This essay is adapted from a talk earlier in February delivered at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom and the American Culture and Ideas Initiative at the University of Arizona.

Wokeness, Free Speech, and the Role of Education

Back in New York, we have recently started an informal reading group at The New Criterion and Encounter Books. If that sounds dull, let me add that I have combined the reading with a little seminar on wine appreciation. At the moment, our palettes are padding around Bordeaux, learning to discriminate reliably among Paulliac, Saint-Estèphe, and Saint-Julien. Soon we’ll move east to the Right Bank and then further afield. 

At the same time, we are in the midst of reading Plato’s Republic, a book about nearly everything, including a major theme of my remarks today: the role of education. 

I thank my host Dan Asia for supplying the title of my talk, and I will get around to touching on all of its elements. In the meantime, I want to point out a certain ambiguity or incompleteness about the phrase “the role of education.” One immediately wants to know, “the role of education” in what? In free speech? In the perpetuation of wokeness? Perhaps this is the place to issue a trigger warning to the effect this talk is definitely not “woke.” Anyone anxious about being offended may leave with impunity. 

In what follows, I am basically going to follow some hints in the Republic, which inquires into the role of education in several senses: into what it means for individuals, to start with, and also what it means for society at large. Socrates signals the importance of education early on when he tells Glaucon, Plato’s elder brother and one of the chief characters in the dialogue, that “it is no trifling matter we are discussing, but the right conduct of life.” 

I think that’s right. Education, rightly understood, is important business. And it is worth noting that, traditionally, a liberal arts education involved both character formation and learning. It was, as the word “liberal” suggests, an education for freedom, for liberty. It might incidentally teach you how to plot a trajectory, dissect a frog, analyze a poem, or construct a pie chart. But at the end of the day, the aim of a liberal arts education was thoughtful reflection about the question “How should I live my life?” The goal was to produce men and women who, as Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind, had reflected thoughtfully on the question “‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs.” 

I am sure I do not need to point out to this educated audience that by “man,” Bloom meant anthrōpos, not anēr: human being, not just the male of the species. 

Bloom’s ideal seems very old-fashioned now. Since the 1960s, in fact, colleges and universities have more and more been home to what the literary critic Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture” of the intellectuals. Now the goal was rejection, not reflection. Colleges and universities increasingly became laboratories dedicated to social and political transformation, not learning or the cultivation of free and responsible citizens.

There were many reasons for this transformation. One reason has to do with the erosion of liberalism in the face of rising moral certitude. If you believe that you are in possession of a higher virtue that trumps the pedestrian wisdom of ordinary mortals, then you are likely to be impatient with their pleas for pluralism. 

The intoxication that follows from moral certitude is one important reason that the modern academy is increasingly inimical to free speech and everything that surrounds the cultivation of free speech: free inquiry, free action, and free minds. 

The dissemination of political correctness, subordinating the pursuit of truth to the imposition of political dogma, sacrifices freedom on the altar of virtue, or supposed virtue. It’s not so much that the academy has turned its back on its traditional raison d’être—the pursuit of truth and the propagation of civilization. No, it’s worse than that. The academy has increasingly embraced an ethic that is positively inimical to its founding principles. As an illustration, consider the news from Northwestern University. Just a couple of days ago, I read that after a student proposed a resolution to protect free speech and civil discourse at the school, it was voted down by the students at large.

There are two central tenets of the woke philosophy. The first is feigned fragility. The second is angry intolerance.

The phenomenon is reminiscent of what the 20th-century Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” It took a Marxist to come up with that idea. Our ordinary sense of tolerance, Marcuse said—an idea summed up in such phrases as “live and let live”—was not only wrong but evil, and it was evil because it tended to reinforce the moral structures of bourgeois society. Marcuse advocated instead what he called “liberating tolerance,” that is, “intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.” Think about that. 

The classical liberal (who is also the contemporary conservative) championed tolerance partly because he knew that his own vision was limited and incomplete, partly because it helped maintain a space for civilized disagreement. Many of you will recall hearing sentences like this: “I disagree with you but I support your right to voice your opinion.” How quaint that now sounds! 

