Academia: Producing 'Men (and Women) Without Chests'

Immunizing students from true diversity.

At the risk of sounding redundant, the public nevertheless needs to be reminded of just how politicized—and, thus, intellectually flaccid—academia has become.

Real Clear Education recently published its “2019 Survey of Campus Speech Experts.” The report identifies those colleges and universities that are “best” and “worst” for “free speech and viewpoint diversity.”  That of the 22 invitees—“academics, pundits, and policy experts”—who accepted the invitation to participate in this study the vast majority (though not all) are right-leaning is instructive, for Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to express concern that professors will inject their politics into the classroom.

As a Pew Research Center study informs us, 79% of Republicans have this concern compared to only 17% of Democrats who do so. A comparable disparity exists between the 75% of Republicans versus the 31% of Democrats who are concerned that colleges are determined to shield students from perspectives that they may find offensive.

Yet Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to be concerned with viewpoint diversity precisely because it is the leftist ideology associated with Democrats that has long since prevailed in academia.

The panelists consistently ranked University of Chicago as the best of institutions when it comes to “speech climate.”  They just as consistently ranked Yale University as the institution in “most need for improvement” when it comes to this subject.

The panelists offered their thoughts as to why they ascribe as much importance as they do to the campus speech climate.  Below is a small, select handful of particularly noteworthy comments that represent the shared judgments of the entire panel:

Jonathan Haidt, a liberal and professor at New York University, pulls no punches: “Because of a lack of viewpoint diversity, policies are implemented to promote ends that are sometimes antithetical to free inquiry and the Socratic spirit.”  Haidt knows all too well that of which he speaks.  Continuing, he remarks that his own university has instituted “‘a bias response line’” that “encourages” students to “anonymously report anyone who says anything that offends them.”  Thus, “as a professor, I no longer take risks; I must teach to the most easily offended student in the class. I therefore avoid saying or doing anything provocative.”

Consequently: “My classes are less fun and engaging.”   

Gregory Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), says that the hostility to viewpoint diversity in academia has “entirely reversed” students’ stance on free speech.  Free speech protections were originally devised in order to secure the rights of minorities (those who, with views at odds with those of the majority, are otherwise at the mercy of the latter). Today, however, matters are otherwise: “Campus activists have come to think of power as something that can be counted on to be on their side, so they want campus administrators to be free to stop speech they see as harmful or hurtful.”

It is this state of affairs that has resulted in “campus activists believing that free speech is something that exists to protect the powerful.”

Charles Murray, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is to the point:

The telos of the university is truth.  It cannot have a second telos. There is no such thing as a university that fully supports the search for truth and also pursues a social-justice agenda, for example….

The commentary of Heather MacDonald, a fellow at The Manhattan Institute, is worth quoting at length:

The core mission of a university is to pass on our cultural inheritance from one generation to the next. There is a vast body of knowledge — of history, literature, art, the foundations of science, and the constitutional traditions that have lessened the threat of arbitrary, tyrannical power — that students lack and that universities should feel an urgent necessity to provide. Free speech and open inquiry can aid in that mission by allowing received errors about the past and present to be corrected. But to put free speech and open inquiry at the heart of a university's mission risks distracting attention away from the fact that students are graduating from college with their ignorance largely intact, and risks portraying the university as a debating society rather than the place where the past is curated and preserved. (bold added).

The contemporary academic world is almost exactly the opposite of what it was originally meant to be.  Precisely because what the aforementioned academics call “viewpoint diversity” is not only conspicuously absent from most college campuses but, worse, zealously discouraged, the world of higher education is turning out men and women “without chests,” to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.  

Learning requires not just intellectual ability but a passion to learn.  This passion, in turn, is inseparable from an almost preternatural, even if unspoken, possibly subconscious, conviction that the world is such that it supplies us with values, like truth and virtue, awaiting discovery.

Learning, then, demands fortitude, an intestinal fortitude, in fact, to meet ideas that clash with one’s own certainties, and engage civilly with those who advance those ideas.

When, however, the university promulgates and enforces with an iron hand an orthodoxy, thus, immunizing students from any and all ideas that conflict with that orthodoxy, it promotes softness, weakness, shallowness.

The university subverts its mission, its “telos,” as Charles Murray referred to it. 

In doing so, it divests itself of the very and only justification for its existence.   

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