The Middlebury Meltdown

Future historians of the liberal arts in American academic life will be able to pinpoint the time and place of its death with remarkable accuracy. The fatal blow was delivered Thursday night, March 2, at Wilson Hall, Middlebury College, Vermont. The victim struggled manfully, but finally expired outside the McCullough Student Center an hour or so later.

It was there that liberal fascism—that witch’s brew of identity politics, political correctness, and what I’ve called the weaponization of victimhood—finally erupted with definitive virulence.

No one should have been surprised. There had been many earlier outbreaks on prominent campuses throughout the country. But what happened at Middlebury crossed a line.

Chapter One: The social scientist Charles Murray is invited to speak at Middlebury by a small student club.

Chapter Two: When Murray is introduced before an audience of some 400, a patter of boos and catcalls disrupt the introduction. When he rises to speak, most of the audience rises en masse and turns its back on Murray. For the next 20 minutes, as Murray stands calmly at the podium, the mob cycles through a sequence of obviously rehearsed chants: “Who is the enemy? White Supremacy,” “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has to go,” “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away,” “Your message is hatred we will not tolerate it,” “Charles Murray go away Middlebury says no way,” etc.

Chapter Three: College officials, apparently anticipating a disruption, announce, to renewed boos, that Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger will conduct an interview with Murray from another location and stream the proceedings back to Wilson Hall. Then this happened:

Once the interview began in the second room, protesters swarmed into the hallway, chanting and pulling fire alarms. Still, the interview was completed and officials, including Ms. Stanger, escorted Mr. Murray out the back of the building.

There, several masked protesters, who were believed to be outside agitators, began pushing and shoving Mr. Murray and Ms. Stanger, Mr. Burger [a spokesman for the college] said. “Someone grabbed Allison’s hair and twisted her neck…”

After the two got into a car, Mr. Burger said, protesters pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood. Ms. Stanger later went to a hospital, where she was put in a neck brace.

Note that the violence occurred as Murray and Stanger attempted to leave. As Andrew Stuttaford of National Review observes, “The ‘justification’ for disrupting his speech was that opinions such as Murray’s should not be given a hearing on campus, but this was something else. Murray was not about to speak, he was about to depart, and yet he and Ms. Stanger were attacked.”

An amateur video of the proceedings in Wilson Hall has gone viral. It makes for a disturbing 43 minutes.

Quite apart from the mindless vituperation of the student totalitarians, the performance of Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, who briefly addressed the crowd before Murray rose to speak, was an emetic specimen of self-congratulatory virtue signaling.

“I would regret it terribly,” she said, if her presence in the hall were regarded as “an endorsement of Mr. Murray’s research.” Certainly not! In case there were any doubts, the President of Middlebury announced that she “profoundly disagrees with many of Mr. Murray’s views.” Applause from the audience (but not as enthusiastic as the applause that greeted her announcement of another forthcoming speaker: Edward Snowden).

Middlebury, said President Patton, was dedicated to unlocking “the brilliance” of every student (was this Middlebury or Lake Wobegone?) “no matter their race, their class, their sexual orientation, their religious orientation, their disabled status, or any other demographic marker.”

Patton must have been proud of that formulation, for she repeated it verbatim later in her remarks. She also declared, without obvious irony, that “very premise of free speech on this campus is that the speaker has a right to be heard.” Is that so? Watch the video. Can you imagine any less welcoming place, short of North Korea, for free speech?

Parents: This year, it costs $64,332 (not including books and incidentals) to attend Middlebury. Watch that video: money well spent?

John Stuart Mill once noted that if you know only your own side of an argument, you don’t even know that. It is only through the pressure of alternatives that we come to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of our own position. That hoary liberal idea is obviously completely passé at elite institutions like Middlebury. There what is wanted is the party line and nothing else. Apparently, it has been that way for a while. One news report revealed that some 450 Middlebury alumni were “disappointed, confused and alarmed” to learn Murray had been invited to Middlebury.