The modern social justice warrior abominates disagreement as a form of heresy. Accordingly, he rejects tolerance in favor of enforced, indeed totalitarian, conformity. It is the antithesis of what a liberal-arts education is all about, which is why its installation at the center of our erstwhile liberal-arts institutions makes for such a sad irony.

The renaissance philosopher Nicholas of Cusa touched on an important aspect of this irony in his discussion of the “coincidence of opposites.” Unpacking exactly what Cusa meant by that arresting phrase would take us deep into the thickets of metaphysical speculation. But we see pedestrian examples of that strange coincidence everywhere. Indeed, one of the great tests of our wokeness is the extent to which many things have mutated into their opposites—not awake but awoke. In short, inversion is a dominant principle of our social life.

Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Restoring the Old Ignorance

We see this with particular vividness in the vast petri dish that is the contemporary university. 

Consider the demand for diversity. You cannot step foot on a college campus these days without being regaled about its commitment to diversity. Everywhere you turn, from the curriculum to the institution’s admission policy, diversity is hailed as the highest, sometimes it seems, the only value. Other values—the value, for example, of embracing a common moral and intellectual tradition—are drastically undervalued where they are not ignored entirely. 

And the irony is, the diversity that is so lovingly proclaimed turns out to be a sham. It turns out that in every case the demand for diversity really means strict intellectual and moral conformity on any contentious issue. 

To be diverse is to subscribe to a menu of orthodox opinions on subjects ranging from abortion to the environment to race, sexuality, and Donald Trump. Again, dissent from the orthodoxy is regarded not as another opinion, with which one might argue, but as heresy, which one must silence. According to this view of diversity, everything that is not mandatory is prohibited. The principle of inversion turned the virtue of diversity into its opposite. 

Once upon a time, and it was not so long ago, colleges and universities were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization. Today, most are dedicated to the repudiation of truth and the subversion of those values. In short, they are laboratories for the cultivation of wokeness. This is especially true, with only a handful of exceptions, of the most prestigious institutions. The tonier and more expensive the college, the more woke it is likely to be.

There are two central tenets of the woke philosophy. The first is feigned fragility. The second is angry intolerance. The union of fragility and intolerance has given us that curious and malevolent hybrid, the crybully, a delicate yet venomous species that thrives chiefly in lush, pampered environments.

The 18th-century German aphorist G. C. Lichtenberg observed that “Nowadays we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance.” 

Doubtless Lichtenberg thought he was being clever. How astonished he would have been to discover that he was a prophet, not a satirist.

Surely many of you have heard about the Twitter sensation Titania McGrath. She is the author of many extravagant woke pronouncements. A personal favorite is this: “If you don’t think exactly the same way as me, then you’ve clearly got a lot to learn about diversity.” Is that satire? Or is it a bulletin from the front? I doubt that any triggered academic could put it better. 

The world recently learned that Titania’s real name is Andrew Doyle and that all those woke observations were in jest. A certain amount of hilarity ensued. But the serious point is this: McGrath’s sly tweets are indistinguishable from what is actually, seriously being propagated today in academia—and not only in academia. The mantra is “Diversity.” The reality is strictly enforced conformity about any ideas that might disturb the heavy moral slumber of wokeness. Consider this gem: “It’s a broken kind of democracy that allows a majority of voters to impose their wishes on the rest of us.” I suspect that Adam Schiff would agree. 

But here’s an irony that underscores the theme of inversion: when the free speech movement started at Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in 1964, it was a left-wing movement that demanded tolerance and challenged conventional behavior and mores. Today the Left espouses the opposite—not tolerance and free speech but conformity, censorship, and intolerance. 

The advent of the crybully reminds of the important truth that what is preposterous can still be malevolent. 

In my book Tenured Radicals, I included a section on “academia and infantilization.” But when I wrote in 2008, the rhetoric of “safe spaces,” “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings” had not yet blazed its destructive path through the hearts and minds of students. Women back then made a point of declaring their independence, their ability to stand on their own two feet and make decisions for themselves. They would have rejected with contemptuous ridicule the idea that a college dean or “diversity officer” should police or protect their sex lives. 

