Once upon a time, long, long ago—in May 2005, in fact—I wrote an essay for The New Criterion with the optimistic title “Retaking the University: A Battle Plan.” That was back when I believed that the educational establishment in this country could be rescued from its wasting captivity in the arid pandemonium of political correctness.
I know, I know, it all seems so naïve now when the totalitarian, politically correct ideologues ruling most of our distinguished colleges and universities have succumbed utterly, indeed proudly, to The Narrative about race and sex, the putative evils of America, and, oh, so much else, and dissenting opinions, and the persons espousing them, are strictly excluded from the desolate though expensive eyries of insanity that define what we still call, without irony, our institutions of “higher education.”
A couple of years ago, students at Middlebury College (total freight-on-board, some 74,000 of the crispest per annum) covered themselves in shame by loudly protesting the great social scientist Charles Murray, first preventing him from talking, then violently mobbing him and one of his female faculty handlers, sending her to the hospital. I wrote about that disgusting incident in these pages at the time. “What happened at Middlebury,” I wrote, “was a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy.”
Every student who can be identified in that video should be expelled and Laurie Patton [the college’s president] should resign. The former have violated the basic compact of respect upon which liberal education rests and the latter has vividly demonstrated her incompetence.
Neither happened, of course, nor did anyone follow up on my concluding suggestion that “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.”
The Legutko Lashing
Perhaps some intrepid souls will reconsider now that Middlebury has once again soiled itself. A year or so back, I was proud to publish at Encounter Books The Demon in Democracy by the Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko. The book’s subtitle—“Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies”—announces its major theme, and Middlebury just did the world the favor of illustrating that theme by suddenly and at the last minute disinviting Legutko from giving a talk there because some of his opinions differ from the opinions of certain obnoxious students at Middlebury. (He was allowed to speak, in secret, to a small group of students thanks to a brave professor.) Rod Dreher tells chapter one of the story.
Chapter two, the aftermath, is in some ways even more alarming. In order to forestall future embarrassing episodes, the Student Government Association at Middlebury has issued 13 proposals for “community healing,” at the center of which is a demand that any proposed speaker at Middlebury first be vetted by the “Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [yes, really] in coordination with the SGA Institutional Diversity Committee.” Why? In order to determine “whether a speaker’s beliefs align with Middlebury’s community standards.” Heaven forfend that someone come to campus expressing an alternative point of view.
This sort of thing is now the rule, not the exception, at college campuses across the country—indeed, our neighbor to the north has taken a page from the same book. A few weeks ago, Concordia University in Montreal rescinded an invitation to the distinguished Harvard political philosopher—er, make that the “white male conservative”—Harvey Mansfield.
Cataloguing such outrages has become a tedious, seemingly never-ending chore. I don’t propose to continue the list here, but will merely note that the disease is by no means confined to purging campuses of alien opinions. There is also a huge amount of self-cannibalization going on, as various racial and sexual factions attack one another. Last week, Wake Forest University announced it would host black-only faculty and staff listening sessions in order to—get this—“promote inclusivity.” Wonderful! “Inclusivity” is now a process that operates by exclusion. Nice work if you can get it.
And you can get it, on college campuses anyway, without trying very hard. Williams College is one of the richest, if not the richest, college per capita in the country. It is also one of the most fatuous, as I have noted on several occasions. The most recent episode at that expensive Romper Room featured several angry black students interrupting a student government meeting, shouting obscenities and demanding more money for their segregated activities. I hope that everyone on the Williams College Board of Trustees, and all parents of students at the college, will have an opportunity to watch the video of this vicious outburst.
Operation Academic Freedom?
But back to that optimistic essay on “retaking the university” from 2005. One thoughtful internet commentator—I cannot, alas, find the link—responded with an alternative that I must have had somewhere in the back of my mind but had never articulated explicitly.
This forthright chap began by recalling an article on military affairs that poked fun at yesterday’s conventional wisdom that high-tech gear would render tanks and old-fashioned armor obsolete. Whatever else the war in Iraq showed, he observed, such tried and true military hardware was anything but obsolete. The moral is: some armor is good, more armor is better. “It makes sense,” this fellow concluded, “to have some tanks handy.”
He then segued into my piece on the university, outlining some of the criticisms and recommendations I’d made. By and large, he agreed with the criticisms, but he found my recommendations much too tame.
