Higher Education’s Free Speech Problem

I recently discovered a group that, for lack of a better term, might be called a band of renegade scholars.  

Unable to speak openly in the institutions where they teach due to the suffocating left wing conformity expected of anyone who works in American higher education today, they are the dissidents who dare not dissent due to fear of being shunned for expressing an honest, Unwoke thought.  Given that much of what goes on in many colleges and universities closely mirrors the worst aspects of a middle school lunchroom—to be banished from the table where the popular kids eat is a form of living death—their dull silence in the face of concepts and statements that seem harmful to both students and our nation is the only form of rebellion that allows teaching careers to survive.

Although it is certainly sad that so many politically moderate academics are forced to engage in self-censorship, a larger and more important question exists: Can education and the demands of unyielding orthodoxy coexist in the classroom?  When even the most granular aspects of what was once considered basic factual knowledge or reasonable cultural norms becomes politicized, does education grind to a halt, crushed by the burdens of the muteness required to avoid any possible offense or controversy?

The paradox of our current plague of academic censorship is that the range of acceptable thought and discussion at our country’s leading educational institutions is no longer circumscribed by their original missions of training young men—and young men only—for careers in the ministry.  The new Chaplain of Harvard University is an avowed atheist.  The ringing assertion of my own college’s alma mater—“For God, For Country, and For Yale”—is but a quaint historical artifact.  Higher education is now characterized by the profoundest disbelief, and the divide between our nation’s elites and the average American regarding matters of faith has likely never been wider.

The outcome of the rejection of faith-based belief systems by our nation’s leading intellectuals and opinion makers has been a collapse of traditional social norms regarding marriage, child rearing, and individual behavior—which has been a decidedly mixed bag.  Divorce, single parenthood, loneliness, depressed children, and a profound coarsening of our daily culture are the clear outcomes of our self-centered quests for material fulfillment in an age of spiritual want.

However, to condemn our decades-long societal experiment with radical individualism is considered a sign of hopelessly retrograde thinking, and to suggest that personal responsibility and restraint are major components of happy, successful lives is considered to be blaming the victim rather than a obviously unjust nation and those Unwoke people who are still not sufficiently supportive of what only a few generations ago were considered outlandishly foolish or self-destructive personal choices.

The middle ground is muddled, and extremism in thought and language is now applauded and rewarded.  This is particularly true in higher education, where teaching faculties have over the past 50 years become staunchly leftist bastions that no longer even vaguely resemble the full range of free speech that still struggles to be heard in Cancel Culture America today.

How did we reach this perilous point?

Many are familiar with the catchphrase that “the personal is political”, which dates back to the 1960’s and 1970’s feminist movement.  Women at that point realized their political action was needed in order to change in their personal lives, and their efforts to use the power of government to break down institutional barriers that limited opportunities for women have obviously benefitted our country.  The parallel movement to secure full civil rights and protections for Americans of color also leveraged new legal protections and has helped to create a nation that is far fairer and freer than it was only sixty years ago.

However, during the time when these movements were ushering in the social changes that have benefitted so many, a broader narrative that all injustices—whether real or perceived—could be solved by being politicized took hold in our nation.  Every disparity in individual opportunity and outcome eventually became subject to government oversight and intervention in a classic example of mission creep that now compels everyone to feed the bureaucratic beast throughout the course of their lives.

This is the crux of the problem we now face.  There is a point at which the quest for social justice turns into social injustice because revolutionary fervor turns thoughtful reforms into societal and educational catastrophe.

The leaders of China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s waged a destructive national campaign against what they called “The Four Olds”: old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits of mind. This effort to root out those modes of thought that they claimed were impeding the fulfillment of Communist goals resulted in the deaths of upwards of 20 million people—including many teachers and intellectuals—in brutal labor camps, from cruel starvation, and as a consequence of Maoist mob violence.  Improving humanity turned out to be very inhumane despite its lofty goals.

The leaders of The French Revolution in 1792 were so anxious to remake their nation that the year became “Year One” of their new calendar—effectively sweeping away all history and cultural precedent.  Although one can certainly understand why the French revolutionaries wanted to make a clean break with their nation’s corrupt and uncaring monarchy, the excesses of the true believers led inevitably to the guillotine and bloody baskets filled with severed heads until the weary citizenry finally revolted against the revolutionaries.

