broadening definitions of inappropriate sexual behavior” having “a chilling effect on academic freedom and speech.”

Inside Higher Ed leads with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) creating “a slew of new problems with implications for free speech and academic freedom.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education headlines, “AAUP Slams Education Department and Colleges Over Title IX Enforcement,” and leads with the sexual assault rules that “trample faculty members’ rights to academic freedom, due process, and shared governance.”

All three see the AAUP as boldly stepping forward to declare that the Title IX enforcement regimen has gone too far.  It is now chilling/compromising/trampling free speech—which doesn’t sound especially good.  Has the AAUP suddenly come to the realization, long since achieved by millions of other Americans, that Title IX rules and enforcement have gone crazily overboard?

Let’s not be hasty.

Two of the journalistic watchdogs of higher education are quick to add zag to their zig:

The New York Times: The AAUP “does not mean to underestimate the gravity of sexual harassment complaints.”

Inside Higher Ed: “The Office for Civil Rights brought needed attention to the problem of sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, sticks closely to the theme that the AAUP has launched a relentlessly tough-minded criticism of OCR’s Title IX overreach.

What’s the truth of the matter?  Has the AAUP consulted its moral compass and found the true north of presumption of innocence, due process, fair treatment of the accused, respect for evidence, and freedom of expression?  Or has it offered a temporizing defense of some of its principles some of the time, provided that they don’t get in the way of the feminist social justice agenda?

Feminists Burnt by Feminism

Alas, when we turn to the report itself, it is more the latter.  The major problem that the AAUP raises with Title IX rules is that they have more than once been turned against well-meaning women’s studies professors and other campus feminists. The “abuses” signaled in the title of the report exist at an abstract level for much of the report: “OCR has given only limited attention to the due process rights of those accused of misconduct.” [p. 17] But when AAUP gets down to specifics, we hear very little of the hapless male students thrown under the Title IX bus on flimsy or no evidence.

Instead we have accounts of the travails of Professor Patty Adler at the University of California, Boulder, who was Title IX’d for having her undergraduate teaching assistants in her Sociology class, “Deviance in US Society,” act out roles in class as “Eastern European ‘slave whore,’ pimp, a ‘bar whore,’ and a high-end escort.”  For this Professor Adler found herself accused by students of sexual harassment and was pressured by her dean to accept an early retirement.  The dean eventually backed down but Adler, “deeply affected by the chilling academic freedom climate,” retired anyway after one more semester.  [pp. 23-24]

AAUP’s second example: Louisiana State University early childhood education professor Teresa Buchanan, drummed out of her job after complaints from students about her “salty language.” Some of her students, preparing for careers teaching very young children, didn’t care for “F*** no” interjections, her use of “a slang term for vagina that implies cowardice,” and similar indiscretions.  Buchanan defended herself saying, “The occasional use of profanity is not sexual harassment.” But Title IX rules are pretty tough.  Buchanan is suing. [pp. 24-25]

Not So Fun Home

Another incident the AAUP draws attention to is the closing of Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate.  The closing “coincided” with controversy about the use of the “lesbian coming-of-age story,” Fun Home, as a common reading at the university. Fun Home had garnered “trigger warnings” at three other colleges, and a Title IX administrator at a university in another state in a previous year had issued a memo that warned that some students might have had “traumatic experiences” that teachers using “materials containing instances of violence related to power, control or intimidation” should take into account.

So, a memo by a Title IX administrator at a university in one state; a “trigger warning” on a book in three other universities in different states; and the closing of a Women’s Studies center at yet another university add up to what?  In the AAUP’s audacious analysis: “the fact that the serious study of sex and sexuality are becoming increasingly vulnerable fields of study.”

Kipnis’ Conniption

The AAUP report also devotes some attention to Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis, who was Title IX investigated after some students took umbrage at her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which Kipnis leveled some criticisms at the “new paradigm” of sexual harassment rules.  In the article Kipnis styled herself a strong feminist:

For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square. Let no one think I’m soft on harassment. But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.

But Kipnis ended up fighting—in the AAUP’s words—a “bureaucratic ordeal” or in her own words, a “Title IX Inquisition.” Kipnis won, but clearly Title IX was being put to uses that feminists didn’t intend.

Male Victims

The AAUP does find some male victims of Title IX. A University of Kansas student had to fight expulsion after he made tweets on his private account deriding his former partner as a “psycho bitch.” Chemistry professor Craig Anderson was Title IX’d after a lab assistant accused him of using aggressive and vulgar language. The AAUP rushed to his defense because Bard College failed to provide him due process. On the other hand, Title IX completely failed to catch University of California Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who met his comeuppance as a repeat harasser only when BuzzFeed broke the story.

There is a great deal more to say about the AAUP’s statement, issued as a “draft” and presumably open for further changes. But one thing at a time. The one thing to start with is that the AAUP is mostly upset that the new Title IX rules are producing “friendly fire” casualties. It was meant to punish men, regardless of their guilt or innocence. To accomplish that it set the evidentiary bar so low that some women faculty members are tripped by it as well.

Some of the cases the AAUP cites make that point well enough. Others entail some stretching. But the main thing is that AAUP has paid so little heed to the larger story of Title IX tyranny: the rise of bureaucrats that can and do ruin the educational careers of male students and some faculty members on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations and sometimes even in the face of exculpatory evidence.

The Distant Shore

I am, on balance, happy that the AAUP has decided to dip its oar in these waters.  It is better that it is half-heartedly alarmed about the rolling disaster of Title IX regulation than it sit back in smiling approbation of the new regime. But I don’t think the AAUP’s oar will propel us very far across the fetid lake. AAUP doesn’t like Title IX’s collateral damage. It is rather less concerned with its main targets.  What we really need is a thorough housecleaning at OCR; the retraction of the noxious “Dear Colleague: letters; and in due course the abolition of OCR itself, which has been a deep and continuing source of injustice in higher education.

Should Conservatives Lead Secret Lives?

Passing on the right is dangerous and generally illegal driving.  But a fair number of people do it anyway.  The title Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s new book, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, combines the image of the careless driver with the other transgressive meaning of “passing.”  Conservative professors can now pass by concealing their political identities the way Coleman Silk, the classic professor who is the central character in Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, “passes” as Jewish to conceal his African-American origins.

Racial passing has a storied history in the United States.  It evokes a two-edged response:  some admiration for the trickster who successfully evades racial obstacles to social advancement, combined with disdain for the individual who turns his back on his own kind for the sake of getting ahead. It is a complicated deceit for the person who does it, since it often means concealing from oneself important parts of one’s own identity, and perhaps betraying friends and family.

Related: Social Psychology, a Field with Only 8 Conservatives

Thus, when Shields and Dunn playfully put the word front and center in the title of their book, it signals trouble ahead.  And indeed the trouble comes.  As many reviewers have already noted, their core theme is that conservatives can get along just fine in academe provided they wait until after they get tenure before they reveal their conservative views.  This is troubling in several ways, not least in its seeming validation of the unfair obstacles that conservatives must endure along the way.  It is troubling in more subtle ways too, including its implicit endorsement of the pathological tactic of passing.  Train up a generation of conservatives to believe that prudence requires them to hide their views for more than a decade of graduate study, post-grad appointment, and tenure-track positions, and you train up a generation imbued with the intellectual habits of timidity and excessive deference.  Elsewhere in the academic archipelago this has a name, “internalized oppression.”

Why do we need a book counseling conservatives to love their mistreatment?  What good is it to tell conservative scholars to bear with it, because at the end of the day, you will be rewarded with freedom? It is a freedom that is in fact wasted on many of those who eventually get it.  By that point in their lives, many faculty members have achieved hard-won acceptance in their departments and professions which they are not about to put at risk.  They are enmeshed in relationships with senior colleagues on their political left and they know that, at most, they can from time to time dip a toe in the waters of dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

As the head of The National Association of Scholars, I talk frequently with conservative scholars who express views like this: untenured scholars scared stiff they will be identified as having non-progressive views, and tenured scholars scared of being labeled their campus’s “conservative professor”—a category always assumed to be singular.

Related: Why So Few Conservatives in Higher Ed?

In that light, I don’t welcome Shields and Dunn’s book. It strikes me as profoundly cynical and likely to damage the effort to summon from young scholars the courage they will need to change American higher education for the better.

But it would be unfair to paint the book as only that.  They have done good research and have many pertinent observations.  Their evidence for their conclusions comes from interviews with 153 professors in economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, and literature, all of whom self-identified as “conservative” or “libertarian.” They found their subjects by networking outwards from faculty members who had published in journals such as The Claremont Review of Books.  That gave them a list of 249 “confirmed conservative professors.”  Over the course of ten research trips, they were able to conduct in-person interviews with 153 of these at a total of 84 colleges and universities.

Those numbers may strike some as small, but in fact that’s an impressive accomplishment. Shields and Dunn recorded and transcribed these interviews and kept track of the relevant categories.  Political science provided the largest number of interviewees:  25 percent of the total.  Sociology the fewest:  nine percent of the total.  The academic ranks of the respondents, however, tell the largest story.  Full professors accounted for 53 percent of the respondents, and associate professors accounted for 27 percent.  So 80 percent were in tenured positions.  Another 4 percent were “emeritus,” i.e. retired from a tenured position.  Only 8 percent were in the pre-tenure category of “assistant professor.”   The remainder were visitors and adjuncts, off the tenure track.

Translation: 127 of those 153 were protected from the most serious career consequences that can follow from being identified with non-liberal positions on current issues.  Nonetheless, Shields and Dunn have concealed the identities of all but one of them.

Shields and Dunn frequently acknowledge pertinent realities.  They write, for example, that “Conservatives are least welcome in field where they are most needed.” But each such zig is followed by a zag.  The very next sentence following that acknowledgement is the declaration that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn.”  It’s overdrawn because a privileged and adroitly disguised few have created “niches” for themselves within the university.

This is rather like saying a few stray wildflowers have survived in the 2,000-acre industrial-scale mono-cropped farm.  We wish those wildflowers well, but what we would really like is some greater diversity in the planting.

There should be no need to pass on the right. In either the sense of traffic management or the sense of concealed identity.  Shields and Dunn know that and more than once call on liberals and progressives to welcome conservatives into the faculty.  They know too that this counsel is unlikely to be heeded, and their last words of counsel go instead to “conservative outside the university” not to complain too loudly about “intolerance” on campus because doing so discourages young conservatives from pursuing academic careers.

My own response differs.  I would rather that anyone who is daunted by the obstacles conservatives face choose a career outside the academy.  What we need are people willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.

BDS: Jew-Hating Propagandists on the March

The anti-Semitic Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel keeps reaching for—and finding—new depths of indecency.  Among the deepest descenders into this abyss is Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers.  Professor Puar recently garnered national attention for her address at Vassar, February 3, “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters.”  The talk has not been published, but some in the audience reported that Puar exhorted armed resistance to Israel; alleged that Israel “mined for organs” from dead Palestinians; and claimed that Israel systematically starves Palestinians as part of a medical experiment.

Readers can get a good idea of what Puar had to say from her November 2015 essay, published in Borderlands, “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine.” The “right to maim,” to be clear, does not refer to the epidemic of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.  It refers to an “implicit claim” by Israel “to the right to maim and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control.”

Related: Worry about Islamophobia but not about Anti-Semitism

The talk provoked heated responses, both to its substance and to the eight Vassar academic departments (including Jewish Studies) that sponsored it. But it also introduced a new angle in the current controversies over free expression on campus. The Vassar professor who introduced Puar asked the audience to “refrain from recording this evening’s proceedings, in the spirit of congeniality and mutual respect, though it is not against the law.” This request was also made as part of “the modest contract of trust essential to the exchange of ideas.”

As Cornell law professor William A. Jacobson observed, “Requesting non-recording of an open, public event on the pretext that non-recording is ‘essential to the exchange of ideas’ is odd.”

Puar’s talk leapt to national attention when Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, and Ken Waltzer, an emeritus professor of history from Michigan State, published an op-ed, “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar,” in the Wall Street Journal. Puar objected that Yudof and Waltzer quoted her out of context. If they erred, it would be easy enough for Puar to set the record straight by releasing the transcript. Instead, she has protested her right to give public lectures that are off the record.

And in this she has gained support from 966 (so far) signatories around the country of a public letter asking Vassar’s president to defend Puar. The letter says that the criticism of Puar chills her speech and curbs her academic freedom. Puar has become the target of “heinous and misinformed attacks” because of her speech, as well as her “vilification” in “the ugly op-ed” in the Wall Street Journal.

Related: An Anti-Semitism Controversy at Stanford

These attacks, the signatories say, are all the more disgraceful in light of Puar’s scholarly achievement, including “her acclaimed book Terrorist Assemblages,” (subtitled Homonationalism in Queer Times) and other writings, “of the highest professional and scholarly rigor.” The scholars who have signed the letter include Judith Butler, Marilyn Hacker, Rashid Khalidi, Steven Salaita, Angela Davis, Rick Ayers (Bill’s brother) and some other familiar names. The list of signatories includes 137 who have appointments in English departments; 92 in either Women’s Studies or Feminist Studies; 55 in American Studies; 52 in Anthropology; nine in international studies; and seven in Environmental Studies.  Twenty have faculty appointments at Rutgers, including twelve members of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.

