The implacable determination of today’s campus enforcers of conventional opinion is nowhere better illustrated than in the rise of berts—Bias Education Response Teams. These are administrative bodies now common at colleges and universities that stand ready to swing into action at the drop of a gender-insensitive pronoun. berts are empowered to seek out and torment alleged malefactors; to comfort the afflicted; and to raise alarm throughout the community when its norms have been transgressed.
berts enforce not justice in the plain old sense, but the marvelously flexible concept of “social justice.” And social justice authorizes seven types of suppression of free speech. To keep these seven in good marching order, I propose the mnemonic outrage: ostracize, usurp, train, repress, aggress, group, and exalt.
Ostracize those who dissent from political orthodoxy; usurp the curriculum; train students to be activists; repress topics that are ruled unfit for discussion; aggress against anyone and any custom that embodies the old order; group people by race, sex, and ethnicity into categories stigmatized as privileged or celebrated as oppressed; and exalt certain ideas and beliefs so that they are exempt from questioning or critical examination, while expressions of dissent can be suppressed as acts of malignity.
Ostracism is most visible in the disinvitations sent to famous and sometimes not-so-famous people. But the more profound forms of ostracism are the invitations never sent in the first place and the culling from the candidates for graduate programs and faculty positions of anyone suspected of harboring views judged to be conservative. The disinvited now number well over one hundred, and include figures such as Henry Kissinger, Laura Bush, Michelle Malkin, Pat Buchanan, Lawrence Summers, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, James Watson, Ray Kelly, Ben Carson, Peter Thiel, Robert Birgeneau, Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, among many others.
The great usurpation in higher education consists of cancelling courses and programs that run against the progressive narrative. Suppression of ideas through curricular changes is far from the most visible form of campus censorship but it may be among the most consequential. Perhaps the best known case was the decision by Stanford University in 1988 to abolish its great books-based Western Culture requirement. Stanford adopted in its place a grab bag of courses called “Culture, Ideas, and Values”—the acronym civ neatly lampooning the old regime.
Bowdoin invited and received curricular chaos.
The displacement of the old curriculum, of course, goes back further. The signal year was 1969 when liberal arts colleges in large numbers across the country abruptly began to demolish what remained of common core requirements in favor of radically elective programs in which students could choose most, or in some cases all, of their own courses. The National Association of Scholars documented this disestablishment at one college in What Does Bowdoin Teach? At the time, Bowdoin had a newly appointed president who enunciated that nothing at the college would rest on mere tradition, and a coherent liberal arts education would take shape for each student in a different way as it “emerged” from his increasingly sophisticated choices. The student would gain some help with this from the earnest involvement of faculty advisors, but the faculty itself would be liberated from teaching the same old, same old. Henceforth they would be cutting-edge academic specialists and would teach whatever parts of their specializations they chose. Bowdoin invited and received curricular chaos.
This is now the national model, and only a handful of colleges offer more than token resistance, though a great many disguise the absence of a coherent curriculum by a scrim called “distribution requirements.” The banishing of core curricula, however, was not the dawn of a new age of intellectual freedom. In its place rose a form of ideological tyranny far more limiting than any core liberal arts program. The term “liberal arts” itself was captured and defined, along with such seemingly impregnable concepts such as “great books” and “core texts.” These days, such words are as likely to point to Frankfurt School Marxism, radical feminism, postmodernism, the diversity movement, and the sustainability movement, as they are to Plato and Shakespeare.
Training is what colleges and universities do to turn students into community organizers and social activists. This project is widespread and seldom reported, but it has become central to what our erstwhile institutions of higher learning now do. This training typically takes the form of marshalling freshmen into “volunteer” programs—“voluntyranny” as some students describe it—which begin with simple and wholesome tasks like picking up litter and ladling out soup and gradually ramp up all the way to organizing mass protest.
The threat to free speech in this training regimen comes early and often. I first ran into it at the University of Delaware in 2008, where it looked at first to be straightforward indoctrination of students in the dorms on matters such as racism (all whites are inherently racist; blacks cannot be racist by definition) and same-sex marriage (those not in favor are literally remanded for “treatment”). But on digging deeper, the indoctrination was simply a warm-up to persuading students that the better part of their university education would come from the “co-curricular” activities in which they would learn to be agents of social transformation.
I asked, “How many Delawares?” and the answer has turned out to be that Delaware-style activist training is pretty much standard on college campuses. The reason why so many students these days see no appeal in our institutions of self-government and regard “free speech” itself as a trap is that they have been immersed in this Alinskyite sub-curriculum from the moment they enrolled.
The exquisite sensitivity of today’s college students to hidden bias is not something that just happened. Such sensitivity has to be cultivated and encouraged. berts are one way to do that, but another is what my colleague Ashley Thorne calls “staged emergencies and planned panics.” These are events in the life of the college when everything stops because someone has reported a possible hate crime or a bias incident that, were it an earthquake, would be an eight on the Richter scale. Ashley’s article about this cites examples from several colleges and universities, but the most memorable is surely the 2013 emergency at Oberlin College. A student in the middle of the night spotted a person dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman walking though campus. The report quickly reached the college president who did not hesitate to cancel classes. Soon a rally was organized; student workers were excused from their jobs; a teach-in occurred; the Africana Studies department organized a march; and more. As it happened, there was no Klansman on the campus that night, but only a student wrapped in a blanket against the cold.
Activist training is pretty much standard on college campuses.
But it was clear that Oberlin knew how to respond if the emergency had been real. Bundled into the hysteria over the fictitious Klansman were expressions of outrage about racist graffiti that had appeared around campus over the course of a month. The Oberlin campus police had already identified the culprits, who had confessed: they were two pro-Obama students intent on tricking the college to see how it would react. The students had been suspended for the spring semester and the Oberlin administration knew all the details. But the administration decided to let the protests against the graffiti continue without informing the community of what had actually happened. The facts came out months later when an enterprising writer for the website The Daily Caller broke the story. The Oberlin administration responded by claiming that its silence was an honorable attempt to help the community learn: “Those actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real.”
