All posts by Edward Morrissey

Edward Morrissey has been providing political analysis as a blogger, columnist, and radio host since 2003. He now writes at Hot Air as senior editor and correspondent and also hosts a daily online talk show. His radio show is on Minnesota’s AM 1280 The Patriot every Saturday afternoon.

How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

Hungry for love and it’s feeding time, Alice Cooper wrote in his 1991 classic song, “Feed My Frankenstein.” Academia has created its own Frankenstein with its speech codes, groupthink enforcement, and discouraging of dissent. This Frankenstein isn’t hungry for love – it’s hungry for power.  And academics themselves have belatedly discovered that they’re on the menu.

The most recent to find himself not the last up against the wall in this anti-free speech revolution is “Edward Schlosser,” a professor writing under a pseudonym at Vox, for reasons that become apparent almost immediately. Schlosser admits that he lives in fear of students who share his political point of view, and has to change his curriculum continuously to keep from running afoul of their potential for hurt feelings.

The relationship between students and teachers has changed, he says, thanks to the same hypersensitivity that Academia uses to silence dissent and debate. “The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective,” Schlosser writes, “giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”

In the past, students complaints focused on actual teaching or bias in the classroom, issues which deal with the teacher’s actions and can at least form the basis of coherent criticism of behavior or teaching methods. Now, Schlosser knows that complaints can have little to with objective reality but with how the student perceives it.

He worries that an accusation will involve a lack of sensitivity to one individual’s “feelings,” or as Schlosser puts it, “some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault … center[ed] solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state.” Even if the instruction delivered is “absolutely appropriate and respectful,” any wounded emotions will “get a teacher in serious trouble” on today’s college campuses.

The only way to avoid the inevitable wounded-snowflake syndrome, Schlosser concludes, is to anodize the curricula so that no possible challenge to student worldviews sneaks into “higher education.” After watching a colleague lose his position over complaints that he had exposed them to Edward Said and Mark Twain, Schlosser began the clean-up project that continues to this day. Instead of challenging his students to learn, Schlosser felt compelled “to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik.” Schlosser said he wasn’t alone in that effort.

Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor at Northwestern University, agrees. She wrote an essay in February criticizing the “sexual paranoia” on college campuses regarding Title IX issues. Based on the essay, which appeared in the Chronicle Review, two students filed harassment charges against Kipnis, saying that her essay had “’a chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct .” Northwestern investigated Kipnis essentially for criticizing Title IX, finally clearing her late last month.

“What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place,” Kipnis concluded, noting that her tenure made it more difficult for Northwestern to get rid of her. “But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes,” Kipnis noted. “Pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.”

What created this problem? Schlosser considers but dismisses the speech-hostile policies on campuses. The issue is “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice,” he concludes. Combined with intense competition for teaching jobs in higher education, academics now feel intimidated into limiting themselves essentially to telling students what they want to hear, and not just in class but anywhere on campus or even in publications unaffiliated with their institutions at all. Ironically, academics find themselves deprived of any free-speech zones at all.

This has little to do with feelings, as Schlosser and others in academia are belatedly discovering.  The purpose is to impose each individual’s concept of social justice without actually doing any work traditionally associated with the concept. It’s easier to demand the cancellation of “an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it” than it is to work to harmonize different cultures in the same space. It’s about enforcing identity over ideas, or entirely replacing ideas with blizzards of ever-changing boundary lines of victim constituencies.

Schlosser’s conclusion conveniently fails to follow through with the obvious next question. If students have “a stifling conception of social justice” that leans heavily on silencing dissent and policing speech and thought rather than engage on ideas, where did they learn it? The answer, for anyone who has attended either college, or paid attention to the proliferation of speech codes, development of “safe rooms and speech zones,” and the use of “triggers” to accuse people of harassment for what used to be rational debate, is pretty clear.

This is a stalking horse for censorship, not coincidentally of the same kind that college campuses have either encouraged or imposed for more than a generation on their students. The next generation will now experience “higher education” as an echo chamber, one in which teachers ensure that no cognitive dissonance enter the lives of those going into deep debt to experience what can only be considered an intellectual day-care, run by the toddlers. Those students have now become the masters. The academics created this monster, and now it has come for them. And us.

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Completing a college education, people have long presumed, shows that a young adult has not just mastered a particular subject but has broadened his or her intellect by exposure to many different disciplines, philosophies, and diverse approaches to both knowledge and life.

A successful college education replaces ignorance with insight, and insularity with confidence and engagement. With the escalating price and debt loads from tuition becoming a crippling fiscal burden to young adults, delivering on those values becomes more important than ever to their economic survival.

Unfortunately, most of our universities and colleges end up promoting ignorance, insularity, fear, and infantilism. Rather than seek out heterodox opinions, the faculties and student bodies of these schools attempt to insulate themselves from opponents through speech codes, demands for “trigger warnings,” demagoguery and shouting down of alternate views. Instead of education producing open minds, these institutions end up indoctrinating young adults on how best to keep their minds closed, limited to the boundaries of groupthink rather than freed to pursue truth.