Thirty-five have some Vassar connection, though only eight teach there.

Three weeks after her talk at Vassar, Puar was scheduled to speak at Fordham on “the biopolitics of debility in Gaza.” The New York Daily News, alerted to curious aspects of Puar’s public presentations, nudged Fordham into noticing that Puar had imposed a “no recording” stipulation on her talk. But Fordham’s president, observing that a public lecture is a public lecture, said Fordham would not stop people from recording Puar’s words. Moreover, to avoid claims and counter-claims about her speech, Fordham itself would record and disseminate it.  That was too much for Puar, who cancelled her talk.

Puar also threatened to sue anyone who records her talks or makes public any existing recordings of her talk from Vassar.

Related: A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

At nearly the same moment that the Fordham events were unfolding, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay, “The Free-Speech Fallacy,” by Puar supporter Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale.  Stanley praises Puar as “an agenda-setting scholar” whose work has had “a level of impact few academics achieve in a lifetime.” But then he pivots to his real subject: his attack on the critics who say “left-wing social justice” is a threat to free speech. He dismisses Yudof’s and Waltzer’s defense of free speech as hypocritical, since their op-ed inflamed people against Puar.  He jabs at Jonathan Haidt for framing the view that “academe suffers from a leftist ideological uniformity.” He sneers at the Heterodox Academy group, which, at Haidt’s lead, criticizes the left’s aversion to free speech.

Stanley trivializes their complaint: “I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight. Was I challenging her freedom of speech?” In Stanley’s view, people who complain about leftist repression of free speech are like students in a mathematics class complaining when their errors are corrected.

Returning to Puar, Stanley argues that those of us who criticize her smears against Israel are attempting to “silence oppressed and marginalized groups.” This is a head-spinning argument to the effect that support for free speech is really anti-free speech. It is anti-free speech because it impedes the voices of those who purport to speak for the oppressed. But silencing the defenders of Israel is acceptable because they speak for the privileged and powerful.

The core of the problem is that anti-Israel propagandists such as Puar and other “social justice advocates” want a double standard. They demand the right to speak, but they want none of the responsibility of having their views held up to ordinary standards of evidence and argument, or their words made accessible to audiences beyond their chosen venues.

To respect intellectual freedom, we must allow room for speakers such as Jasbir Puar and John Derbyshire, but we must also allow room for those who disagree to have their say, and those who dissent from such disagreement to have their say too.  Nearly all colleges and universities are failing this test—though hats off to Fordham for refusing Puar’s demand to bottle-up her talk.

It is our deep misfortune to live at a time when the illiberal left, luxuriating in its “social justice” agenda has also embraced anti-Semitism and developed a new sophistry aimed at providing a free pass for the propagandists who claim to speak for the oppressed. Intellectual freedom never means immunity to criticism. It means making your best case and, if you can, answering your critics. Puar’s problem, it seems, is that she can’t.

Invited Racist Banned at Williams– Was That Right?

When President Adam Falk of Williams College wrote to the campus community on February 18, to say that he was disinviting John Derbyshire, he didn’t offer much explanation.  Derbyshire, who had been invited by students as part of a program called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” was supposed to talk about immigration. Falk said that Derbyshire had “crossed the line” and was guilty of “hate speech.”

The line was apparently written in magic ink that only President Falk could see. The “hate speech” was presumably there to be found if one went looking.  Of course, Derbyshire is semi-famous for having written an essay that advises the children of white parents to avoid black people.  The essay got him fired from the National Review in 2012.  He went on to publish other ill-judged racial provocations in out-of-the-way places.

Related: ‘Uncomfortable Talk’ Censored at Williams

“Hate speech” is one of those phrases that often says more about the person using it than the person who is accused of uttering it.  It might bring to mind crude epithets; perhaps it conjures bullying or incitements to violence; or again, it might bring to mind slander or libel aimed at destroying someone’s reputation. For some, the term is also a way of deprecating opinions they strongly disagree with or even statements of fact that, however much they rest on good evidence, contradict the beliefs of the speaker.  For example, pointing out the 18-year absence of global warming as measured by satellite readings is, in some eyes, “hate speech.”  So is noticing the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in commission of violent crimes.

To label what someone says as “hate speech” is, of course, to judge that person’s motives.  It is also an attempt to put the content of what the person says outside the bounds of further consideration.  It is a tool, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt might put it, that helps a moral community police its boundaries.  To label someone a purveyor of hate speech is to write him out the deliberations of all right-thinking people.

Is Derbyshire a purveyor of “hate speech”?  That depends on what President Falk meant by it. I wanted to know, so I asked him.  He wrote back and told me, and with his permission, I quote his answer.  He stipulated that I quote it in its entirety, so I will in deference to the spirit of the times, offer a trigger warning:

Related: Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech

Are we narrowed down the audience to the insensitive louts who can bear up? Good.  Here goes:

Dear Mr. Wood,

While I am not interested in an extended dialog with the National Association of Scholars regarding matters at Williams College, I am prepared to give a brief response to your question about John Derbyshire’s canceled appearance here. To that end, please see his opinion piece “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” This article was considered so racist by the National Review (no bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, I assure you) that upon its publication the editors severed their association with Derbyshire and refused him further access to their pages. Typical of its content is the following excerpt, in the form of advice to “nonblack” children:/

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

As for Derbyshire’s views on white supremacy, I would point you to the following passage that appeared on the website VDare:

Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.

Frankly, this is the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Related: What Universities Can Do for Free Speech in 2015

Derbyshire’s rhetoric, as typified in these passages, isn’t the explication of provocative, challenging or contrary ideas. To speak to what I’m sure is a particular concern of the National Association of Scholars, his work on race isn’t remotely scholarly. Derbyshire simply provokes. His racist bile would have added nothing to the complicated and challenging conversations occurring every day on our campus, across a wide range of ideologies and experiences. No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.

I hope this clarifies matters.

Yours,
Adam F. Falk

President and Professor
Williams College

Full disclosure: I met Derbyshire once in a social setting, but I don’t know him well and have not read any of his books on mathematics or other subjects.  What I do know of him is that he is a man who seems almost to have courted opprobrium.  Those of his writings about race that I have seen make me think of someone absorbed in the pleasure of seeing how close to the edge of the cliff he can stand without falling over.  But he seems to have no real animus towards blacks.  I would describe his writings as misanthropic and heedless.  They are objectively racist, as he clearly believes that races are biologically real and that the differences matter in all sorts of ways.  But if a distinction can be drawn between racist writing and “hate speech,” Derbyshire’s writing might provide the occasion to draw it.  It seems motivated by fear, not hate, and it counsels withdrawal rather than aggression.

I can well imagine that those distinctions wouldn’t satisfy President Falk, but they are important if we want to understand why students invited Derbyshire in the first place.  He is plainly not someone who hurls epithets; bullies people; torments opponents; incites violence; or libels individuals. He just says awful things and tries to defend them as reasonable judgments.

Yik Yak– Latest Target of Anti-Free-Speech Left

And many people understand that.  In 2010 the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School invited Derbyshire to speak on the question, “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?” In his speech Derbyshire stated explicitly his belief “that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races.” The BLSA did not think a line had been crossed: they gave Derbyshire a respectful hearing.

The same could and should have occurred at Williams College.  It didn’t because President Falk was too eager to draw his line.  In the end, he didn’t draw it well.  All we know at this point is that when a speaker appears to President Falk to have engaged in “hannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnte speech,” he is unwelcome at the college.

In “A Guide to Disinvitation,” I’ve tried to disentangle the justifications for free expression from the exceptions.  The essential points: Intellectual freedom is part of the foundation of higher education because it is a precondition of the pursuit of knowledge.  Unless we are willing to hear and consider views contrary to our own, we are on the path to settled orthodoxies and mere doctrines, not the path to intellectual growth, increased understanding, or critical thought.  Free speech is not the be-all and end-all of higher education.  It exists for a purpose:  to enable learning.

And President Falk is right that there is “a line” or a whole set of lines.  He just didn’t find any of them.  Freedom of speech requires civility; commitment to seeking the truth; and recognition of the differences between the course syllabus (which is not ordinarily open for debate) and the speaker on a public platform (who is). Exceptional circumstances might indeed arise where a speaker should be disinvited.  Think of the emissary of a foreign power that is at war with the United States; a terrorist; a wanted criminal; someone about to expose national secrets.  But there no legitimate exceptions based on dislike of the speaker’s opinions no matter how wrong-headed we think those opinions are.

Colleges should lean over backwards to accommodate invited speakers.  Such individuals have a special and limited relation to the college community, which has an obligation to protect them and foster their opportunity to present their views.  We have known this for a very long time, though it seems every generation has to learn it anew.  It isn’t too late, President Falk.  You could be among those to illuminate this principle for today’s generation.  Just re-invite that man and explain why.

What Candidates Can Do For Higher Education Now

By Peter Wood

In 2014 Senator Marco Rubio lent his support to CASA, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act—the effort by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to strip the due process rights of students accused of sexual assault.  The bill died that year but McCaskill and Gillibrand brought it back in 2015, and Senator Rubio renewed his support.

It is a terrible piece of legislation, and one that no reasonably informed observer of higher education who cares about the rule of law and individual rights on campus could support. Yet one of the mainstream GOP presidential candidates co-sponsored it, presumably because he calculates that it is “good politics” to be able to say he opposes “rape culture.”

Related: Gillibrand Revised—Still No Due Process

This one instance of many testifies to how little attention our leading candidates pay to higher education. Americans, however, have been shocked to see students at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and other elite institutions protesting against free speech—and college presidents bowing down before little ripped-jeans, tuition-subsidized junior-league totalitarians.   Now would be a good time for some presidential candidates to come up with a real program for reform.

So far, the only candidates to propose anything noteworthy are Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  Sanders has floated a $47 billion proposal to eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. Clinton has countered with a “New College Compact” that would spend $350 billion over ten years to eliminate student loans.

Making college an entitlement may appeal to some voters, but it would do nothing to end the open hostility to free inquiry that marks our campuses now. Here are some suggestions for how to take back the campus from those who are intent on making it a 24-7 taxpayer-subsidized indoctrination camp:

  1. Respect freedom of thought and expression. Colleges and universities should demonstrate commitment to these freedoms. They should, for example, establish independent standing committees on free expression. College leaders need to stand up against movements that try to turn academic freedom inside out by justifying mob action and intimidation as “free expression.” If they prefer instead to shelter students in “safe spaces,” they forfeit any claim to public respect—and public support.

Related: How Political Correctness Corrupted the Colleges

  1. Treat men and women equitably. Amend Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which was originally enacted to ensure that women in college had equal opportunities. It has been twisted over time by bad court decisions and radical feminist regulators to justify denying men due process, cutting men’s sports, and reducing men to a minority group on most campuses.

Curtail the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education which has, without Congressional approval, churned out regulations on the unwarranted premise that sexual assault is a form of “discrimination” covered by Title IX.  Sexual assault is a crime, best handled by the police and the courts, as Bernie Sanders has just said. Endorse the Safe Campus Act, which allows a college to conduct its own inquiry into a reported sexual assault only if the alleged victim consents to an investigation by law enforcement.

  1. End higher education’s destructive focus on race. Presidential candidates should join the majority of Americans who oppose racial preferences in hiring and college admissions. This may be a long fight. A good first step would be to expose the sheer extent of these preferences by passing legislation that requires colleges and universities to disclose them in detail by publishing admitted students’ standardized test scores and GPAs, broken down by race.
  1. Fix the student loan debacle. First, end the perverse incentives by which the government actively encourages students to take on unnecessary debt. Prompt students to think carefully about their college choices by favoring loans that go towards programs that meet national needs and that possess academic rigor. Cap each student’s total borrowing for tuition and other college expenses. Make colleges partly liable for student loan defaults.  Create federal incentives for three-year programs and the $10,000 B.A. pioneered by Texas.

Related: Making a Bigger Mess of Student Loans

  1. End federal cronyism in higher education. Bust the accrediting cartel, which impedes competition by hindering the creation of new colleges and online education. End the cozy relationship between the government and the College Board, a private monopoly that has compromised academic standards via its politically correct changes in the SATs and the Advanced Placement history courses.
  1. Restore the integrity of the sciences. Require the National Science Foundation and other federal funding bodies to spend research dollars on research, not public advocacy. End sycophantic science—the bribing of scientists to produce “findings” meant primarily to advance political causes. Pass the Secret Science Reform Act which would require universities to disclose the data and the manipulations behind publicly-funded research.  (The data behind Michael Mann’s infamous “hockey stick” graph, first published in April 1998, is still) Science that can’t be replicated isn’t science.
  1. Enhance the curriculum. Colleges should be free to decide what courses they offer and how these add up to a college degree, but our political leaders can reasonably exhort college leaders to set meaningful requirements and to offer students a coherent curriculum that includes core subjects such as Western civilization and American history.