Nowadays, of course, victimhood is a badge of election. I will not attempt to plumb the depressing reasons for this unlovely development other than to note that it represents another side of that infantilization I mentioned a moment ago. 

The crybully, who has weaponized his coveted status as a victim, was first sighted in the mid-2000s. He has two calling cards, race and gender. By coincidence Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, was involved in the evolution of both.

Race came first. In 2001, Summers made headlines when he suggested that Cornel West—then the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor and an eminence in the African and African American Studies Department at Harvard—buckle down to some serious scholarship. (West’s most recent production had been a rap CD called “Sketches of My Culture.”) Summers also suggested that the professor take the lead in fighting the scandal of grade inflation at Harvard, where one of every two grades was an A or A-.

A national scandal erupted. Black professors at Harvard threatened to leave—West himself soon decamped to Princeton—and the New York Times published a hand-wringing editorial criticizing Summers, who quickly recanted, noting that the entire episode had been “a terrible misunderstanding.”

Then came gender. In 2005, Summers spoke at a conference called “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce” at MIT. He speculated on why there aren’t more women scientists at elite universities. He touched on several possibilities: Maybe “patterns of discrimination” had something to do with it. Maybe most women preferred to put their families before their careers. And maybe, just possibly, it had something to do with “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”

What a storm that last comment sparked! “I felt I was going to be sick,” wailed Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, who had walked out on Summers. “My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow, low,” Hopkins said. “I was extremely upset.” To adapt Helen Reddy, “I am woman, hear me whine.” 

Once again, Summers recanted. He published an open letter to the Harvard community. “I deeply regret the impact of my comments,” he wrote, “and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.” It was too late. By May his faculty had returned a vote of no confidence, 218-185, with 18 abstentions. By February he had been forced to announce his resignation.

These two incidents, partly because they involved such a high-profile institution, marked an important turning point. The pleasures of aggression were henceforth added to the comforts of feeling aggrieved. The crybully was slouching towards campus to be born. 

YouTube/Mark Schierbecker

The Farce of the Crybully’s Birthing Pains

The toxic fruits of this development are on view throughout the higher-educational establishment, where spurious charges of “systemic racism,” “a culture of rape,” and sundry other imaginary torts compete for the institutional budget of pity, special treatment, and financial reparation. 

Many of you will remember the Halloween Hijinks at Yale from a couple of years ago. The MacGuffin of the insanity turned on Halloween costumes. Erika Christakis, then associate master of a residential college at Yale, courted outrage by announcing that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society” and it was not her business to police Halloween costumes.

To people unindoctrinated by the sensitivity training that is de rigueur on most campuses today, these sentiments might seem utterly unobjectionable. But to the delicate creatures at Yale’s Silliman College they were an intolerable provocation. What if students dressed as American Indians or Mexican mariachi musicians? Angry, hysterical students confronted Nicholas Christakis, Erika’s husband and at that time master of Silliman. They screamed obscenities and demanded that he step down because he had failed to create “a place of comfort, a home” for students. The episode was captured on video and went viral.

Of course, the sickness affects not just institutions like Yale and Harvard. At the University of Missouri a couple of years back, Jonathan Butler, the son of a wealthy railroad executive, went on a hunger strike to protest what he called “revolting” acts of racism at Mizzou. Details were scanty. Nevertheless, black members of the university football team threatened to strike for the rest of the season unless Tim Wolfe, Mizzou’s president, stepped down. A day or two later, he did.

Emboldened, student and faculty protesters physically prevented reporters from photographing a tent village they had built on public space. In another shocking video, a student photographer is shown being forced back by an angry mob while Melissa Click, a feminist communications teacher at Mizzou, shouts for “muscle” to help her eject a reporter.

What is happening? Is it a reprise of the late 1960s and 1970s, when campuses across the country were sites of violent protests? There are some similarities. But again, the principle of inversion is at work. What we are seeing unfold has in many ways turned that radicalism on its head. Karl Marx touched on the central irony when he noted that history tends to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The advent of the crybully reminds of the important truth that what is preposterous can still be malevolent. 

