An Open Letter to Students

Students in colleges and universities across America and Canada have recently taken to writing “Open Letters,” such as here, here, and here, in order to “take a stand” on an ideological issue and, just as important, to vent their fury on one or more professors or administrators who are deemed to have deviated from ideological propriety. It is undoubtedly very satisfying to express one’s moral indignation against deviants, and doubly so when turning the tables on judgemental professors who constantly make academic demands and then evaluate student efforts, often with disappointing results for students. There can be a sense of powerlessness among students, and writing damning open letters is a way of taking power from those up the academic hierarchy, with the excuse that one is “speaking truth to power.”

But students were not admitted to college or university to exercise their rhetorical power and impose their ideas on professors and administrators. Most students, coming to higher education as teenagers or recent teenagers, are meant to learn from academic staff who know more than the students. Colleagues in the department where I taught for fifty years were quite smart and highly proficient in academic work. Among the many students, both undergraduates and graduates, who I taught, there were some very bright students, and many others who did their best. But many years of hard work stood in the way of even the brightest students being on the same level as their professors.

Most students have spent their lives in schools and have little experience of the outside world. Their knowledge of the world is very limited. Perhaps that is why some students latch onto simplistic ideologies that pretend to explain the world but in fact reduce it to clever slogans which historically, when acted upon, have led to monumental atrocities. Students acting on these slogans in their open letters attempt to impose local, small-scale atrocities on their universities, often by denouncing and trying to cancel professors, or by ideologically re-programming professors.

In our time, the great offense of targeted professors is that they hold opinions that differ from the activist students who compose open letters. These students hold that these opinions made them “unsafe”; the reality, of course, is that these opinions make the students informed. But when you are committed emotionally to an ideology, contrary ideas are seen to be heretical and contrary to “your” truth, and thus require not just rejection, but punishment, preferably exile for the professor (as corporal attack and summary execution have not yet been mooted by students).

Some of the student interventions are racially motivated, the students claiming that they suffer great racism, oppression, and discrimination. In most cases they are correct: they have benefitted from racial preferences, special considerations, and unique rewards, including privileged, segregated facilities, often under the label of “affirmative action,” and latterly under the label of “diversity and inclusion.” Their demands to dictate university policy are a shameless power grab, aimed at gaining even greater favoritism and benefits and directed toward putting their foot on the neck of those forced to bow to them. University administrators have in most cases capitulated to racist demands, thereby signaling their woke credentials and advancing illiberal policies and undermining academic values. Do all candidates for university administrative positions have to provide an x-ray to prove the absence of a backbone?

It is common in these open letters that the views of the institution or individual attacked are misrepresented and distorted in order to make the strongest case of heresy. As this is a motivated violation of academic values, my suggestion would be that all student signatories receive a three-credit award for an open letter, and a grade of F for the poor quality of the work. This would provide consequences for the violation of academic standards and would encourage future efforts to respect academic values. As for those students who demand the revocation of academic degrees from individuals who hold different partisan ideas, such policies would logically lead to the possibility that the degrees they earn in the future may be revoked if their future views or actions offend other students or professors.

We live in a time of great ideological conformity. All of America’s institutions collude in advancing a progressive narrative and suppressing any diversity of thought and opinion. The press, media, and big tech collude to suppress any discourse critical of progressive assumptions, arguments, and evidence. Universities are in lockstep and avoid diversity of opinion, partly through active suppression by “diversity and inclusion” officers hired to police thought. Censorship has now become a “virtuous” act to ensure ideological purity. The First Amendment has become a dead letter as the Supreme Court passively looks on. America conforms more and more to Communist China, and America’s political elite cheers. Many of America’s students aspire to emulate Mao’s Red Guard. Academic values and true education are beyond decline—they are actively forbidden.


Image: Aaron Burden, Public Domain

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Students

  1. 25 years ago an invited speaker to a faculty colloquium stated there was little liberal influence in the U.S. (No, it wasn’t April 1st.) I prefaced my challenge to that assertion with “first of all, I am a conservative.” Another professor from the Government Department prefaced her challenge to my remarks with “first of all, I want to thank you for coming out of the closet as a conservative.” COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET! How bad has it now? We have colleges requiring applicants for faculty positions to provide a letter specifying what they have done to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Anyone who thinks they are looking for viewpoint diversity should contact me about an ocean-front mansion I am selling in Kansas. During a presentation to the entire faculty I asked a candidate for the Faculty Dean position “do you support viewpoint diversity and if so can you give us examples of how you have promoted it?” The response was a summary of the current state of academia. “Yes, I support it. As to how I have promoted it, as coordinator of the Introduction to Liberal Arts Program I brought in Bill Ayers as a speaker for the third time. ” For those who don’t know, Bill Ayers is an admitted, unrepentant terrorist.

  2. The three things that need to be remembered are:

    First: The primary reason the students attend institutions of higher education is so that they can get good jobs when they graduate. Everything they do, starting with their social justice activism in high school so they can be admitted in the first place, is directed toward that end goal of the “good job.”