Related: Emptying Content from College Courses

These steps would serve everyone, rich and poor, of every ethnicity, and would just as importantly serve America. We’ve allowed many of our colleges and universities to decline into little more than servants of progressive politics. But higher education should never be political indoctrination, welfare for special interests, or back scratching for politicians. It is time for a principled candidate to say “Enough!” and to take concrete steps to restore higher education to the nation’s colleges and universities.


 

Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.

 

The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression

In January 2015 the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression issued a brief report which eloquently made a case for the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture.”  I commented at the time in an approving manner.  Over the ensuing months, the Chicago statement has gathered more and more approval.  In April the faculty of Princeton University incorporated much of the Chicago statement into a statement of their own.   On September 28, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the statement. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also urged over 19,000 trustees to embrace it.

In an era when student activists on many campuses are attempting to silence expression of views they disagree with, the University of Chicago statement is a welcome counter-measure.  It is easy to see why principled scholars and organizations concerned about the integrity of the university are drawn to it.

Not the Whole Loaf

But I urge caution.  The Chicago statement is, in effect, half a loaf.  And sometimes half a loaf can be worse than none.  The basic problem with the statement is that it presents a context-free defense of freedom of expression. It does not offer any reason why such freedom is important and, in the absence of such a reason, it amounts to an endorsement of much of what is currently wrong with our colleges and universities.

To be sure, there is much in the statement that is attractive and endorsing it makes sense as a tactical move against “social justice warriors” who want to preempt important debates.  If the Chicago statement were to be understood as mainly a call for the university to respect the rights of outside speakers to have their say, regardless of viewpoint, it would be welcome without any serious reservations. But the statement does not contextualize itself to outside speakers and appears to apply equally to speech within the university.  The differences between outside speakers and speech within the university, however, are profoundly important.  The latter involve considerations that the Chicago committee ought to address but did not.

Four Flaws

In that light the statement has some serious flaws as an enunciation of general principles.  It is easy to imagine new circumstances where the positions laid forth in the Chicago statement would themselves become impediments to good education.  Indeed, some of these circumstances are already here.

There are four flaws. The statement ignores the need for true speech, wrongly elevates free speech over teaching, fails to say why free speech is important on college campuses, and is conducive to the further trivialization of the university.

First, the statement says “freedom of expression,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “freedom to debate” are “fundamental” to the university.  Surely they are.  The trouble is that other principles are no less fundamental.  One might think of the pursuit of truth; the obligation to distinguish the important from the trivial; integrity in research; respect for freedoms besides academic freedom; and genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students.

 The Pursuit of Truth

I grant that most of these do not spring readily to mind for faculty members who are not at the moment faced with a conflict, say, between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.  But such conflicts are never far off.  People lie, frequently.  Freedom of expression permits lies and misrepresentations and, up to a point, protects the liar in his exercise of the right.  The “fundamental” regard of the university for freedom of expression, however, is in direct tension with the fundamental regard the university must also have for the truth.  How does the Chicago statement handle this?  It is silent on the matter.  The statement does indeed say that “freedom to debate and discuss” is not absolute.  That freedom must bend in some cases:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Defamation, threats, harassment, and violations of privacy are out.  But on matters such as fabrication of data, perjury, deliberate historical misrepresentation, suppression of discrepant evidence, false testimony, plagiarism, and the like, the statement says nothing.

I would not infer from this that the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression regards these as inconsequential matters.  Rather, it was charged with addressing the principle of freedom of expression and it did so, leaving various complications aside.

A Dangerous Mistake

Perhaps the University of Chicago is a community so well ordered that it could trust itself to deal with “freedom of expression” as an isolate—a fundamental that need not be considered in the company of other fundamentals.  Be that as it may, I think it is a dangerous mistake for colleges and universities across the country to adopt this statement as is, without creating a conceptual context in which other fundamentals are given due consideration and weight.

Let me acknowledge that extending the discussion in the direction of other such fundamentals may well prove difficult and frustrating.  A simple statement of principle—that freedom of expression is fundamental for a university—can be pure and inspiring.  Recognition of counterbalancing and sometimes contradictory principles that must somehow be made to mesh is less an occasion for rhetorical triumph.  But it returns us to the real world of higher education where flawed men and women struggle for achievement in a special kind of community.

Where’s the Word ‘Curriculum’?

Second, the Chicago statement treats freedom of expression as something unmoored by the curriculum.  Indeed the words “curriculum” and “course” (in the sense of an academic course) never appear in the statement.  The only example of freedom of expression that is cited is a Communist Party candidate invited to speak on campus by a student organization.  All of the other statements on academic freedom are hortatory declarations of the abstract principle.  But the reality is that colleges and universities must make practical choices to teach this subject, and not that one.

If they have—as the University of Chicago has—a core curriculum, they must decide which disciplines should be represented, and which not.  No university is so large that it can encompass every subject.  It must makes choices, just as the individual faculty member must makes exclusionary decisions in every syllabus and every time a class meets.  The license to make these choices is part of academic freedom but it is a particularly fraught aspect of academic freedom because it presents the question:  Who decides?

One approach maximizes the autonomy of the individual faculty member to teach what he wants to teach.  But even the university that leans far in this direction reserves the key power to approve a course or not.  And the best colleges and universities devote great care to the work of shaping their academic programs.

In short, the “fundamental” right of free expression is dramatically limited in the single most important context of higher education:  the college or university’s decisions about what should be taught.

What Should Be Taught

The Chicago statement in this regard sounds like a dream of faculty members reveling in the idea that free expression can be upheld as the governing principle of an institution that is in fact ruled by a dramatically contrary principle:  the need to provide students with a coherent education.

Third, the assertion of the “fundamental” value of freedom of expression sidesteps the underlying rationale for free expression.  The statement treats free expression as so integral to the university that no explanation is needed; just assertion.  Perhaps this reflects disagreement among the committee members on what the rationale for free expression should be, but the omission is odd.  In my view what makes free expression fundamental is that it prevents sleepwalking.

It treats every idea as open in principle to challenge, which means even the best ideas must be maintained by alert, intelligent, and informed people who are ready with good arguments and robust evidence, and who are also ready to put in the necessary time and effort to defend them.  Free expression exists as the antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled propositions.  It does not allow “consensus” or appeal to the authority of either the crowd or the expert to settle a dispute.

But if I am right about this rationale, free expression should lean towards these ends.  Free expression should not itself be a cover for mob rule (“consensus”), mere doctrine, or efforts to shut the door to further inquiry.  The rise of “studies” departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression.  To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.

Chicago vs. Yale

The Chicago statement veers away from any such understanding of freedom of expression.  As far as the statement goes, all expressions enjoy the same title to “freedom of expression.”  That’s a view that comports pretty well with the First Amendment, but comports very poorly with the reasons why higher education values freedom of expression.

As it happens, the Chicago statement can be usefully contrasted with an earlier statement of freedom of expression issued in December 1974 by Yale, as the result of the deliberations of a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster.  The Yale statement is every bit as vigorous in its support for freedom of expression as the Chicago statement, but at 31 pages, it is longer than the Chicago statement (3 pages), more in-depth, and attentive to complications that the Chicago statement ignores.  Perhaps most importantly, the Yale statement explains why freedom of expression should matter to a university.  Its first sentence declares: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  There is nothing comparable to this in the Chicago statement.

Fourth, the Chicago statement rests easily with the post-modern and (ironically) the anti-foundationalist condition of the contemporary university.  In treating free expression as an end in itself and divorcing it from any concern about the processes that establish and dis-establish intellectual authority, the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.  Again, these conditions may not prevail at the University of Chicago, but when other colleges and universities emulate or adopt the Chicago statement, they are also giving their imprimatur to an education that endorses formless exploration over purposeful inquiry.

An Unmoored Freedom

These four flaws in the Chicago statement have a kindred character.  All four have to do with the superficiality of the statement, which leaves out essential things:  other fundamentals; the shaping of the curriculum which is necessarily guided by principles above and beyond freedom of expression; the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate; and the tendency of an unmoored freedom of expression to perpetuate the intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary university.

There are, of course, competing views about the purposes of higher education, an institution that must somehow blend discovering new knowledge, transmitting existing knowledge, sustaining the legacy of civilization, shaping character, preparing students for productive lives, and teaching students how to live responsibly in freedom.   Free expression is a vital component of several of these ends, and none more so than the last.  We uphold freedom of expression in large part to teach students to become citizens who can govern themselves wisely in our representative democracy.  But that requires that we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful—which in turn means that we must pay attention to its purposes.

I’d recommend that the University of Chicago continue the work of the committee that wrote the statement by asking and answering the follow-up questions:  Why is freedom of expression important?  How does it advance the education of students?

It is in the spirit of the Chicago statement to welcome debate.  As far as I can tell, there has been little or no debate over the statement itself.  I offer these four points for the consideration of any college or university that is considering FIRE’s invitation to endorse the Chicago statement.  And I offer them as well for the benefit of the University of Chicago, which would seem to welcome, to borrow President Robert M. Hutchins’ apercu, the kind of “free inquiry [that] is indispensable to the good life.”

College Scorecard: How Much Will You Earn?

Sixty-six percent of the graduates of my alma mater earn more than people who have only a high-school diploma.  This fact comes courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s new “College Scorecard.”  I took advantage of the online interactive system to see how well Haverford College alumni stack up in the race to achieve financial stability.

The new College Scorecard has been pretty well received since it debuted on September 12.  It replaces one that originally debuted in February 2013, but which lacked much of the financial data President Obama promised in his 2013 State of the Union speech.

Hillsdale Excluded

The new, more data-rich version has occasioned reflections ranging from worries about the “more than one out of every three student borrowers nationwide” who fail to “make any progress in repaying their loans,” as Michael Stratford put it in Inside Higher Ed, to complaints that the Obama administration abandoned the rankings it had promised would be part of the new Scorecard because of pressure from college presidents and “organizations,” as NPR put it.  Meanwhile conservatives noted that the Department of Education had simply excluded from the Scorecard colleges such as Hillsdale and Grove City.

The snub to Hillsdale was especially interesting.  Obama had promised the Scorecard would cover “every institution of higher education.”  John Hinderaker on Powerline picked up the story that Assistant Press Secretary for the Department of Education Denise Horn defended Hillsdale’s exclusion on the grounds that the famed liberal arts college primarily awards “certificates” rather than bachelor’s degrees.  This is simply false, and it is a little disconcerting that another federal project aimed at creating greater transparency in an important sector of the economy has been launched trailing clouds of obfuscation.

But it is probably better to take the Scorecard for what it is rather than for what is missing.  It is a scorecard that declines to say who is winning or even what all the teams are, but it does provide vast quantities of data if only we can figure out how to make sense of the numbers.  Here I will try my hand at that, starting with Haverford.

Diving Into the Numbers

That 66 percent of Haverford grads who out-earn their high-school-only counterparts is a number that in pristine isolation doesn’t mean much.  If I had to guess, I would have thought more than two-thirds of the ‘fordians abroad in the big world would be out-earning the kids who decided to live the lifestyles for which a high school diploma alone entitles you.

Now, when I think about it, I see the complications.  Some Haverfordians pursue self-sacrificial career choices.  They spend their lives paying witness to social justice crusades that Don Quixote himself would have thought lunatic.  They turn conservative and seek careers in higher education, where they are relegated to Flying Dutchman lives as perpetual adjuncts.  You get the picture.  Haverford, with its active Quaker tradition, may be a little deficient in stoking the profit motive in its young charges.

And on the other side of the equation, some high-school grads have the Midas touch.  They get at least a four-year advantage in acquiring marketable skills and seniority. And if they have the knack for earning money by building, repairing, selling, cooking, or renting things, they can thrive in this America.

So maybe 66 percent of my fellow grads out-earning their high-school counterparts is reasonable.  But what I really need to do is see how that 66 percent matches up with other colleges.  But maybe first I’d better check the fine print in College Scorecard.

Look at the Fine Print

The Big Print says “Salary after Attending” Haverford is $55,600.  The fine print explains that this means “The median earnings of former students who received federal financial aid, at 10 years after entering the school.”  The 66 percent figure likewise turns out to have some qualifiers.  It refers to the percentage of former students who earn more than $25,000, “the average earnings of a high school graduate aged 25-34, 6 years after they first enroll.”  Got that?

I am suddenly struck that a third of the graduates aged under age 34 are earning less than $25,000.  Perhaps they are spending their 20s in graduate programs, writing dissertations, doing post-docs, and making ends meet with odd jobs.  That was pretty much my life.  Or they have enrolled in law schools in the ill-founded expectation that a lucrative career at a major law firm would be waiting three years out, and are now hustling real estate or tending bar.

There is this little consolation, written into every College Scorecard graph.  The national average earnings for the up-to-10-years-out is $34,343.  So ten years after graduation, the average Haverfordian has a premium of $30,600 in annual salary over the average high-school-only graduate, and a $21,257 premium over the average college graduate. That sounds like a pretty good deal.

