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The erosion of freedom of thought in academia may be old news, but it’s certainly not fake news. Ideological assaults on the humanities continue in spite of all the continued exposure and ridicule these stories generate in the press. Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” was published 30 years ago and in that time things have only gotten worse. Many universities might as well adopt the motto: “Where thinking comes to die and ideology lives again.”
In a recent essay on free speech in the academy, Roger Kimball notes that the biggest offender in hindering proper education is political correctness. This has become an unfortunate fact of life—those who hate it call it what it is (an apparatus of totalitarianism), and those who employ it to achieve an ideological control rarely admit that it exists. Rather, like a group of joyless and barely animate beings, they deploy euphemisms and jargon that masquerade as discourse and understanding. Normal people are meant to feel out of sorts in the face of this nonsense and to assume that their confusion is a mark of ignorance rather than of common sense. It generally works.
In the same article, Kimball also points to something that is rarely discussed in critiques of higher education: the notion of reality. Political correctness has the ability to bring hopelessness into the lives of true intellectuals, but Kimball observes “reality itself is finally the great obstacle to the definitive triumph of political correctness.”
Ideologues—especially academic ideologues—have a penchant for denying reality. They see a world composed of entirely different structures that are either re-imagined as something else, or are entirely fabricated. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Truth is the agreement or conformity of reality and the mind’s judgment on reality.” He meant the first step in clear and critical thinking is an acknowledgment of the world as it exists. Deny the reality of human life, and the endeavor of thinking fails spectacularly. This is why academic ideologues are so enamored with theories, which have their own theories and endless categories. The more categories and divisions they can create, the less likely it is that there will be any real chance of intellectual dialogue. This is precisely the trajectory of identity politics as well as of political correctness. Neither concern themselves with truth or reality. Both see human beings as random politicized parts to be relativized and utilized for the security and propagation of ideology.
I recall sitting in a graduate seminar, quietly observing a discussion, having nothing to contribute to the cacophony of bizarre theories. I was trying to stay engaged when I heard a student equate the marginalization of people who participate in bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (BDSM) to the survivors of Auschwitz. This student explained that BDSM practitioners today are viewed in the same way Nazis saw Jews—deviant, inadequate, and subhuman—and as such they too are greatly suffering. I was asked to consider that someone who willingly engages in a particular type of sexual role play for the sake of pleasure is wrongfully judged by the norms of the society in the precisely same way as Jews in death camps were judged.
Everyone nodded in that typically nonjudgmental (or is it non-thinking) grad student way and the discussion continued as if the preposterousness of such a claim was instead a chin-stroking notion worthy of serious thinkers and deep contemplation. This is what denying reality in academia looks like. It is an obstinate refusal to see the difference between good and evil. It is, moreover, the denial that arriving at judgments about good and evil is a philosophical requirement in thinking, debating, and education.
One of the hallmarks of any ideology is a destruction of the language which we use to describe reality. If ideology is a coercion of truth, then one way to coerce is through language. For an academic ideologue this means that the potential convert must first learn the new language that indirectly denies reality (and prevents outside ideas from challenging the dogma). Words take on different meanings because the ideologue revels in being vague. English, by nature, is a very precise language which makes the entire project of ideologizing humanities even more absurd and destructive.
The object of linguistic coercion in the academy is to change students on an existential level. The weak succumb immediately but the strong quietly accept their fate while still having an awareness that they are swimming in a sea of lies. This is the great sadness that today permeates higher education.
Are academic ideologues like the imprisoned souls in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” seeing only shadows with a firm conviction that shadows are the things themselves? This is perhaps true of students but it is certainly not true of most professors. Prisoners in Plato’s cave are oblivious and the only harm that they are inflicting is on themselves. Academicians may be living in an existential darkness and be sadly unenlightened beings who lack reason, but they are willful and quite deliberate in the harm they perpetuate. This harm usually takes the form of revolt against tradition and the order of things, and we have seen the poisonous fruits of this labor in the public square.
Education is supposed to take into account the entirety of the human person.
As someone who has been both a teacher and a student, I can firmly say that it is easy to fall into despair especially if one is a thinking person for whom ideas matter. But the truth is there to be discovered and there are still institutions that deem critical and philosophical thinking a prerequisite to learning and eventually earning a degree. What’s even more miraculous, to use an academically unacceptable word, is that there remain real teachers and real thinkers even in the midst of these academic ideologues. They keep going with the strength and courage and to provide the real and the necessary safe space where human beings are free to think and free to speak.