Mass thinking does not always lead to mass murder, but history teaches us that those who refuse to acknowledge any viewpoint other than their own can cause incalculable damage before moderates are, after much difficulty, able to reestablish a healthy balance between both ends of the political spectrum.

By far the most useful method available for encouraging a moderation of thought, temperament, and behavior is a thorough education that exposes a student to a broad variety of ideas, teaches the value of understanding opposing viewpoints, and encourages respectful discussions in order to resolves differences of opinion.  Minds that accept that inquiry is a tool rather than a weapon are the foundation of a healthy, open society that values individuality.

The big question facing us today is whether our higher education system can function effectively when the “educational is political”?

The modern ideal of American education—which should be to teach students to be brave thinkers, readers, and writers in preparation for participation in our democracy—is in grave danger.  Campus free speech has collided with campus speech codes for many years.  Administrators, who are often allergic to controversy, typically take the wrong approach when differing ideas collide, confusing censorship with education.  

Given that students and student organizations now feel free to challenge and persecute professors whose opinions or syllabi might not match their own political sensibilities, administrators make the fatal error of defaulting to the customer service model that now prevails on campuses, where keeping the lecture halls and dormitories full has become the main—if not the only—priority.  Presuming that the customer is always right, offending professors are often asked to accommodate students with trigger warnings, alternative assignments—or by deleting the troublesome instructional material altogether.  Any online search of topics relating to campus free speech will provide numerous depressing examples.

By systematically encouraging professors to create conformist and unchallenging class curriculum while avoiding all contrary opinions and information, colleges and universities are graduating the dullest possible minds, ones that are wholly unprepared for the nimble, imaginative thinking needed in their lives and careers.

Unfortunately, what typically does not make the headlines is the faithful compliance with all aspects of leftist doctrine by the vast majority of college professors and administrators, whose political allegiances neatly align with all manner of accommodations to their students.  They see no issue with excusing students from assignments that might find ruffle their fragile young minds because they already pitch their assignments and rhetoric straight into the prevailing winds of campus socialism—and so feel entirely comfortable with supporting the censorship of viewpoints they deem unworthy.  This is unsurprising.  The tenured sinecures they occupy on campuses across America are the coziest jobs in existence for those who enjoy pontificating to a captive audience of young, impressionable minds.  

The intellectual laziness they preach neatly dovetails with their own leftist laziness, so they are unlikely to bother themselves over issues of free speech or free expression.  These concepts live in a universe different from their own, so they raise no objections when anyone within their campus communities is punished or sanctioned for exceeding the limitations on thought implacably imposed—both overtly and covertly—by the entrenched campus norms of limited free speech and commentary.  

This is what makes change nearly impossible; the enemies of free speech now control the halls of academia, and today’s proponents of cancel culture will eventually be hiring tomorrow’s censorious new faculty members.  Alternative educational models are needed—and needed now—to supplant those already lost to indoctrination masquerading as education.  It is pointless to expect any moderation from tenured radicals.

It is little wonder that the higher education business model now increasingly relies on government largesse.  Except for the twenty or so colleges with large—and largely bulletproof—endowments to support operations, college and universities have come to rely on all manner of taxpayer-funded handouts to stay afloat as enrollments have declined and the fixed costs of campus infrastructures have become more onerous.  Were new restrictions, for example, to be placed on student loans or an honest audit of the economic value of many degrees be mailed to every household in America, it is likely that half of America’s colleges would instantly be in the deepest financial distress,

Higher education is overdue for a shake out, and perhaps the declining number of students willing to pay for the privilege of being harangued about the evils of America and Americans is the beginning of the end for four years of state-supported socialism and libertinism that, if the data is correct, often does little to prepare students for later life and career success.

Change is afoot, and it is likely that heretofore unimaginable new innovations in instructional delivery and the certification of student learning, assisted by rapid improvements in educational technology, are ready to explode over the horizon.  These new programs will be the wave of the future and will increasingly replace outrageously expensive on-campus degree programs built around business models that are many centuries old.

Changes will be very bad news for all the campus Robespierres who are tromping the leafy quads across America today, but these will ultimately benefit both college students and our nation by allowing more open debate and discussion to flourish, which will restore some much needed balance to higher education—and ultimately to our country as a whole.