Especially since the average annual cost of attending Haverford is $18,853.  That figure is also from the College Scorecard. It includes only students who take federal financial aid.  The Scorecard also breaks it down by family income.  A family with under $30,000 in annual income pays on average a net Haverford bill of only $5,685.  Oddly the average cost falls for families on the $30,000 to $48,000 range to $5,599.  Then it quickly escalates:  $15,612 for family incomes up to $75,000; $18,476 for family incomes up to $110,000; and $38,323 for family incomes above that.

College Grants

The College Scorecard doesn’t say, but Haverford’s official tuition is $48,656; room and board is $14,888; and the student activity fee is $442, for a grand total of $63,986 per year.  So those net college costs reported by the College Scorecard represent hefty discounts from the sticker price.  In fact, more than half of Haverford students also receive “college grants” and these grants average $40,014.

Putting costs and potential income together, one could conclude that Haverford is a reasonably wise “investment” for a young person who seeks a liberal arts education without undue risk of poor earnings or insupportable debt.  “Typical total debt” for Haverford graduates, according to the Scorecard, is $13,854.  The fine print explains, however, the “total” in “typical total debt” isn’t total at all.  It is just total federal student debt—excluding private debt and debt secured by students’ parents such Federal PLUS loans.  Nor does “typical” mean typical.  $13,854 is a median figure, and only 20 percent of Haverford students receive federal loans.

So it is not surprising that a robust 95 percent of Haverford graduates who took federal student loans have paid “at least $1 of the principal balance” within three years of leaving school.  I do wonder about the remaining 5 percent who could not scrounge up even that much.  The national average among college students paying down their debt is 67 percent.

Commodification

My apologies to readers who have steadfastly walked beside me through those numbers.  The main things to be taken from them, I would say, is that the Department of Education has assisted a very expensive college in its efforts to look affordable and that the DOE has also advanced the narrative that traditional colleges are still a financial bargain for most of the students who attend them.

To go deeper than this requires that you make comparisons, and the Scorecard certainly lends itself to both consumer shopping for the highest rates of return on “investment” in college expenses and to various sorts of ranking.  NPR’s Planet Money team provided some of the rankings that the Department of Education decided not to.  The Planet Money team came up with several analyses.  Anthony Carnevale’s list offers no great surprises:  his rankings, which blend income and some other factors, put Harvard first, with the median wage of graduates ten years after entry as $87,200.  Next are MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Babson.  The highest median earnings, however, come not to Harvard grads but to MITers, at $91,600.  Number six on the list is the Georgia Institute of Technology, at $74,000—then Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and “University of the Sciences in Philadelphia” (the new name for the former Philadelphia College of Pharmacy), and so on.

Other Planet Money lists focus on colleges that emphasize upward mobility and colleges that leave students with “little debt and good financial opportunities.”  The lists differ in appreciable ways. Duke is number 13 on Carnevale’s list, absent on the upward mobility list, and number 1 on the best financial sense list.

We will be playing this new game for many years to come.  It is nothing to be especially happy about:  just one more step in the fatal march towards treating higher education as a commodity.

Inequalities

The data plays into the hands of those who are endlessly preoccupied with the forms of “inequality” in our society.  Kevin Carey writing in the New York Times observed, “the deeper that you delve into the data, the more clear it becomes how perilous the higher education market can be for students making expensive, important choices that don’t always pay off.”

Yes, the data show that, which one might say is a reason to be a little more cautious in how emphatically we speak of college as an “investment.”  Carey, however, turns his attention to the “earnings gender gap” revealed by the data.  At Duke, the median earnings for women graduates are $93,100—which is pretty nice.  But the median for Duke’s male alumni ten-years-out is $123,000.  What are we going to do about it? Carey doesn’t say but he is broadly on the side of “need-based financial aid to low-income students.”

Carey does give a nod to the danger of “defining higher education in purely economic terms.”  But the risk he sees arises from “corporatization of the modern university,” which scants the need for students to learn to be better citizens, and the need for “dancers and poets” as well as “investment bankers and tech entrepreneurs.”

He goes not nearly far enough.  Higher education is about entrusting to each new generation the legacy of a civilization.  We learn—or we should learn—respect for reason, civil dialogue, the great accomplishments of art and science, the enormity of our failures, the profundity of our ideals, and a great deal more that makes us not just capable of carrying forward a society worth living in but an eagerness to do so.  A college education rightly conceived prepares its graduates for leadership in that society, not just material success—and maybe not even material success, since a high income ten-years-out isn’t necessarily the only or the best mark of leadership.

Ideals Matter

To say these sorts of things, of course, is to risk a derisory smile or two.  The worldly wise know that money counts, and faced with enormous tuition bills and substantial debt, nearly everyone will consult the numbers first and the ineffable ideals maybe later.

But the ideals are, in the end, what matters.  There would be no college education for anyone if Western civilization hadn’t created and sustained the conditions for higher education.  Our colleges and universities now coast on the considerable momentum of that achievement, but they do little to replenish it.  The College Scorecard is one more step downward towards a utilitarian calculus of learning—a calculus promoted far more by the egalitarian left than the freedom-minded right.

I suspect we would have been better off as a nation without having launched this particular invitation to compare paychecks, but there is probably no going back.  Those of us who care about defending liberal learning against the tendency to dissolve everything in the universal solvent of money have one more obstacle.  And no doubt our overpriced and profligate colleges and universities have brought this on themselves.

The Pressure of Group Thought

Academic “consensus” is in the news. Stetson University professor of psychology Christopher Ferguson, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education,recently gave a run-down on how the American Psychological Association supposedly compromised itself by manipulating a task force into endorsing harsh interrogations of prisoners.  Ferguson says the APA “crafted a corrupted ‘consensus’ by excluding those who might disagree.”

Which is, of course, exactly how the dodgy “climate consensus” works too. “Climate consensus” is the rhetorical club wielded by the proponents of the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming. On campus—and in many other venues—to express the slightest doubt about the theory is to risk a “climate consensus” drubbing.  “Consensus” in this sense is pretty close to what John Adams warned in 1788 could become “the tyranny of the majority.”

The U.S. Constitution was meant to forestall that tyranny; but Americans also found other ways to hold back the eagerness of proud majorities to impose their views on everyone else.  The doctrine of “academic freedom” is one of those majority-busting concepts.  An idea isn’t necessarily right merely because lots of people like it.  Keeping a space open for dissenting views is always a good idea.

And that’s why when someone pulls the “consensus” card out of the deck, it is probably time to demand a new shuffle.

Interrogations

Christopher Ferguson tiptoes around the fake climate consensus.  His essay, after all, was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which flinched when the climate thugs came out a few years ago, and these days it never deviates from its consensus crouch.  Ferguson genuflects before the global warming consensus: “of course” it is “based on the quality of the data.”  He fails to mention that the data and the theory have never matched and the discrepancy has grown into a yawning chasm in the last eighteen years of the “pause” in global warming.  But let’s not pause.

Ferguson does have other examples.  He cites the 1986 Seville Statement in which twenty scholars convened by UNESCO serenely declared that human nature has no “genetically programmed” tendency towards violence.  As Ferguson notes, the science since Seville hasn’t been friendly to that particular consensus.

When Consensus Collapses

Ferguson’s examples of the “consensus” of one historical moment collapsing in the next is intriguingly brief.  I suspect he or the editors of the Chronicle did not want to remind readers of just how many consensus idols once cherished by academics have crumbled into dust.  Or, being cherished, are held together by the intellectual equivalent of Elmer’s Glue-All.

Once upon a time, Margaret Mead’s view of “culture” enjoyed the status of consensus in anthropology. Culture, to Mead, was an Open Sesame that permits any social arrangement we care to imagine and abolishes the constraints of human nature. Mead-ism still has its supporters, especially among advocates of outré arrangements such as polyamory and transsexual rights, but it has long since dissolved into intractable controversy.  No well-informed observer within anthropology would claim that there is a “consensus” about the quality of Mead’s field observations or the breathtaking generalizations she drew from them about human sexuality.

For many years it was an article of faith—and consensus on the American left—that Alger Hiss had been wrongly accused of spying for the Soviets and lying about it under oath.  Hiss was accused in 1948, convicted of perjury in January 1950, and sentenced to five years in prison. For the rest of his life (he died in 1996) Hiss maintained his innocence and enjoyed fervent support from liberals as well as leftists. But shortly after that, Ron Radosh, Harvey Klehr, and John Earl Haynes, and other researchers in the archives of the former Soviet Union turned up irrefutable evidence of Hiss’s guilt.

When a “consensus” dies, die-hard supporters remain.  Believers in Hiss’s innocence remain. Perhaps there is something in human nature, overlooked by Margaret Mead, that causes some people to stick with a sinking ship even after all that is left is a half-submerged deck chair.

Consensus after consensus has sunk beneath the waves, but it is a big ocean.  There was room in it for the Cold War revisionist thesis that blamed Stalin’s aggression on the West, and room too for the War on Poverty and for Affirmative Action.  Those ideas, of course, are not dead, but they are shadows of the “consensus” once claimed on their behalf.

None of these examples peep out from Ferguson’s Chronicle article, but he does offer the telling observation that consensus-style arguments in the social sciences are especially bad.  Ferguson observes that such consensus “has usually been declared despite continuing debate among scholars.”  An example or two might have helped.  What about the question that got Larry Summers defenestrated at Harvard?  Why are there so few women at the highest levels of mathematics and theoretical sciences?  The “consensus” answer—discrimination against women explains everything—was indeed imposed “despite continuing debate.”  We are in much the same territory with the new “consensus” on the percentage of college women who are assaulted.

Ferguson’s own example of phony consensus is from research on the effects of video games on children. I’ll take his word that the field is rife with flimsy claims dressed up as “consensus.” The more interesting question he raises is why the word “consensus” carries such weight.

To answer that, it helps to have a sense of how the word climbed into popular use.

Different Seeds

If you go to Google’s famous Ngram Viewer, which tracks the frequency with which words appear in books year by year for many centuries, you will find there was virtually no “consensus” in the English-speaking world in the 17th century.   An apparent “consensus” boomlet between 1625 and 1630 was caused by the printing of a Latin text comparing the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views of the teachings of Peter on church doctrines of matrimony.   The word was still Latin for the most part, though a 1675 English dictionary offers “consension,” meaning “agreement,” not to be confused with “conseminate” which is “to sow different Seeds together.”

Consensus didn’t escape Church Latin and some specialized medical meanings until the end of the 19th century.  A sober little essay on “Pitfalls in English” that appeared in the Journal of the Canadian Bankers’ Association in 1897 (why there?) calls out the phrase “consensus of opinion” as a vogue usage that has replaced “the general opinion.”  The Canadian bankers, alert to pitfalls, observed that “consensus of opinion” is redundant because “consensus” all by itself means “agreement in opinions” and “agreement of opinions of opinions is not a very neat expression.”

After that the term rumbles along for half a century at a low level of usage.  The Adoption of the Consensus System is the Only Remedy for Political Chaos huffs the title of a 1927 tract.  The Boy Scout magazine, Boys’ Life, in 1933 describes its selection of football players for the all-Scout all-America team as “the consensus of five nationally famous all-America selections.”

The point at which the word takes off is 1950.  Duke University Press that year published Toward Consensus for World Law and Order, which seems to have been a pro-UN screed popular with what we now call Peace Studies folk.  In the July 1950 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the eminent Michael Polanyi warned that “Scientific consensus can properly emerge only by a discussion based on the mutual grounds of the same scientific convictions.  It cannot be negotiated in the manner of a contract, nor decided by any voting procedure.”  By the late 1950s, “consensus” is clearly in vogue as an academic term cropping up in all manner of topics, from Richard Hofstadter’s history of the progressive era, The Age of Reform, to such oddities as sociologist Gresham Sykes’ study of a maximum security prison in New Jersey, where he writes about “the hard core consensus expressed by the members of the captive population.”

Culture Wars vs. Consensus

After that, “consensus” talk just grew and grew, the upside-down image of consensus reality, which withered and cracked.  All through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, as the Culture Wars took shape and America split apart into identity groups that wanted nothing to do with the old “melting pot,” American writers turned out books and articles by the thousands extolling “consensus.” I won’t try to follow this ascent in detail.  I don’t think there is any one book or author who stands as the redwood tree in the forest of ordinary consensus celebrants.  But there are curious further developments.  Around 2000—the year George W. Bush was elected—“consensus” began a slow decline in popularity, and an even sharper decline starting in 2007.  But then the Obama years bring a consensus come-back.  Google finds a paltry 876,000 “consensus” documents in 2008.  It zooms to 1.8 million in 2009, then climbs steadily to 9.6 million by 2014.

Permission to speculate?  I see some evidence that “consensus speak” is largely the rhetoric of the left.  Consensus is the agreement or the solidarity that the left seeks to declare when it sees itself as able to dominate.  The left isn’t so interested in consensus when it is out of office or sees its rivals on the rise.  The right seems far less interested in consensus, nationally or internationally.  Probably that’s because the right tends to see politics as the balancing of competing interests rather than a winner-take-all game.

Be that as it may, the American infatuation with consensus does seem to vary inversely with our actual level of social agreement. Consider a divisive issue that marks as well as anything the divisions of the culture war:  abortion.  In the Google Ngram world, the chart of increased use of the word “consensus” is a close match with the use of the word “abortion.”  They rise and fall together.

