Protest and American democracy are two sides of the same coin.
The consent of our citizens cannot be secured without listening to their grievances. We as a nation can be justly proud that most of our problems and concerns are still handled through debate and discussion that, however spicy or scurrilous the testy words exchanged might sometimes become, rarely results in much more that dirty looks and eye rolls.
Unfortunately, we have also recently seen an ever increasing number of episodes of vandalism and riots connected with political differences. High feelings can result in low behavior, and many individuals and groups now seem to feel they are justified in lashing out in order to make their voices heard, which is a destructive and unwarranted abuse of our most cherished rights as Americans.
We already know that our nation is deeply divided, and our divisions sometimes seem more apparent than what binds us together. Some of this is due to the manner in which our 21st century connectivity lends itself to instantaneous—and often rash and unfortunate—reactions that endlessly ping pong through the digital echo chamber that now envelopes every aspect of our daily lives and riles up everyone involved. Self-righteous antagonisms cause the nastiest and the rudest commentary to rise to the top of our public discourse like some pernicious pond scum, which does little to help resolve the differences of opinions and values that inevitably occur in a nation as incredibly diverse as our own.
Worse yet, the unwillingness of many Americans to listen respectfully to opinions that differ from their own now leads to weaponized charges of hate speech, bigotry, or domestic terrorism in lieu of actually formulating a thoughtful response. Attack mode is a lazy reflex of those who think they know what they believe—but have yet to do the actual thinking necessary in order to cogently explain their thoughts to others. The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, for example, been a wake-up call for fuzzy thinkers from coast to coast as they are forced to wrestle with the inherent contradictions between the world they fantasize exists and the cold hard realities of brute military force, worldwide energy needs, and the cruel limitations of diplomacy.
Blind partisanship is much simpler when your mind is unburdened by facts, and willful ignorance is a brittle shield that shatters at the slightest blow. It is no surprise that sloganeering and sneering is many times the natural outcome of intellectual shallowness that cannot sustain a careful line reasoning when faced with the slightest challenge.
What is truly frightening and utterly appalling is that facile thought and a disdain for logical argument are now baked into every level of America’s educational systems. This is the core problem that faces us as we struggle to stop shouting and start listening so that we can formulate workable solutions to the many problems now facing our nation.
It is difficult—if not impossible—to see how we might escape from our epidemic of angry and wounding rhetoric when so many schools, colleges, and universities now reject free and open inquiry and characterize dissenting thought as hate speech, bigotry, and domestic terrorism in exactly the same self-destructive manner as the worst of our society at large. Our educational institutions now both mirror and reinforce the very worst of the behaviors and beliefs we find in American society that are spreading fear, panic, and paranoia across the land.
Rather than elevating our search for truth, understanding, and the often uncomfortable consensus necessary for our democracy to thrive, too many teachers, professors, and academic administrators now see censorship, exclusion, and punishment as essential tools of their trade, which perhaps explains the stifling intellectual monoculture of our nation’s classrooms—and our inability to have respectful discussions regarding the many challenges now facing America and Americans.
The difficulty with instituting the fundamental changes that would protect and promote the free speech we now so desperately need is that school district and campus tenure and civil service protections have created an entrenched and oblivious caste who are insulated from reality, which leaves them free to spin theories, attend conferences, and inflict their personal viewpoints on minds that are thirsting for knowledge—and which are perhaps incapable of sifting the kernel of truth from the bushel of propaganda.
The self-styled and coddled revolutionaries who now rule both our classrooms and schools of education can barely conceal their contempt for a country that has granted them the incredible privilege of educating our young. Our reward for the faith we have placed in these institutions and individuals is an army of provocateurs who teach generation after generation of students that America is a land of oppression and brutality that must be scoured from the face of the earth. Their better replacement for the freest and most tolerant nation the world has ever known apparently involves grinding our freedoms to dust under an implacable bureaucratic boot—which perhaps should alert us that this presumed utopia is not a good idea at all.
Education at all levels has become an insanely self-reinforcing loop that becomes only more extreme with each passing year. If picking your preferred pronouns, whining about your life, and looking for a racist under every rock is your thing, 21st century American education is a wonderland of ways to waste your time, energy, and tuition money. However, given the growing number of primary and secondary students who are now home schooling and the Great Vanishing of students on our college campuses today, it seems like a great many are choosing to vote with their feet—which sadly only promotes educational systems that are more insular and incapable of reform because the free thinkers have fled.
Although there is likely littl e that is more self-satisfying and self-affirming than pontificating to a captive audience of students, educators at all levels must be convinced—and, if necessary, compelled—to radically change their basic mission: Rather than telling students what to think, they must focus on teaching them how to think for themselves.
Unfortunately, the reasonable safeguards of academic freedom are now perversely twisted by those who claim the freedom to continue to substitute indoctrination for education in a manner that betrays the trust of students, their families, and our nation.
Terrified of the academic mob and fearful for their own sinecures, school and college administrators are often paralyzed when asked to act to stem abuses, and state and federal elected officials are also typically allergic to the ideological warfare that erupts when attempting to rein in educators who are not shy about leveling accusations of—no surprise here—hate speech, bigotry, and domestic terrorism against those who question their viewpoints or teaching methods.
It’s a mess, to be sure, and this is all made still more complicated by the paychecks and egos that are the lifeblood of our nation’s vast, decentralized, and expensive education industry. I am not yet at the point of advocating for the abolition or restriction of tenure and civil service job protections, but I would not be surprised if this becomes necessary should reforms continue to be resisted. It could, of course, simply be the case that market forces will compel changes—you cannot, for example, continue to operate a college if your student enrollment continues to evaporate—so unpalatable compulsion may prove to be unnecessary. The next few years will answer many of our questions.
Nonetheless, we can be certain that American education is heading for a painful reckoning with reality that will stun those who believe that business as usual is a tenable strategy. The “Great Awokening” that has turned our vital educational systems into playgrounds for the foolish and frivolous is unsustainable—and ripe for a rude awakening from a frustrated nation. The pushback is already in progress, and the only remaining question is just how far and how fast it will proceed.