That alumni letter trades in an oft-used, if also deeply disingenuous, rhetorical strategy. It begins by asserting that its effort to squash free speech is “not an issue of freedom of speech.” Like President Patton, it affirms their commitment to “a diverse range of opinion.” etc. etc. No, it is not free speech but a concern about the “nature” and “quality” Charles Murray’s work that bothers them. It’s worth reading this inadvertently hilarious letter and then asking yourself what nearly $300,000 gets you at Middlebury College. Not much, I’d say.

Is there a more distinguished social scientist active in America than Charles Murray? I cannot think of one. The usual epithet applied to Murray is the weasel word “controversial.” A more useful (and more accurate) term would be “distinguished.” His long list of books includes such classics as Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. Together these strikingly original works have reshaped and improved the way we think about a host of social problems, from welfare policy and education to the prerequisites of human flourishing in affluent but increasingly divided societies like our own.

Whenever Murray appears on a college campus, however, he is the author of only one book: The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), which Murray wrote with the Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein. Last year Murray was invited to speak at Virginia Tech. Tim Sands, the president, wrote a hand-wringing and self-congratulatory “open letter” in which he defended Murray’s right to speak on campus (see how broadminded I am?) while at the same time registering his profound repugnance that so vile a person should appear in their midst (see how virtuous I am?). “This will not be the last time,” Sands mournfully observed, “that a student group, a faculty member or the administration invites a speaker whose views will be regarded by some in our community as repugnant, offensive or even fraudulent.”

“Fraudulent,” eh? “Dr. Murray is well known for his controversial [but of course!] and largely discredited [my emphasis] work linking measures of intelligence to heredity, and specifically to race and ethnicity—a flawed socioeconomic theory that has been used by some to justify fascism, racism, and eugenics.”

As Murray noted in reply to this allegation, it is clear that “President Sands is unfamiliar either with the actual content of The Bell Curve . . . or with the state of knowledge in psychometrics.” First of all, the subject of the book is not race but, as the subtitle helpfully indicates, “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.”

Murray’s reply gives a brief but pointed summary of his argument in The Bell Curve. At the center of the book is the question to what extent IQ is heritable and to what extent it is a product of environmental factors. A key passage on page 311 notes,

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.

As Murray notes: “That’s it—the sum total of every wild-eyed claim that The Bell Curve makes about genes and race. There’s nothing else.” In other words, Murray and Herrnstein’s tort was to decline to argue that the observed IQ differences between whites and blacks (one standard deviation, or about 15 points) were due entirely to the environment, not genetic inheritance.

So why the fuss? It seems clear that “Charles Murray” is a hallucination. That is to say, some portion of the population, mesmerized by a fantasy of politically incorrect malignancy, has projected their anxiety on Charles Murray and transformed a sober and humane scholar into a demon. It is, I submit, a species of insanity, and it is not without irony that something similar has been practiced upon one of Murray’s bêtes noirs, Donald Trump.

But that is a subject for another day. For now, it is enough to note the disgusting and dangerous treatment that Middlebury College accorded to a great visiting scholar, not to mention one of its own faculty members. No one, I think, can watch that video and believe that Middlebury fosters an environment hospitable to open debate. On the contrary, despite Patton’s protestations—but doubtless in part because of her policies—Middlebury is a politically correct slum that works to instill a rancid intellectual and moral conformity in its charges. No parent, I trust, could watch that video and be easy about sending his child to Middlebury. And no donor could see it and think about writing a check.

What happened at Middlebury on the evening of March 2 was a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy. Every student who can be identified in that video should be expelled and Laurie Patton should resign. The former have violated the basic compact of respect upon which liberal education rests and the latter has vividly demonstrated her incompetence.

Really, the college should be closed and its facilities repurposed as something useful—a menagerie, perhaps, in homage to the strange, intolerant creatures that cavorted there when it pretended to be an educational institution.

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