Distrusting Consensus

The left today is infatuated with “consensus” as a tool that can be used to ostracize views it would rather not have to debate.  If there is a consensus on “Black Lives Matter” or “Climate Change,” the matter is settled.  The herding instinct of the collectivist left is stroked by consensus.  The right has some of these herding impulses too, but it also has a much stronger strand of individualism, and for individualists the pronouncement that something is backed by consensus is a warning label.  That label says, “Probably contains unwarranted assumptions, unfounded factual claims, and an aversion to considering alternative ideas.”

But liberals don’t always like consensus, and there is one particular consensus they heartily dislike: the broad agreement among Americans in favor of America itself.  In her book, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (2008), Stanford University historian Wendy L. Wall, for example, works hard to demolish “the façade of consensus” in the United States, which “concealed an ongoing context involving many different groups.”  When the opposite of consensus is social diversity, naturally academic sentiment is on the side of diversity.  Diversity trumps in every context except diversity of ideas.

There was a time, however, when liberal sentiment was decisively on the side of national consensus.  The historian and political scientist Clinton Rossiter famously described Parties and Politics in America (1960) as founded on consensus.  And he seemed to think this was a good thing: “The American consensus is unique in its virility and broad appeal”; America has “an acceptable consensus among the elites in every part of the land”; and “The blessed fact of the American consensus forces the parties to share many of the same ideas. The blessed fact of American diversity forces them to be selective about the ideas they may wish to emphasize at any one time or any one place.”

It bears pointing out that the “diversity” Rossiter was writing about was the political culture of the states.  “Diversity” as a code word for ethnic identity groups had not yet been born. By the end of the 1960s, however, the old consensus was dead—and so was Clinton Rossiter, who committed suicide at Cornell in the aftermath of the seizure of the student union by heavily armed black students.  Rossiter’s attempts to temporize with violent racial grievance had left him few friends and nowhere to stand.  Sic transit consensus.

Consensual Relations

“Consensus” seems to be in decline.  Christopher Ferguson’s Chronicle article is part of the evidence, and so too is the freezing up of campus debate on contested issues.  As quite a few observers have now pointed out, we have moved into a period in which students themselves are attempting to silence dissenting opinions.  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s thorough account in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” takes us right to the heart of a movement, “driven largely by students, to scrub campuses of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”  This is “consensus” thinking in action. If “everyone” agrees, we can just disregard the ignorant or stubborn few who actually don’t agree.

That might seem like “consensus” on the rise rather than in decline, but the logic of cultural change is always full of irony and inversions.  The self-coddling students imposing a new Victorian etiquette on campus and the viciously enforced pseudo-consensus on global warming are two different kinds of admission that “the tyranny of the majority” in higher education is breaking down.  That tyranny works most effectively when it is quietly assumed.  If the proponents have to use sharp elbows and uppercuts, the pretense of “consensus” is demolished.

Should we want consensus to rule in higher education?  At a certain level, yes.  We need consensus on the framing principles:  searching for truth; listening to opposing points of view; demanding evidence for assertions; asking skeptical questions even—or perhaps especially—when skepticism is unwelcome; learning how to respond to substantive arguments; and grasping that ad hominem attack is not the way civilized people respond to those with whom they disagree.  And the individual scholarly disciplines need some practical consensus.  We need to agree on what the mass of a kilogram is and whether class meets today or tomorrow.  But we can actually get by rather well in the midst of strong disagreements about fundamental questions.  Does God exist?  What is human nature?  Is American exceptionalism valid?  It is not that the answers don’t matter.  It is that getting to the answer by imposing a “consensus” is bound to have bad results for a free people who need to learn how to think for themselves.

Books for Book Virgins and Book-o-phobes

The annual controversy over books assigned to freshmen as summer reading is upon us.  Spoiler alerts.  Odysseus makes it home. Hamlet dies. The Whale wins.

Oh, not those books.  We are talking more about White Girls (by Hilton Als, 2013) and Purple Hibiscus (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003).  White Girls, as one reviewer puts it, is “an inquiry into otherness” by a writer for the New Yorker, who is a black male.  Purple Hibiscus is a novel by a Nigerian woman that depicts the travails of fifteen-year-old girl who has to cope with her violent and cruel, fanatically Christian father.

In 2014, the topmost assigned book (17 out of 341 colleges that have such programs) was Wes Moore’s account of a convicted murderer who shares his name and his beginning as a fatherless black child in Baltimore, The Other Wes Moore (2010).  Second on the list (eight colleges) was Dave Eggers’ novel about a woman who works for a privacy-destroying internet company, The Circle (2013), and third was Rebecca Skloot’s account of the poor black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the first human cell line to be kept growing in a lab,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010).  In 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his efforts to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, Just Mercy (2014) will be the winner.

Books Younger Than Their Readers

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been assiduously tracking all the books selected by all the colleges that do this sort of thing.  We call them “beach books,” but the usual term is “common readings.”  NAS executive director Ashley Thorne has pretty much single handedly turned a minor campus phenomenon into a subject of widespread controversy—the subject of annual conferences, legislative hearings, and mass media attention.  The latest reverberation was a report on July 23 on NPR.

This year 93 percent of the books assigned to “first-years” (the new PC term for freshmen) are younger than the students who are asked to read them.  There are many threads to the beach books story, but the extreme youth of most of the books is the most revealing.  Why so much emphasis on hot-from-the-presses titles?

We’ve heard three answers. First, the program coordinators insist that the best way to engage students is to bring the author to campus to speak.  That makes for a nice income stream for some contemporary writers, and too bad for Mark Twain.  He had his chance.

Second, the coordinators tell us they have to meet the students where they are. Many are “book virgins” who reach college never having read any book cover to cover.  Such students need to be coaxed by assigning them a book that is “right now.”

And third, the coordinators are convinced that the past is over and done with anyway and, regardless of what the students think, the focus should be on contemporary social issues.

This last one concerns me most, but the other two are lame as well.  College students should get used to reading books by dead people.  If you can’t read Edith Wharton or Mary Wollenstonecraft without her in the room, hire an actor.  As for book virgins and book-o-phobic first years, why not get them started on the real thing?  If Hemingway is too hard, try Aesop’s Fables.  If Aesop’s talking animals are above their level, try Mother Goose.  Am I exaggerating how bereft of literary foundations these students are?  I hope so.

No Dead Writers, Please

But the third point—that education all by itself requires that the beach books be molded from the freshest, most up-to-date progressive sand—deserves a little more attention and, let’s say, a lot more opprobrium.  Among the responses to the recent NPR report on summer readings came this crystalline summation from an undergraduate named Kai:

Good literature teaches students about our world now, about the challenges our society faces and will continue to face. Climate change, inequity, and—this is the big one—discrimination (especially racial). Real world issues start to be acknowledged when college kids read about them in books like “A Long Way Gone,” “White Girls,” or “The New Jim Crow.” And that’s why college reading programs SHOULD NOT contain the classics. College reading should be controversial, inspiring, provocative contemporary literature.

Kai is full of youthful arrogance.  He’s read someone named “Vergil” in the original.  But he sees the need to get beyond “institutionalized, oppressive traditions.”  The literature that “has shaped the predominant modes of interaction in western civilization” may be “fun to read—indulgent, even,” but it is time to move on.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of poor Kai.  He is clearly an eager student who has diligently taken in the premises of his college and enthusiastically made them his own.  But his is the voice of someone imprisoned in “now,” for whom “good literature” is writing by contemporary social activists.  He is oblivious to the need to learn about the past and the deep ways in which great literature from previous eras bears on the present.

We all, of course, live in the present and need to pay attention to its particular demands, which include listening to people prose on about “climate change” as earlier generations prosed on about other supposed menaces.  Inequity and discrimination?  Kai might be on firmer ground if he knew more history and understood how much inequity and discrimination are endemic to the human condition.  Virgil, for example, has something to say on the topic of oppression.

Devaluing the Past

The saturation of college students in what might be called present-tense books should worry us.  Higher education cannot of course erase the past but it can radically devalue it.  Introducing students to college-level reading by feeding them candy bars of social outrage is about the poorest way I can imagine to develop their taste for serious ideas expressed with power, imagination, and intelligence.

The problem is not new.  We noticed this extreme focus on contemporary books in our first study of common readings in 2010, when we found the “vast majority” of assigned books in the 290 colleges we studied to have been published in the preceding decade.  But back then, we did find ten colleges (3.4 percent of the total) that had reached back further.  Thoreau’s Walden made an appearance, as did Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  More daringly, two colleges had assigned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

We have redone and expanded the study each year since then.  The list of books that are assigned changes dramatically from year to year—as naturally it would if the college is set on chasing the winds of ideological fashion.  But what doesn’t change is the relentless focus on books that are in their dewy youth.  In 2010, it was the world of Steve Lopez’s account of a skid-row violinist, The Soloist (2008); Greg Mortenson’s account of his building schools for girls in Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea (2007); and Sonia Nazario’s account of a child from Central America illegally slipping in the United States, Enrique’s Journey (2006).

The Soloist is now off playing by himself in a different skid row.  Mortenson’s cup ran dry when he was exposed as a fraud; those Pakistani girls’ schools were made up.  Enrique went underground for a while but has resurfaced in view of current illegal immigration.

The relative youth of a book is no knock against it as a book, but it is a knock against making it the one (and usually only) book that a class of college students will read together.  I’ve elsewhere made my own suggestions for better books for the first-year beach babies.  I’m moderate about this.  If Don Quixote is too long and Crime and Punishment too dark, try The Right Stuff or Life on the Mississippi, or perhaps better yet, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This article was originally published on the National Association of Scholars site.

Metal Fatigue and Campus Pessimism

When I was in college I got a job one summer blasting, scraping, and sanding the corroded sides of dry-docked ships.  It sounded like nasty, if well-paid, work. But before I could don gloves and mask in my war on barnacles, some union called a strike and my job was wiped out.  I ended up in a still less glamorous job on a road crew, scraping hapless raccoons from asphalt.

Even decay, it seems, isn’t an entirely reliable business.

My youthful almost-employment as an agent of maritime tidiness was resting somewhere in my mental scrapheap, long forgotten.  I’ve been busy with more up-to-date concerns, among them the critique of the campus sustainability movement. In March, Rachelle Peterson and I rolled out our stainless new National Association of Scholars’ study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, and we’ve been fashioning hood ornaments for it ever since.

But something stirred that old memory:  I noticed Rust: The Longest War, Jonathan Waldman’s corrosive new book.  It is what the title says, a book about the weathering away of steel girders and tie rods and all our other iron pinions with which we try to hold the present against the inevitable rust of time.  Sustainability? Take that, says rust.  And rust wins.

Steel for Stone

What a perfect time for Waldman’s thoughtful appreciation of this enemy of civilization.  We have built our world on metals.  Copper tools were invented about six thousand years ago, and copper alloyed with tin gave us the harder-edged Bronze Age about 4,500 years ago.  Metal plowshares, metal swords, and metal hand tools created the material conditions for large-scale agriculture and for cities and states, and eventually for art and science.

There is only so much you can do with wood and stone.  Today’s enthusiasts for “paleo diets” and pre-industrial technologies sometimes forget the eagerness for metal among those people who lacked it.  Western sailors had to fight Polynesians who would try to pull the metal nails out of the decks of visiting ships.  The Australian anthropologist Lauriston Sharp wrote a classic essay about an aboriginal tribe, the Yir Yoront, whose contact with whites was sporadic and minimal until the 1940s.  For the Yir Yoront, the stone ax was the principal “piece of capital equipment,” used to produce firewood, makes huts, and part of every important act of survival.  Making a good stone ax was arduous skilled labor and the ax itself was, unsurprisingly, an object of deep significance.

Yet given the opportunity to acquire steel axe heads, the Yir Yoront didn’t hesitate.  The steel axes rapidly displaced the old technology.  The anthropologist duly recorded that a kind of cultural collapse ensued “in the realm of traditional ideas, sentiments, and values.”  Women and young men obtained access to the new axes, which undermined Yir Yoront hierarchy and ritual.  Axes have consequences, as Richard Weaver might have said.

In Waldman’s book one can learn about the heroic endeavors of the American Galvanizers Association whose members take the battle to the rusty foe, while fighting rearguard actions against the rival stainless steelers and the paint industry.  It is an entertaining book as well as a handsomely written one:

Every metal is vulnerable to corrosion.  Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black.  It’s turned Mars red.

But what does this have to do with higher education?

Preservations

The battle over sustainability on campus and elsewhere can be thought of as a contest between competing ideas of preservation.  Those who favor “sustainability” set themselves up as seeking the preservation of the natural order against the destructive changes to the planet wrought by humanity.  Those who critique the sustainability doctrine generally hold that humanity will thrive only by dint of further development of the earth’s resources and further advances in science and technology.  The critics seek to preserve the cultural legacy of our civilization.