    This is really nothing new — membership in fraternities and sororities was once prized not only for their status on campus but because of their networks of alumni and the related ability to help the graduate obtain said “good job.”

    Second: None of this foolishness is actually coming from the students — they may be physically authoring the letters and making the demands, but it is a mistake to believe that they are anything other than pawns being manipulated by others.

    No, it’s the tenured radicals in the institution’s own staff that are behind this stuff, suggesting it, encouraging it, and rewarding it.. Students are in an incredibly tenuous position — everything, including the bed they sleep, in exists at the arbitrary whim of some administrator — and this power is routinely abused. It’s more often abused politically than sexually, although sexual exploitation of students (female and male does exist. (And if upper-level administrators had a spine, they’d put an end to all of this…)

    The rewards and punishments start at the admissions level — while SAT scores are increasingly ignored, social justice activism isn’t. Write an essay about your exploits as a social justice warrior in high school and you’ll stand a much better chance of being admitted, and every college counselor knows that.

    It extends into the dormitory where administrators are hired solely on the basis of their political views and checkbox criteria. The generic “freshman mixers” are long gone, the social events today inevitably involve some aspect of social justice, with the students attending largely in hopes of meeting girls, or boys, whichever the case may be.

    It then extends to the TAs grading the large lecture courses, and don’t think for an instant that politics affects grading. (I’ve openly stated that there is a 1.3 point GPA “tax” on out-of-the-closet conservatives, and that is before things got as crazy as they are today.) And insecure young people like to be liked — need to be liked — and that alone is incentive to participate in this foolishness.

    Why not show up and scream “Professor Joe has Gotta Go” — the cute redhead said that she was going…. (Does anyone remember what it was like to be 19 and single?)

    My point, which likely will offend many, is that the students are actually sheep — and always have been. They are pawns in what is even more of a power & money issue than even a political one — look at the specific individuals at your institution who are in the background stirring this stuff up and what their objectives inevitably are.

    The students are just pawns in this game, and of its many failings, I think that perhaps the most grievous sin of higher education is permitting the power differential to be exploited in this manner.

    Third: I’m not sure that the professors of today actually do know more than their students. The first generation of “tenured radicals” did know their stuff — they had legitimate doctorates in their fields, earned back before all the critical theories had corrupted everything. While they often didn’t teach it, at least they knew it.

    But the 22-year-old undergrad who graduated in 1969 is now 74 years old — the self-described generation of “tenured radicals” has largely retired. They’ve been replaced by a generation even more radical than they, a generation that has only seen the curriculum through the foggy lenses of political correctness and the related critical theories. It no longer is what you know but that you think the correct thoughts about it…

    Take “Climate Change”, which was “Global Warming” and “Global Cooling” before that — they may be right, this time, but what I’ve seen of their research is so shoddy that a sophomore with a knowledge of basic research and statistical methods could drive a double winged snow plow through it. And what was it — half of the psychological research studies, published in refereed journals, couldn’t be duplicated?

    No, I am not convinced that the faculty inherently know more than their students. I just look at who has been hired over the past 20 years….

    1. I am one of those 22 year old 1969 college graduates. Since my retirement eight years ago, I have gone back to take more college courses. I am horrified! I took four courses from an excellent political science professor. He was fired after he voted for Donald Trump!!

  3. ‘Many of America’s students strive to emulate Mao’s Red Guard.’

    Many of America’s students haven’t got a god-damned clue about Mao, his red guards, or any of the basic history of China between 1949 and 1980.
    They have never read or studied in any form the actual history of events, nor have they ever had a meaningful discussion with a survivor who got out, and came to America for a better life.
    When such people are considered to be “white-adjacent” they are summarily dismissed. Really?
    The history of Chinese people in America was just a peachy bed of roses, wasn’t it? Of course it was, to uneducated students who think they know what they know and what they know blesses the golden holy chosen few. They do not adjust themselves to actual truth and reality. They adjust truth and reality to fit into and indulge a 10th rate wet dream of some vague idea of an improved world – one that can be made, it appears, without any actual real effort at all.

    But perhaps their greatest failing is a childlike belief in the idea that you can legislate morality. You can legislate a lot of things, you can legislate all year long, until the cows come home – but you cannot ‘legislate’ a moral virtue.
    All you can do is pass a bunch of laws.
    Morality is a thing that remains beyond the power of mob control.

    1. Plato never answered the question of “and who will guard the guardians?”

      Even those young people who understand the reference tend to forget this.

  4. Great article — it’s good to have a laugh in the morning. I love the comment about the administrative x-rays!

    1. This is excellent advice to students. A half century and more ago when I was a student I would have sought advice like this from my professors. I’m not sure that applies anymore. Students – who often fail to pick up their own dirty laundry, and rely on their Moms to make their breakfast every morning – believe that they should be the ones giving advice. I’m not sure how this happened, but it doesn’t bode well.

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