It is never enough for the left to prevent an idea from being heard. The deeper goal is to get students to repress the thought that there may be some validity in that idea. Curiosity must be buttoned down. Wondering about the validity of a favored doctrine is evidence of unreliability.
The outstanding examples of this repression are climate change and rape culture. When it comes to the questions of whether the burning of fossil fuels by humans is substantially increasing the earth’s temperature, whether such increases in temperature are likely to be catastrophic, and whether there are measures that could be taken to forestall such global warming, American higher education speaks with one voice. It says those are not real questions. They are, instead, matters of “settled science.” And the only reason why someone would pretend to ask them as though they were real questions would be to create confusion and doubt. This is the “Merchants of Doubt” smear against anyone who expresses skepticism over any part of the anthropogenic catastrophic global warming thesis.
Wondering about the validity of a favored doctrine is evidence of unreliability.
Having a thesis that is off-limits to reasonable inquiry and evidence does not seem to be a very good way to promote free speech on campus. In fact, the excessive force used by proponents of the thesis to secure their position strongly suggests an inner struggle to keep an orthodoxy alive despite growing doubts.
A similar situation confronts the many campus activists who assert that colleges and universities are host to a “rape culture.” There is simply no credible evidence for this claim, but it persists as an article of faith among campus feminists. It can be maintained only by repressing the questions as well as the discrepancies. Take, for example, the Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” by the journalist Sabrina Erdely. The readiness of many college officials to accept this false story at face value testifies to the will to believe and a determination not to be hindered by reasonable doubt.
College officials realize that many students passively refuse to take up the cause of social activism or to become enthusiastic about the causes favored by the academic left. Administrators who owe their positions and careers to stoking grievances deplore this apathy and have aggressive techniques to force conformity. Required diversity training is one step in this direction; required sexual harassment training is another. But the stewards of the movement have a lot of time to devise more advanced forms of psychological manipulation. We should think of the many colleges that now attempt to get their students to commit themselves to reducing their carbon footprints. My colleague Rachelle Person has written about the rise of environmental “nudging” on campus, such as removing trays from cafeterias or banning bottled water on campus: petty annoyances that are meant to force students to think dozens of times a day about the need to live a green lifestyle.
The newest form of leftist aggression is to accuse those who do not positively join the left of “micro-aggression.” This is a nice inversion of reality. Your resistance to my aggression is micro-aggression.
This doctrine has the active encouragement and participation of college administrations. Recently, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro greeted freshmen with a speech in which he denounced critics of safe spaces and trigger warnings as “lunatics.” Schapiro explained that microaggressions “cut you to the core” and are a threat to the well-being of Northwestern students, and he offered help for students seeking “safe spaces.”
Your resistance to my aggression is micro-aggression.
President Schapiro no doubt saw a market opportunity to present Northwestern as safe for safe-space cadets and, to the easily triggered, friendly to trigger-warnings. That marketing appeal, however, teaches students to shun confrontation with unfamiliar ideas. It is part of the acid that corrodes free speech, because free speech is inevitably unsafe, unpredictable, and likely to upset speech.
TheG in outrage stands for group, which is shorthand for the identity politics that the academic left has fused to everything in higher education. If a matter can be reduced to the coordinates of race, class, and gender, it will be. If it cannot, the activists will try anyway. Who set the standards for standard temperature and pressure anyway? Some white male?
The doctrines of diversity and multiculturalism have whetted an appetite for power and privilege in the name of social justice. Free speech is a particular casualty of campus identity politics. Open discussion of race, sex, Western civilization, and myriad other subjects is rendered impossible by the readiness of the professional guardians of these topics to punish anyone who voices a dissenting view.
The left now exalts in outright ideological imposition. Something of the sort is implicit in the way global warming and rape culture are treated, and also in the idea that Western civilization is racist and oppressive. The exalted idea need never be argued, but it can be endlessly illustrated, and thus higher education becomes a giant coloring book in which students are instructed to fill in the outlines with colorful marks.
This kind of exalting suppresses freedom of conscience and freedom of thought because it puts so much beyond the reach of critical examination.
For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been tracking the books colleges and universities assign to freshmen for pre-college summer reading. This practice has grown in popularity as colleges have realized that their incoming classes possess little in common beyond social media addictions and popular culture. High schools do not reliably teach anything that might be taken as a base for common intellectual community, and the colleges themselves will certainly not repair the gap. Thus, many colleges attempt to fabricate a sense of community by having students read one book in common. But what will this one book be that will serve as the first and last basis of common experience in the community of the learned?
The choices show us what colleges actually exalt, since this is the one moment in the whole of a college today when its ideal and purposes are condensed unto a single curricular event. What do the students read? Not Mill’s On Liberty. Or anything by Locke. Not something from the Greek classics or a masterpiece of American literature. More than 90 percent of the books chosen were written after 1990, and more than half in the last five years. They are mostly books that are classified at the ninth-grade reading level. And the great majority are books about the struggle for (what else?) social justice.
These “Beach Books,” as I call them, can bookend this account of suppression of free speech in the academy. The free flow of ideas requires that people actually have ideas and some capacity to argue them, support them with evidence, and comprehend opposing views. If the resources students start with are slim, the obligation of the university is to increase them. Locking students into low expectations for themselves and capsulizing intellectual community in ephemeral works of political and cultural fashion exalts an inner emptiness. Free speech with nothing to say isn’t any kind of freedom at all.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 19
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