Things, of course, get a lot more complicated than that two-way choice between preserving nature and preserving culture.  Both sides stake some claims to the other’s territory.  Sustainatopians want to preserve some pieces of culture as well as nature.  Uber-sustainatopian Bill McKibben, for example, fancies beekeeping.  And virtually all critics of sustainability favor clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment.  But once each side has gathered in its share of the other’s bounty, the division is robust.  Sustainatopians see nature as essentially benign and the Earth as terribly fragile.  Once the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide exceeded 350 parts per million, the Earth was on an unstoppable slide to catastrophic global warming.  That’s why McKibben named his activist group 350.org.

The enviro-catastrophism has in the view of its college and university advocates a straight line application to what colleges actually do.  How can you sit around reading Plato or Jane Austen when the Arctic icepack has melted?  How can we teach political theory as if nations mattered when the only viable solution to climate change lies in transnational institutions?  How can we teach biology as if the Anthropocene—the age of manmade climate change—hadn’t already begun to produce mass extinctions?

Indeed every subject in the curriculum can be refashioned around the goal of putting the issues of sustainability in its center. That’s exactly what the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment asks of higher education, and exactly what most of them are doing.  Rachelle and I spent some time documenting this.  Yale classifies more than 400 of its undergraduate courses as “sustainability focused” or “sustainability related.”  At Cornell, 68 percent of the academic departments offer sustainability courses.  At Middlebury it is 72 percent.

But leave aside the details.  The main point is that the sustainability doctrine authorizes—or perhaps more accurately demands—the subordination of all forms of inquiry to the larger goal of preserving the natural order.  Sometimes this is phrased in quasi-mystical language, such as the call from Peggy Bartlett of Emory University for a “re-enchantment” of nature.  But generally it is just assumed into place.  We all know the “climate consensus.” Our world is at grave risk.  Let’s not waste time on superficial things such as the old liberal arts curriculum.

The opposing view—my view—is that, even if the natural world is at risk, what higher education should be most concerned about is the preservation of our culture.  The chances of doing something about global warming are vastly improved if we remain a civilization that commands the power to innovate and the optimism to believe we can address our problems successfully.  Turning our colleges and universities into wheelhouses of apocalyptic fantasy and cultural despair is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Sustainatopian belief is corrosive.  It turns the institutions on which we depend for cultural vitality into recruitment centers for hostility to our civilization.

Rust Happens

Civilizations are, in principle, made to last.  But so are ships, bridges, and skyscrapers, and none of them last forever.  Rust happens.

Colleges and universities ought to be our galvanizers.  The effort to preserve is not a matter of resting content that we have true and perfect knowledge that merely needs to be carried forward intact from generation to generation.  Real preservation requires an active commitment, the blasting, scraping, and sanding of the cultural corrosion that inevitably gains ground if we don’t intervene; the replacement of the broken parts; the determination to keep the essential and to improve where possible

A truly sustainable civilization requires the strength to say no to the idea of going back to nature.  That so many in our society are fatigued by metal and ready to divest from carbon is a bad sign, a diversion of our imagination and energy to a dead-end fantasy at a time when we need robust and creative thinking. Trading up from stone to steel axes may have been traumatic, but trading back down will be a lot more so.

Two Controversial Professors

The AAUP—the American Association of University Professors—held its annual Conference on the State of Higher Education at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. June 10-14.  A few subway stops away, the Heartland Institute held its tenth International Conference on Climate Change at the Washington Court Hotel, June 11-12.  I suspect that I am the only person to attend both.

Both events dealt with the issues of academic and intellectual freedom.  Both focused on current threats to such freedoms.  Both pictured a world in which politically-motivated foes of free expression are using their wealth and power to silence legitimate dissent.

But, of course, these events were polar opposites.  The AAUP was gearing up to pass a resolution to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for rescinding its offer of an academic appointment to Steven Salaita.  The Heartland Institute was championing the work of Dr. Willie Soon, the solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who came under attack by Greenpeace and the New York Times after he published an important article in Science Bulletin.

Both controversies have received ample coverage, though I think it is quite possible, even likely, that people who know a lot about one may not know a lot about the other.  A primer:

Steven Salaita. He was a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who in October 2013 received an offer for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, contingent on the board of trustees’ approval.  On August 1, 2014, the university’s vice president of academic affairs and its chancellor wrote to Salaita informing him that they were not proceeding with the appointment.  Salaita appealed to the trustees who on September 10, 2014, voted 8 to 1 not to reconsider his appointment.  Salaita soon after filed a lawsuit which is on-going.

The reason that the university gave for withdrawing its offer of an academic appointment was that Salaita’s inflammatory public statements about Israel would hamper his ability to teach and the university’s ability to attract students, faculty and staff.  The president of the University of Illinois Robert Easter summarized this view when he asked the board not to approve Salaita’s appointment:

“Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed…I am also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university … to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff.”

The decision created a furor and quickly drew the attention of the AAUP.

Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. A plasma physicist, he has served as a non-tenured employee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics since 1991, where he previously did his post-doctoral work.  In 2003 Soon published a paper in Climate Research in which he argued that the 20th century was not the warmest in the last millennium.  The paper occasioned much controversy, and in 2011 Greenpeace using documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests attacked Soon for receiving over $1 million in funding from petroleum and coal interests.

In January 2014, Soon was the co-author on another paper, “Why Models Run Hot: Results from an Irreducibly Simple Climate Model,” which takes exception to the “consensus” climate models that predict significant global warming because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.  In February, directly following the publication of this paper, the Guardian and The New York Times making use of material provided by Greenpeace and “an allied group,” Climate Investigations Center, ran attacks on Soon for supposedly failing to disclose his sources of funding and for “conflicts of interest.”

Wishing Settlers Get Lost

The speech that gave rise to the University of Illinois’ action against Salaita consisted of his numerous statements on Twitter in 2014 that were, as Inside Higher Education put it, “deeply critical of Israel” to the point of striking some “as crossing the line into uncivil behavior.”  Perhaps the most famous of these was Salaita’s comment on June 19, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped (but before they were found murdered), “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not:  I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”  Salaita’s rants have struck many readers as anti-Semitic, but he stoutly denies this. Salaita’s caustic and often extremely uncivil tone is not limited to his tweets.  Many of his reviews and his other academic writings are in a similar vein.

The scholarly paper that landed Soon on the front page of The New York Times and in many follow-up stories in the liberal media contains nothing rhetorical or demeaning.  It is a straightforward scientific argument. The abstract runs in part:

Between the pre-final and published drafts of the Fifth Assessment Report, IPCC cut its near-term warming projection substantially, substituting “expert assessment” for models’ near-term predictions. Yet its long-range predictions remain unaltered. The model indicates that IPCC’s reduction of the feedback sum from 1.9 to 1.5 W m−2 K−1 mandates a reduction from 3.2 to 2.2 K in its central climate-sensitivity estimate; that, since feedbacks are likely to be net-negative, a better estimate is 1.0 K; that there is no unrealized global warming in the pipeline; that global warming this century will be <1 K; and that combustion of all recoverable fossil fuels will cause <2.2 K global warming to equilibrium.

The text of the article itself continues in this vein.

One might think the effort to drum a senior physicist out of the academy through a campaign of public smears and innuendo would concern the AAUP at least as much as the decision by a university not to proceed with the appointment of an ardent polemicist. But that is not the case.

I was at the AAUP conference for two sessions devoted to the topic of academic freedom. Salaita was a major theme in one of the sessions—on “Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression on Campus”—and a secondary theme as the second session on “Versions of Academic Freedom.” Willie Soon was never mentioned, although at the end of the second session some audience members edged towards the topic.  A professor from Florida State University complained that the Koch Foundation is violating academic freedom by paying for some faculty positions in the economics department there.  And another member of the audience followed up by avowing that the Koch brothers are terrible people whose fossil-fuel riches are used in part to deny climate change!

‘Consensus’ Science

Climate Change conferees likewise had nothing to say about the travails of Steven Salaita, though here the parallel breaks down.  The Climate Change conference was not aimed at an all-embracing view of academic freedom.  It was focused on the specific contentions that a self-interested establishment is impeding the publication of accurate climate data, well-designed scientific research, and scrupulous economic analysis.  It was also focused on the ways in which reasoned debate and criticism of “consensus” science and regulation are being stymied.  Salaita was not relevant.

The Role of Civility

I have tried to strike a non-partisan tone in these descriptions but I don’t mean to imply that I am a neutral party.  I was invited to the AAUP event by my friend John K. Wilson, who has regularly asked me to AAUP events that I might enrich the conversation with some views that would probably otherwise go unvoiced.  This year my NAS colleague, Executive Director Ashley Thorne, also gave a talk in which she defended the ideal of “civility” as part of what we should expect in academic discourse.  Her fellow panelists and the audience were unpersuaded.

Civility to them is one of the masks that the powerful use to suppress free, creative, dissenting, and unorthodox ideas and speech.  For my part, I urged the idea that academic freedom is to be valued as the means by which the university encourages the pursuit of truth, and that the attempt to deploy the rhetoric of academic freedom as a cover for engaging in political advocacy is a misuse of the concept.  My fellow panelists and the audience also found little attraction in that approach. Pursuit of truth, it seems, is another mask that the powerful wear when they set out to suppress dissent.

At the Conference on Climate Change, the National Association of Scholars was the recipient of several enthusiastic endorsements from speakers who drew attention to our report, Sustainability:  Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.  Our table full of handouts was emptied of everything we brought on the first morning.  And the Heartland Institute included a 12-page summary of our 260-page report in the bag of materials that all conferees received. Given that our report takes no stand at all on climate change,” this was a remarkably warm reception. All we did was call for universities to allow open debate that included skeptics of the climate “consensus.”

I find it hard not to be moved by the plight of Willie Soon and other scientists who have become, in effect, “enemies of the people,” for their determination to pursue research that runs against what the climate consensus establishment prefers. The canard that “97 percent” of climate scientists agree with the so-called consensus has been shown up as an artifact of shameless manipulation of the research record.  But no matter: it is repeated endlessly in an effort to make these non-conforming scientists look ignorant, silly, or corrupt.  They are, to the contrary, serious and seriously smart people who have also shown a certain measure of courage.

Science or Politics?

Whether their dissents are accurate will be determined in time to come.  If they are right, the climate consensus is a house of cards built more on political aspirations than on good science.  But, right or wrong, they deserved to be heard and do not deserve to be subject to the sort of ad hominin attack exemplified by what happened to Willie Soon.

So what are academic and intellectual freedom?  They aren’t quite the same thing.  Academic freedom is germane to the university where the disciplined pursuit of truth by rational inquiry and scrupulous examination of the evidence needs to prevail over all orthodoxies of opinion.  Academic freedom can only persist within a community that enforces on itself some degree of compunction about how things are said, including deference to the reality that no matter how strongly we believe in the validity of our own opinions, we may be mistaken and it behooves us to listen with respect to other views.  Intellectual freedom is broader than academic freedom.

It is germane to a free society where every individual ought to enjoy the right to make up his own mind about important questions and where manifestly false opinion or eccentric belief enjoys a wide zone of toleration.  We need not fall silent when confronted with views with which we disagree.  Neither academic freedom nor intellectual freedom entails indulging folly by saying nothing.  But we should never expect to throw someone in jail for an errant opinion or preempt their right to have their say.  If we choose to answer folly, we should do so with our own speech—which just may turn out to involve even greater folly.

The AAUP is celebrating the hundredth year of its founding declaration, its Statement of Principles, which remains one of the great documents in higher education.  Ironically, the AAUP has long since repudiated most of the Statement of Principles, which said all too much about the responsibilities of professors, the need for a scholarly spirit, temperate language, and staying within the guardrails of the professor’s actual expertise.  But no matter, the founding principles of the AAUP are still alive.  In D.C. last week, they were to be found just a few subway stops away.

Why College Today Is a Mishmash

Kevin Carey is convinced that online learning has created a watershed moment in the history of higher education.  Not since Johannes Gutenberg assembled an ensemble of movable type, meltable alloy, oil-based ink, and a screw press in 1439 has there been such a moment—or so says Carey in his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

It is a strong assertion that rests on the relatively fragile facts of no more than twenty years of shaky experiments with the new technology.  If we stick with the Gutenberg analogy, online learning is still in the era of incunabula, that period before 1500 when artisans were still working out what to do with the printing press.  As often as not the early printers set aside Gutenberg’s movable type in favor of a carved wooden block for each page.  Woodblock printing could retain some of the delicate beauty of medieval ornamented manuscripts, but it couldn’t compete with the speed and economy of production and the ease of correction of movable type.

A Serious Man

Kevin Carey is among the handful of contemporary writers on higher education who merit serious attention.  He is far from alone in his enthusiasm for online learning and his belief that it will transform higher education.  But he is a far better writer than other enthusiasts and his book deserves the attention of even those who view the new technologies as a mere diversion from more important things.

In the second chapter of The End of College, Carey compresses into 25 pages the history of the university from the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 to the floodtide of degrees from American colleges and universities in 2012.  It is a neat performance, free of ponderous explanation, narrowing swiftly to the matters at hand, and yet touching nearly all the key matters.  The modifier “nearly” is needed because Carey (deliberately I suppose) skirts the topic of how universities have been shaped by and helped to share broader political and social movements.