“Try as I might,” he wrote, “I just can’t see meaningful change of the academic monstrosity our universities have become issuing from faculties, parents, alumni, and trustees.” What was his alternative? In a word, “Tanks!” He called his plan Operation Academic Freedom. It has the virtue of forthright simplicity:
We round up every tank we can find that isn’t actually being used in Iraq or Afghanistan [this was in 2005]. Next, we conduct a nationwide Internet poll to determine which institutions need to be retaken first. . . . The actual battle plan is pretty simple. We drive our tanks up to the front doors of the universities and start shooting. Timing is important. We’ll have to wait till 11 a.m. or so, or else there won’t be anyone in class. Ammunition is important. We’ll need lots and lots of it. The firing plan is to keep blasting until there’s nothing left but smoldering ruins. Then we go on to the next on the list. If the first target is Harvard, for example, we would move on from there to, say, Yale. So fuel will be important too. There’s going to be some long distance driving involved between engagements.
Well, perhaps we can call that Plan B, a handy expedient if other proposals don’t pan out. And there have, let’s face it, been plenty of other proposals. The task of reforming higher education has become a vibrant cottage industry, with think tanks, conferences, special programs, institutes, and initiatives cropping up like mushrooms after a rain. I suspect, however, that they will remain minority enterprises, a handful of admirable gadflies buzzing about the left-lunging behemoth that is contemporary academia. Why? There are several reasons.
One reason is that the left-wing monoculture is simply too deeply entrenched for these initiatives, laudable and necessary though they are, to make much difference. For the last few years, I have heard several commentators from sundry ideological points of view predict that the reign of political correctness and programmatic leftism on campus had peaked and was now about to recede. I wish I could share that optimism. I see no evidence of it. Sure, students are quiescent. But indifference is not instauration, and besides faculties nearly everywhere form a self-perpetuating closed shop.
Something similar can be said about the fashion of “theory”—all that anemic sex-in-the-head politicized gibberish dressed up in reader-proof “philosophical” prose. It is true that names like Derrida or Foucault no longer produce the frisson of excitement that they once did. That is not because their “ideas” are widely disputed but rather because they are by now completely absorbed into the tissues of academic life. (The same thing happened with Freud a couple decades ago.)
The key issue, I hasten to add, is not partisan politics but rather the subordinating of intellectual life generally to non-intellectual, i.e., political imperatives. “The greatest danger,” the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote in “What are Universities For?” is
the invasion of an intellectual fashion which wants to abolish cognitive criteria of knowledge and truth itself. . . . The humanities and social sciences have always succumbed to various fashions, and this seems inevitable. But this is probably the first time that we are dealing with a fashion, or rather fashions, according to which there are no generally valid intellectual criteria.
Indeed, it is this failure—the colonization of intellectual life by politics—that stands behind and fuels the degradation of liberal education. The issue is not so much—or not only—the presence of bad politics as the absence of non-politics in the intellectual life of the university.
I used to think that appealing over the heads of the faculty to trustees, parents, alumni, and other concerned groups could make a difference. I have become increasingly less sanguine about that strategy. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to generate a sense of emergency such that those groups will actually take action, let alone maintain the sense of emergency such that an outburst of indignation will develop into a call for action.
An Alternative Vision
What’s more, those groups are increasingly impotent. Time was when a prospective hiccup in the annual fund would send shivers down the spine of an anxious college president. These days, many colleges and universities are so rich that they can afford to cock a snook at parents and alumni. Forget about Harvard and its $38 billion, or Princeton, or Yale, or Stanford, or the other super-rich schools. Even many small colleges are sitting on huge fortunes.
Some observers believe that the university cannot really be reformed until the current generation—the Sixties generation—retires. That’s another couple of decades, minimum. And don’t forget about the self-replicating engine that is tenure in which like begets like. Deep and lasting change in the university depends on deep and lasting change in the culture at large. Effecting that change is a tall order. Criticism, satire, and ridicule all have an important role to play, but the point is that such criticism, to be successful, depends upon possessing an alternative vision of the good.
Do we possess that alternative vision? I believe we do. We all know, well enough, what a good liberal education looks like, just as we all know, well enough, what makes for a healthy society. It really isn’t that complicated. It doesn’t take a lot of money or sophistication. What it does require is patience, candidness, and courage, moral virtues that are in short supply wherever political correctness reigns triumphant. In large part, those who want to retake the university must devote themselves to a waiting game, capitalizing in the meanwhile on whatever opportunities present themselves.
That is Plan A. Of course, it may fail; there are no guarantees. But in that case, we always have Plan B.
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