Three incidents this week demonstrate the gap between education and indoctrination. Oberlin College in Ohio and Georgetown University in Washington DC both had groups invite Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative critic of the current version of feminism, to speak on their campuses. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, composes a weekly video blog called the Factual Feminist, and most of her work challenges both the assumptions and conclusions of “third-wave” feminism, especially as practiced on college campuses.

Much of what Sommers writes aims to counter the arguments that have become treated as unconditional truths, but which do not stand up to empirical tests. Those assumptions include the oft-cited  and roundly debunked claim that one in five women on American college have been or will be victims of sexual assault during their student careers, or that women only earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. Both of these continue to be promoted not just by campus activists but also by the White House, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Department of Justice’s own data actually suggests that colleges and universities are slightly safer than the US at large when it comes to sexual assault, and the rate of those attacks on campus is six for every 1,000 people, or 0.6 percent. Even if only one in five attacks get reported, then the rate would be 2.4 percent rather than 20 percent.

Needless to say, this pushback on popular feminist narratives hasn’t endeared Sommers to activists at these schools. In an environment with free and open dialogue – a college campus, say, which most Americans would have assumed qualified for the task – Sommers’ opponents would have offered a spirited debate on these topics and statistics.

They could also have invited their own speakers to campus to make their own arguments without any challenge to them. Instead, students at both schools encouraged their colleagues to declare themselves victims, provided shelter from opposing points of view on the basis of Sommers’ ideas being somehow “unsafe,” and made it clear that they’d prefer to see Sommers speak elsewhere.

At Oberlin, activists authored an essay in the student newspaper calling her a “rape denialist” and accusing her of encouraging violence against women.  At both colleges, protesters plastered “trigger warnings” around the campuses near the venues where Sommers spoke. At both campuses, students complained that having Sommers speak at their schools created an “unsafe” environment for them, which necessitated the establishment of “safe spaces” to deal with the discomfort of having their assumptions challenged.

Ironically, the point of feminism had once been that women didn’t need paternalistic protection from life provided to them by male-dominated institutions. Sommers herself noted the contradiction between feminism and “trigger warnings” in her most recent vlog entry prior to her appearances at Oberlin and Georgetown. Not only do they have “no basis in scientific fact,” Sommers explains, but they “convey the idea that women are helpless children, delicate little injured birds who can’t cope with clapping,” let alone any sort of debate or challenge.

Even the good news comes freighted with recognition of the scope of the issue. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced earlier this week that after almost a decade of engagement with George Mason University, the school had finally agreed to dump its speech codes in favor of unfettered free debate. “Freedom of speech and academic freedom are core values of a university’s mission,” said GMU Foundation Professor of Law Todd Zywicki. “I’m delighted that George Mason has joined the ranks of universities that have committed themselves to the full protection of free speech.”

Unfortunately, the ranks of universities aligning their policies to those core values remains very low indeed. GMU became only the 20th school to get a green light rating from FIRE, having been preceded by William & Mary and the University of Virginia – which Rolling Stone recently smeared in its publication of fabulism about rape culture on campuses.

FIRE has rated 437 colleges and universities in the US for their commitment to free speech on campus, spokesman Nico Perrino informed me in an e-mail. Over half of those earn a red light (where policies explicitly restrict speech), and another 39 percent get a yellow rating (policies which can be applied to restrict speech). Perrino said that FIRE is currently working with another 29 schools to support free speech fully, but even if they all converted tomorrow, it would still mean that only 11.2 percent of those rated campuses actually gives students the right to express themselves openly and have access to a broad range of opinion.

The tantrums thrown by students at Oberlin and Georgetown, and the endorsement of speech restraints and indoctrination by school administrators, remain the rule rather than the exception. That prompts the question: what value are these students actually gaining for their mortgaging of their financial futures?

Better yet, considering that student loans primarily get backed by taxpayers, what outcomes will we see from this investment in social and monetary capital? We are creating a generation of “delicate little injured birds” whose only developed skill involves curling up into a ball at the first sign of adverse experience. Perhaps we should invest in trade school education instead.

Attacking Free Speech: From PC here to Guns in Paris

The Fiscal Times

Sometimes, the world feels as though it would be better off if everyone went back to kindergarten. At least when I attended that grade, the teachers made us learn a mantra that has stuck with me ever since — Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That instruction was meant to keep the children from resorting to violence over every little criticism or humiliation and to toughen us up for the life ahead of us.

A few decades later (more than I’d care to admit), that lesson has been lost, in a number of ways. In the West, we have declined from robust and honest debate into an ever-tightening straitjacket of political correctness. That movement has collapsed the use of language by stigmatizing legitimate constructs in politics and culture.

On college campuses, which should serve as the hothouses for debate and independent thought, free speech often gets limited to demarcated “zones.” Our national debate has been plagued by demands for “trigger warnings” on certain topics lest a stray idea or image cause undue stress, and even the most innocent of colloquies can cause one to be branded a “micro-aggressor.”

Unfortunately, this leaves us with a truncated vocabulary and substantial timidity when difficult issues arise. After flashpoints like Continue reading Attacking Free Speech: From PC here to Guns in Paris