A word on this before turning to Carey’s actual subject.  Carey is alert to how higher education has always responded to the changing needs for “intellectual capital.” The medieval university, he writes, arose out of particular circumstances that brought students together in towns where knowledge could be organized and shared.  Universities were from the start the seedbeds of what we would now call transnational elites.  But they also became seedbeds of nationalism, romantic revolutionary ardor, and later Marxism.  In the United States, the history of higher education has been interwoven in complicated ways with religious aspiration and various egalitarian movements, including efforts to advance the rights of women and racial minorities.  It would seem difficult to explain the history of American higher education over the last half century without treating race and racial preferences as a central topic. Yet the topic is entirely missing in The End of College—as are the topics of campus radicalism from SDS to BDS; the sustainability movement; free speech controversies; and the politicization of higher education.

These blind spots are no less evident in Carey’s other writings on American higher education.  Perhaps it is best to say that he knows his audience, which is liberal, self-satisfied, and not perturbed that colleges and universities have become leftist monocultures.

What Charles Eliot Did

What does perturb Carey is that American higher education is a mishmash of efforts to achieve three competing goals:  vocational training, the research enterprise, and the liberal arts.  None of these is accomplished especially well, although the liberal arts come off the worst.  Carey places the blame for the mishmash at the feet of Charles Eliot, the Harvard University president who in 1869 invented the “elective system,” and who also made the bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for admission to Harvard’s graduate and professional schools.  The elective system, soon copied at almost every other college and university, meant the demise of the core curriculum and its replacement by an expensive and expansive collection of courses that led to limited learning and incoherent programs.  In Carey’s assessment, Eliot also opened the door for the faculty to be made up of research specialists who have no training in or necessarily any aptitude for teaching.  The de-emphasis on the core curriculum and the dominance of research over teaching are two sides of the same coin.

But that coin is burnished to a golden gleam with the rhetoric of liberal arts education, endlessly deployed by college presidents who have redefined the “liberal arts” as whatever their institutions happen to be doing at the moment.  Learning to “think critically” covers just about any contingencies short of grunt labor, but maybe that too if the labor is spent sorting recyclables or undertaking other sweaty tasks on behalf of social justice.

Rich in Characters and Ideas

In the 2013 spring semester, Carey enrolled in the MIT online course, The Secret of Life, taught by biology professor Eric Lander.  The course was one of those that MIT made available as a MOOC through the Harvard-MIT online collaboration, edX.  Carey was enthralled by this enormously difficult course, and despite his non-science undergraduate and graduate education, stuck with it, problem sets and all.  The End of College carries The Secret of Life through most of its chapters as Carey weighs its lessons and does the writerly equivalent of turning over proteins and amino acids to see how things fit together.

It is a book rich in characters as well as ideas.  The portrait of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in chapter 3—the former president of George Washington University and one of the people who unleashed the terrific price spiral that has turned American higher education into a cul-de-sac of campus luxury, student debt, and intellectual mediocrity—is fair-minded and finely etched.  Carey’s conversation with Trachtenberg is one of a dozen or so encounters that he draws on to develop his thesis that the old university—what he calls “the hybrid university”—is on the way out and that the new online thing, “the university of everywhere,” is on the doorstep.

Is it really?  The End of College is the best-argued case I have seen yet that digital learning will transform higher education.  Carey is fully aware of the inertial resistance to that transformation.  Our existing colleges and universities have strong institutional reasons to impede it even as they incorporate some of its technology.  And there are deep sources of social and cultural resistance from a public that is invested in the older forms of credentialing and prestige.  “The hybrid university will not disappear tomorrow,” he writes, “but they (hybrid universities) have been ripping off parents and students for decades by shortchanging undergraduate learning.”  There are sober thinkers on the other side of this, such as Andrew Delbanco, who have argued the crisp opposite:  that online education is the barbarian that threatens to despoil undergraduate learning.

The barbarians, if that is what they are, have now found their most eloquent champion in Kevin Carey. Let the contest begin.  Unleash the broadband of war.  Let MOOCs mix it up with Morrill; Gutenberg grapple with GitHub; and edX close quarters with Eliot.  However this works out, Carey acquits himself well on the topic at hand.

A Setback for BDS

The movement to impose a boycott on Israeli universities, to get colleges to divest from Israeli companies, and to impose other sanctions on Israel—the BDS movement (boycott, divest and sanction)—was launched in 2005 by a collection of Palestinian organizations.  Over the last decade it has gathered significant support in American higher education, but the enthusiasm of some American academics for the cause didn’t attract much attention outside the academy until the vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) in December 2013 to join the boycott.

That vote shocked many who had not yet heard of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.  The National Association of Scholars called on the ASA not to join the boycott.  And when the ASA went ahead with it, some colleges and universities responded by dropping their institutional memberships in it.  One consequence of the furor was a series of decisions by other scholarly associations, including the Modern Language Association, to reject proposals that they also join the boycott.

Since then, the BDS movement has been less prominent in American higher education but it has not gone away.  Last week the New School held a two-day conference, “Sanctions and Divestments:  Economic Weapons of Political and Social Change.”  Nimer Sultany, lecturer in public law at the University of London, who is Palestinian and one of the international leaders of the BDS movement, argued that BDS is a promising tool to advance the goal of returning “all Palestinian lands” to Palestinians and to “reverse Israeli colonization.”  Todd Gitlin, the 60s radical who is now the chairman of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, opposed BDS on the grounds that its stated goal is “too broad.”

Vagueness generally helps the proponents of BDS.  At the New School event, Sultany refused to be pinned down as to what exactly its goal might be.  The eradication of Israel?  He wasn’t ruling it out, but neither did he own it.

This reticence about goals may help proponents of the movement to draw in supporters who feel sympathy with dispossessed Palestinians but haven’t thought very much about the implications of the movement’s broad claims.  When those claims come into sharper focus, campus support dwindles.

That lesson was displayed on May 2, when students at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine voted down a proposal to support the boycott. With 1,619 students voting, only 228 voted in favor of the boycott, and 1,144 voted against it. (247 abstained.)  The students showed collective wisdom, and in this case they were influenced by Bowdoin’s out-going president, Barry Mills, who in 2014 issued a strong statement rejecting the boycott movement.

The National Association of Scholars pays special attention to Bowdoin College.  Our 2013 study, What Does Bowdoin Teach?  How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, picked out Bowdoin to serve as a representative institution—one that was small enough to study in depth, but also one whose strengths and weaknesses are widely shared by other elite liberal arts colleges.  In that vein, we took a critical view of the readiness of the Bowdoin administration and the students to embrace fashionable progressive causes.

In this case, however, Bowdoin has demonstrated a more thoughtful and deliberative side.

The idea of getting Bowdoin to boycott Israel had come up before.  Mills’s 2014 statement was a response to an earlier round of advocacy.  A new round began this spring and eventuated in a petition circulated in April by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).   According to one of the group leaders, the goal wasto isolate parts of the Israeli state apparatus that are normalizing the maltreatment of Palestinians and abuses of their human rights.” The petition got enough student signatures for a student-body-wide referendum.  The success of the petition drive, however, alarmed other students who organized a counter campaign.

The Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper, quoted students as saying that they didn’t know enough about the conflict in order to vote with a clear conscience.  This is noteworthy in that it means that students did not take the boycott as the default position.  They did not just assume that the case for the BDS movement was right.  Other students voiced more particular objections such as their preference for a two-state option.  Still others complained that the boycott “threatens academic freedom,” especially the “free exchange of ideas” about the conflict itself.

All of this is encouraging—encouraging that a college community that has often fallen into lockstep conformity on political issues and shown very little interest in allowing a diversity of opinions to flourish re-discovered the value of open debate.

It is especially encouraging because we are in a strange moment in American higher education:  a moment in which intellectual freedom seems terribly imperiled.  The rhetoric of “rape crisis”; the insistence that there is a “climate consensus” that obviates the need to hear from skeptics; the post-Ferguson hyping of the idea that America uses violence to maintain a racial hierarchy—these and many more pronouncements have fostered a campus climate across the country in which students congratulate themselves for shutting down discussion, dis-inviting speakers who might disagree with prevailing opinions, and attacking those few students who stray from the new orthodoxies. Intimidation is the hottest campus trend.

Bowdoin is far from immune to these disorders. It is not a place where intellectual freedom generally flourishes. But as we showed in What Does Bowdoin Teach? there is another, older, and better Bowdoin.  It is reassuring to see the college in this instance find its better self.  And if Bowdoin is indeed representative of elite higher education, perhaps the vote on May 2 is a sign of a broader recovery in American higher education. The BDS movement is an ugly retreat from academic and intellectual freedom. It is heartening to see it beaten back so decisively in a place where its proponents might well have expected an easy win.

‘Dignity,’ Another Legal Trojan Horse

“Dignity” has been taken out for another walk around the block.  In February 2014, I wrote an essay on Minding the Campus in which I commented on Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech to the Swedish Parliament, wherein he spoke of his nation’s commitment to the “dignity” of “every human being.”

Over the last couples of decades, “dignity” acquired a secondary meaning something like “the intrinsic integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and related sexual minority lifestyles.”  The word has become an assertion, first, of equality, as in ‘We all have human dignity and therefore a legitimate right to participate fully in society.’  But the word also asserts, rather aggressively, a moral authority to silence and to punish those who in some way endanger an individual’s experience of “dignity.”  Here the word drifts into the sphere of reasons why people need “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and protection against “micro aggressions.”

The invocation of dignity, I wrote last year, has become an escalation in the rhetorical arms race.

It appears Jeffrey Rosen, the George Washington University law professor and ubiquitous liberal commenter on all things legal, has stumbled into agreement with me.  Writing in The Atlantic on “The Dangers of a Constitutional ‘Right to Dignity,’” Rosen considers what will follow if the Supreme Court “strikes down same-sex marriage bans […] on the grounds that they violate the dignity of gay couples.”

As I pointed out last year, “dignity” is an extra-Constitutional principle in the United States, and one with only a sketchy presence in case law.  If the high court finds a right to gay marriage on the basis of “dignity,” it will be conjuring a new fundamental principle into our legal system.  Justice Kennedy seems eager to do just that, and it rightly worries Rosen.  Rosen notes that the word has appeared in more than 900 Supreme Court decisions.   But that’s misleading.  “Dignity” isn’t to be found in the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or anywhere really, until it was invoked in 1944 by Justice Frankfurter.  After Frankfurter’s opinion, it furtively hung around until our legal elites found themselves in need of rhetoric that would justify making up new law to support the overarching claims of sexual autonomy.  Rosen quotes the Kennedy’s opinion in the 1992 abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where he invoked “choices central to personal dignity and autonomy,” as the ground of the “liberty” to abort.  Kennedy also invoked “dignity” in his 2003 Lawrence decision, sweeping away legal bans on homosexual behavior.

Rosen provides a phrase I had not seen before to describe the matters that Casey and Lawrence now put at the discretion of judges:  curing “dignitary harm.”  If “dignity” were to be further elevated as a principle (“Kennedy’s new synthesis of dignity with liberty and equality”) we will well and truly be launched into a voyage on the high seas of legal improvisation.  Rosen observes that in Kennedy’s mind the dignity that follows an individual’s efforts to gratify his sexual appetites (his “interest in dignity”) trumps “traditional moral values.”

What is to constrain “dignity” as the all-purpose demand that the state protect the sexual adventurer from any and all forms of social disapproval?  The court may yet find a limiting counter principle, but it hasn’t found one yet.  Protecting procreation and preserving “tradition” as such have been “ruled out of bounds.”

So why is Rosen, who is all in favor of gay marriage, worried about the direction of the Court?  He is worried that Constitutionalizing “dignity” would undermine First Amendment rights to free speech.  He also thinks that conservatives could discover their own ways to weaponize the concept, as when Justice Scalia found “a dignitary interest attached to the right to bear arms.”  And Rosen observes, correctly, that the concept is vague and ill-defined.  So vague that conservatives might use it to strike down “progressive legislation.”

Right about that.  If we get stuck with this as a Constitutional principle, I’m not going to waste time fighting it.  I will be lining up with those to express the profound injury to my dignity caused by campus leftists who say mean things about me and in sundry ways show disrespect for my ideas.  Maybe I can get a class action suit going with the other contributors of Minding the Campus who are similarly situated in “dignitary harm” from left-leaning faculty councils and progressive editorial pages.

In truth, I’d rather the Supreme Court back away from making an overriding principle of dignity, and I’m glad Rosen sees it as folly as well.  Rosen and I disagree on the reasons.  In my view, the core                  Constitutional principles of liberty and equality are ample and introducing a Kennedy amendment to our basic law by making “dignity” coordinate with liberty and equality would profoundly undermine our basic freedoms.  At a still deeper level, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “right to dignity” that can legislated or promulgated by courts.  Not for lack of trying, of course.  The EU recognizes such a right, but the EU case also demonstrates that, as a legal right, human dignity is reduced to mere superficialities.

