Brown's Abuse of Ray Kelly: A Metaphor of the Academy

The totalitarianism permeating higher education.

ray-kellyTwo weeks ago, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly arrived at the prestigious Brown University to deliver a speech.

It never happened. Student protesters, determined to silence Kelly, shouted him down.

In an attempt to abate the hostility of his audience, Kelly is said to have remarked:  “I thought this was the Academy…where we’re supposed to have free speech.”  A Brown administrator on the scene also expressed incredulity regarding the “inability” of these Brown students’—self-avowed “social justice activists” —“to have a dialogue[.]”

Jenny Li, the (Brown) student who organized the anti-Kelly demonstration, explained that in advance of Kelly’s appearance, she and other students petitioned the university to cancel the event. However, when administrators refused to accommodate them, Li and her fellow activists “decided to cancel it for them.”  Their victory in doing so, Li adds, is “a powerful demonstration of free speech.”

Christina Paxson, President of Brown, expressed her “deepest regret” to Commissioner Kelly and assured everyone that the protesters’ conduct is at once “indefensible” and “an affront both to civil democratic society and to the university’s core values and the free exchange of views.”

To date the disrupters have not faced any disciplinary action.

The significance of this episode has little to do with its specifics and everything to do with the fact that it supplies us with a microcosmic perspective on the contemporary university.

First of all, no one, much less an eminently sensible man like Ray Kelly and seasoned academics like the aforementioned Brown administrators, can possibly believe that the contemporary Academy is an oasis of “free speech” and open-ended dialogue.

In fact, as anyone who’s spent any amount of time there knows all-too well, the university is much more like a puddle of free speech and dialogue than an oasis.

While the incident in question admittedly involves students, the latter are simply marching to the beat of the drums of the faculty and administration, not just of Brown, but of colleges and universities throughout the country.  They at once reflect and reinforce an academic culture that has been at least a half-of-a-century in the making.   

It is at once tragic and scandalous—and let there be no mistakes about it, this is one of the great scandals of our age—that there is far less individuality and “free speech” in our country’s liberal arts and humanities departments than can be found among any random collection of construction workers or plumbers.

While there are exceptions (yours truly is a case in point), the overwhelming majority of academics in the liberal arts are left-wing ideologues.  This is no criticism—just a brute fact.  There is indeed a prevailing ideology, an orthodoxy, really, that draws the lines of acceptable inquiry, of discourse.  For lack of a better name, we can call this orthodoxy “Political Correctness,” for it is the same orthodoxy that has long drawn the lines of acceptable discourse in the popular culture.

The only difference is that non-academics, like construction workers and plumbers, say, have the daring and imaginativeness to transgress the orthodoxy’s boundaries.  Academics, in contrast, seek to strengthen these strictures on speech.

In other words, the relationship between the academic and his society has been radically subverted.  Worse, the lion’s share of the blame for this subversion rests upon his (or her) shoulders.

There is another point that can’t be lost upon us.

Traditionally, a liberal arts education was intended to render students preeminently civil by making them into articulate, knowledgeable conversationalists capable of both drawing upon the inheritance of their civilization—Western civilization—as well as enriching it.  It was an education that required great humility from those who would undertake it, for the present generation, it was understood, was just one voice in this millennia-old conversation linking the past with the present and future.

The attitude on display at Brown and exemplified by Jennifer Li is not only entirely incompatible with a traditional liberal arts education; the former and the latter are mutually antithetical.  There are two reasons for this.

For one, today’s students, like their teachers, are generally contemptuous toward the past.  The past is viewed as a “dark age” ridden with “white racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “speciesism,” “xenophobia,” etc.  The present bequeathed to us by our past, as Barack Obama memorably remarked, is something the needs to be “fundamentally transformed”—i.e. destroyed.  As for future generations, while lip service is routinely paid to them, it is not difficult to show that if the interests of unborn human beings threaten to impede present designs, then they too must be marginalized.

Secondly, academics and the student activists who they are busy away creating are angry.  And they spare no occasion to express that anger.  Since at least the time of the 1960s the expression of anger has been treated as tantamount with the expression of authenticity.  However, since no one cares to try to reason with an angry person—regardless of how authentic he may fancy himself to be—about any topic, much less controversial topics, conversation is impossible with the perpetually angry.

And so too is a genuine liberal arts education impossible as long as pride and anger are the emotions that the academy insists upon fostering.

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