Actual human dignity exists, where it does exist, in the composure of the individual regardless of his circumstances.  It cannot be conferred by a legal decision or a law.  The attempt to confer it that way is doomed to failure but it won’t be a clean failure.  It will take the tablecloth, the glassware, and the soup down with it.

 

 

Is ‘Get a Job’ the Purpose of College?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just made an unforced error.  He proposed—then backed away from—a change in the mission statement for the University of Wisconsin.  I admire Walker and view him as among the more attractive candidates for the Republican nomination.  And in that spirit, I’d like to offer him some friendly advice on a potentially troublesome issue.

Walker’s misstep was a piece of a budget proposal where he removed from the state code the words in the University of Wisconsin mission statement that committed the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and substituted “meet the state’s workforce needs.”  This proposed change instantly set off political reaction in Wisconsin and created a field day for leftist pundits.  Salon headlined the story, “Scott Walker’s Hilarious Screwup.”  Once again, a conservative politician tagged himself as an anti-intellectual ignoramus and a man for whom the idols of the marketplace trump every high-minded ideal.

Walker quickly backed off, and lamely explained the language as a “drafting error.”  But I am ready to assume with the critics that Walker himself signed off on the substitution and that he and some of those around him must have thought it was a good idea at the time.

It plainly wasn’t a good idea.  But the sneering from Walker’s progressive opponents doesn’t explain anything.  Those opponents have simply seized an opportunity to pose as defenders of the search for truth and the improvement of the human condition while casting Walker as a vulgar materialist.  Where have we heard that storyline before?

Reagan in ‘67

As it happens, just a few weeks ago, Dan Berrett, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, declared in “The Day the Purpose of College Changed” that on February 28, 1967, Ronald Reagan singlehandedly reduced college education from a “vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind,” to a means to “prepare students for jobs.”

Reagan accomplished this neat trick, says Berrett, at a press conference a month into his first term as governor.  Asked about his proposed budget that trimmed some money from the University of California, Reagan explained that there would be “some belt-tightening” in all areas of state government but that he would do nothing “harmful to education.”  (The remarks are on pages six and seven of the transcript of the press conference.)

Then Reagan added, “But we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without for a year or two without hurting the cause of education.”

A reporter asked him what he meant by “intellectual luxury,” and Reagan answered with a quip.  He mentioned a course at UC Davis “where they teach you to hang the Governor in effigy.  That in my mind is an intellectual luxury.  Of course, I may be prejudiced.”

The back-and-forth with the reporters continued, with Reagan giving several examples of college courses that seem trivial, and one—on repairing band instruments—that he said was “sort of subsidizing intellectual curiosity.”

That, for Berrett, is the smoking gun.  Governor Reagan, way back in 1967, treated “intellectual curiosity” as secondary.  Berrett recounts that the Los Angeles Times seized the phrase to editorialize against Reagan’s supposed philistine views:  “If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.”

Berrett, like the LA Times in 1967, sees this as all or nothing.  Reagan was not criticizing a frivolous or excessive expenditure, according to Berrett, but was “staking out a competing vision,” namely, “Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it.  A higher education should prepare students for jobs.”

Berrett’s explanation of what Reagan meant, however, is conjured from thin air.  Reagan himself said nothing like that in the press conference or, as far as I can tell, at any other time.

It is rhetorically convenient to set up a little polarity like this:  the good proponents of education for the sake of pure learning vs. the bad proponents of education for vulgar utilitarian ends.  One or the other.  This is, of course, the same trap into which Governor Walker has stumbled.

Higher Education Has Four Purposes, Not Two

Berrett and others like him who set up this either/or are badly mistaken.  Education is and always has been about both learning for learning’s sake and practical training—and two other things as well.  Higher education, at least since the time of Plato, has always had four basic purposes that tug in different directions: the pursuit of truth for its own sake (“intellectual curiosity”); preparation for practical life (“jobs”); the transmission of culture (“civilization”); and the shaping of good character (“citizenship”).  Sometimes these can be brought into balance, but usually they jar against each other.  Aristophanes, who favored the transmission of traditional culture, mocked Socrates as a charlatan; Cicero criticized the Greek philosophers for distracting student from preparation for public life.  Jefferson extolled education as essential not for the pursuit of truth or the preparation of students for work, but as foundation of civic life.

Those of us today who defend liberal education—and we are many—often make arguments for it that go well beyond the value of “intellectual curiosity,” though to be sure intellectual curiosity is important.  Take, for example, William Theodore De Bary, the provost emeritus of Columbia University, whose recent book, The Great Civilized Conversation:  Education for a World Community, is a richly elaborated defense of liberal education as “education for the world community.”  De Bary’s book is one of many in arm’s reach on my book shelf that defy Berrett’s simplistic dichotomy.

Climate Citizens, Rape Culture, ISIS, Employment

Liberal education serves all four purposes at once, but seldom in equal measure.  Because we have limited time and limited resources, and because the world throws up specific challenges at particular historical moments, we do have to choose where to throw the emphasis.

Is this, for example, the moment to emphasize a college education as the tool to turn students into “fully aware, service-oriented climate citizens,” as a dean at The New School explained her university’s new climate commitment?  The New School has just announced its decision to divest from fossil fuels as part of a comprehensive re-orientation of the university to “think differently about climate change.”  The New School  is far from alone in American higher education in its enthusiasm for this cause—a cause on which I am prominent critic and on which my organization is about to issue a major report.  But the point to make here and now is that focusing a college on “climate change” is not about “intellectual curiosity” or “job preparation,” though it can partake a little of both.  Rather, the climate change focus is primarily a version of what I called “shaping good character.”  It aims to produce a particular kind of citizen—what the dean calls a “climate citizen.”  And it does so in the name of a greater good:  saving the planet from the supposed danger of eco-apocalypse.

But other defenders of liberal education offer quite different diagnoses of what should count as the issue that should most inform liberal education today.  If we are, as many feminists and college administrators say, in the midst of a “rape culture” in higher education, what could be more pressing than to stop it?  Would protecting “intellectual curiosity” trump protecting undergraduate women from sexual predators?

Then again, many Americans attentive to the rise of ISIS and the aggressive new barbarianism of radical Islam have come to believe that liberal education today ought to prepare students to stand in defense of Western civilization.  It is a hard sell, since a substantial portion of the American professoriate is ambivalent whether the West is worth defending.  Still the idea of defending the West against Islamo-fascism is one strong way to uphold the importance of liberal arts education.

Let’s add to this list the concern that many Americans have over our nation’s economic prospects.  Officially, the unemployment rate stands at 5.6 percent, but many observers see only statistical deception in that figure.  According to Gallup, only 44 percent of adults age 18 and older have jobs in which they work 30 or more hours a week and get a steady paycheck.   The employment-population ratio stands at about 58.6 percent—more than 100 million Americans do not have jobs.  Granted, some of those don’t want jobs or cannot work, but we add to this picture that recent college graduates are having a very hard time finding work that matches their credentials.  Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe have documented that 48 percent of employed college graduates are working in jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as requiring less than a four-year college education.

With this picture in mind, Governor Walker’s clumsy attempt to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin has at least some warrant.  As a nation, we are spending vast amounts of money on higher education, but achieving rather poor results as far as matching education to “workforce needs.”  Add to this President Obama’s unrelenting insistence on sending greater and greater percentages of students to college, and the $21.8 billion shortfall last year in the federal student loan program, and it is fair to say we have a crisis.  That $21.8 billion, according to Politico, is “apparently the largest ever recorded for any government credit program.”   And President Obama, of course, has just proposed a gigantic increase in federal spending on higher education—in the name of improving the financial prospects of the young and making America more prosperous.

Unlike the global warming crisis and the rape culture crisis, this one is not imaginary.  The gap between what we spend on education and what we achieve in preparing young people for high-skill employment is very large, and the social consequences of the gap are significant.

How we should respond to it, however, is an open question.  Not long ago, Charles Murray in Real Education argued that we should let much of higher education subside into its obsolescence and replace it with a regime of skills-oriented tests.  “Badges” based on such tests are indeed becoming more common.  Others, such as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen in The Innovative University, have called for hybrid models that combine online education with residential experience.  There are plenty of observers  who think the time has come to let “creative destruction” rip through the groves of academe like an army of loggers intent on a clear cut.

And there are plenty of others who shrink in terror at the prospect.  Viewed in that light, Governor Walker’s revision of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement was the intervention of a moderate.  If we are going to save the contemporary university, some significant and painful changes may be necessary.

Back to Berrett

Berrett isn’t entirely unaware that higher education serves multiple ends.  Though he has reduced it to only a two-sided battle between advocates of pure learning and advocates of job preparation, he claims, “These two theories had long existed in uneasy equilibrium.”  The past perfect tense of that sentence is because Reagan, he believes, tipped the balance.  “On that day in 1967, Reagan crystalized what has since become conventional wisdom about college.”  The utilitarians have won.

Berrett’s account of what has happened in higher education is profoundly false, but as sometimes happens, it is false in ways that make it interesting to examine.  How in the world does someone get to the view that Ronald Reagan of all people undermined liberal education?  It is not for lack of attention to the various strands of American thinking about higher education.  Part of the answer is that Berrett follows the lead of the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, whose recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, cites the views of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois.  Berrett does too.

I’ve reviewed Roth’s book elsewhere, which is a piece of leftist self-pleading.  He sets up the same either/or as Berrett.  He vindicates the nonutilitarian value of education, viz. “to teach students to liberate, animate, cooperate, and instigate,” and sets this against the notion of mere vocational training.  Roth is pretty happy with the status quo and seems mostly intent on persuading Americans to continue footing the bill.  His reply to those, like the NAS, who criticize the overexpansion of higher education at the expense of academic standards is that we “seem to be very comfortable with the kinds of inequality that were characteristic of [preindustrial] societies.”  That’s a serpentine way of calling us racists, and it is an interesting subtext to the strawman argument that distinguishes progressive support for “intellectual curiosity” (or Roth’s term, “instigation”) from vocational training.  Who is more concerned about the prospects of young people from impoverished backgrounds—those who want to immerse them in sustainability/women’s studies/identity group studies programs, or those who are concerned about preparing students for the workforce?

But let’s not give this strawman matches to play with.  The truth is that higher education has to find a balance between its competing ideals.  Anyone who sets them off as mutually exclusive is on a path to non-creative destruction.  And therein lies both Governor Walker’s and Dan Berret’s mistake.

But not, as it happens, Ronald Reagan’s.  Dan Berrett himself ends his Chronicle article on what is supposed to be an ironic note, as he quotes Reagan’s address at the inauguration of a new library at Eureka College in 1967—the same year as the press conference.  At the dedication Reagan gave a full-throated defense of the liberal arts tradition, saying that the “answers to all the problems of mankind” could be found in the library.  In fact, there is no irony at all.  Reagan was a civilized as well as a wise man, who could distinguish between the frivolous forms of intellectual curiosity and the profound ends to which intellectual curiosity could be put.  The problem we have today is that so many of those who purport to defend the liberal arts no longer know how to draw that distinction.

Last Thing

The re-emergence of the fatuous distinction between the liberal arts as self-justifying intellectual curiosity and the right’s obsession with bottom line results deserves just a little bit more attention.  Berrett’s Chronicle essay offers a lengthy chronology of how conservatives supposedly tipped the balance in favor of the utilitarian view.  It includes things like the 1973 oil embargo which prompts students to “flock to practical and pre-professional majors,” and the rise of the internet as shifting liberal arts education away from “facts” and toward “habits of mind and skills like critical thinking.”  Berrett also recounts the rise of various higher education organizations in the battle against reducing college to job training.

I take Berrett’s narrative as representative of an argument that I have often heard from left-of-center defenders of contemporary higher education.  They see the peril to the liberal arts as arising almost exclusively from external forces, both material (the oil embargo) and ideological (proponents of free market ideas).

Missing altogether from Berrett’s timeline are things like the 1962 Port Huron Statement, in which the SDS laid out its agenda for using colleges and universities as instruments for radical transformation of American society; the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which was the opening phase of the successful effort by the campus left to unseat the curricular authority of the university; or the success of the effort to establish racial preferences in admissions and “diversity” as the regnant campus creed.  The fragmentation and trivialization of the liberal arts curriculum had a lot to do with these developments.  And the disaffection of millions of Americans with higher education today is in very large part a consequence of the self-destruction of the ideals on which the liberal arts were once based.

Berrett is among those defenders of the status quo who are unable or unwilling to look more than momentarily at the bonfire the left has made of the curriculum and of academic standards.  Where will liberal education go next?  I hope it not only survives, but that it thrives in years to come.  That will happen, however, only if we get serious about defending the essentials and return to Reagan’s distinction between the higher uses of liberal learning and the distractions that merely appropriate the name of the liberal arts.  We need more discernment, less distraction.

My advice to Governor Walker:  don’t fall into the simplistic distinction between the “search for truth” and “workplace needs” that your opponents have set up.  It is a net at your feet meant to trap you.  Asking and expecting universities to address workplace needs is legitimate—more than legitimate, it is urgent.  But it is a goal that can be pursued without making yourself a supposed enemy of open-minded inquiry.  It is your foes who, rightly understood, have snapped their minds shut against the danger of new ideas.