The response of university administrations has not been encouraging. At Yale, cringing capitulation has been the order of the day. Yale President Peter Salovey told a group of aggrieved students who complained that they did not feel “safe” at Yale that “we failed you.” At one of the several hours-long public meetings on campus, the Yale Daily News reported, Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College, found himself “surrounded by a sea of upturned faces and fighting back tears” as he apologized for the administration’s silence on allegations of racial discrimination.

Free speech is by nature offensive speech, at least potentially. If it couldn’t offend, if it couldn’t insult, it also couldn’t enlighten.

There are a lot of tears at Yale these days. When the conservative lawyer Amy Wax spoke at the Yale Political Union, a group of students stood up, turned their backs on her, and raised their fists in the air in protest. “Several students,” the Yale Daily News reported, “cried during her speech.”

A few days after enduring the hysterics of his students, Nicholas Christakis, accompanied by Dean Holloway and other university administrators, met with about 100 students at his home and abased himself. “I have disappointed you and I’m really sorry,” he said.

The confrontation “just broke my heart,” Christakis added. “I care so much about the same issues you care about. I’ve spent my life taking care of these issues of injustice, of poverty, of racism. I have the same beliefs that you do . . . I’m genuinely sorry, and to have disappointed you. I’ve disappointed myself.”

Perhaps he thinks such groveling will allow him to salvage his position. Not a chance. The revolution always eats its own. At midnight shortly after the Halloween Hoedown at Silliman College, a group of students marched to Salovey’s house to complain about “institutional racism at Yale” and to present six demands, including “a University where we feel safe,” the renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College, the abolition of the title “Master,” and the erection of a monument acknowledging that Yale was built on land stolen from “indigenous peoples.” They also demanded that Nicholas and Erika Christakis be removed from their administrative positions. 

I do not know whether the monument has been erected, but Calhoun College has been renamed Grace Hopper College, the title “master” has been retired, President Salovey earmarked $50 million for such initiatives as the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Oh, and Nicholas and Erika Christakis were quietly removed from their positions at Silliman College. 

The fatuousness of these episodes—many of which might have been plucked from the annals of Maoist public-shaming events—underscores the surreal quality of life at many American colleges these days. Peter Salovey came to his office several years ago with a ringing defense of free speech. He has bravely endeavored to continue that support, but has also chained his carriage to a conflicting, indeed a contradictory, ethic: the mendacious gospel of political correctness, according to which reality must take second place to ideology. Salovey, like academic administrators around the country, hopes that he can safeguard free speech while also acceding to demands that the university be a “safe space” where no one’s feelings are hurt. It is an impossible project.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A More Sensible and Courageous Approach

Academic administrators would be better advised to take a page from the robust philosophy of Teddy Roosevelt, leavened with a little clear-eyed truth-telling from Aristotle. In Roosevelt’s autobiography, we read that—quote— “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin . . . would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” Teddy then warned against the destructive vogue for “hyphenated Americans.”

Back then, it was German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans. Today we speak of “Native-Americans,” “African-Americans,” and the like, and the terms tend to be wielded in a way to claim both special protected status and unearned privilege. The result is a tangle of national squabbling that is like nothing Roosevelt could have imagined. Perhaps this is the place to confess that I have always thought of myself as a “native American.” I was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Can a more native American venue be imagined?

The truth is that American universities are among the safest and most coddled environments ever devised by human ingenuity. The idea that one should attend college to be protected from ideas one might find controversial or offensive could only occur to someone who had jettisoned any hope of acquiring an education. Many commentators have been warning about a “higher education bubble.” They have focused mostly on the unsustainable costs of college, but the spectacle of timid moral self-indulgence also deserves a place on the bill of indictment.

There are some encouraging signs. When a dean at Claremont College resigned on after being accused of racism because of a carelessly worded email, some brave students at the Claremont Independent published a dissenting editorial in which they berated hypersensitive students for bringing spurious charges of racism and the dean and the president for cowardice in not standing up to the barrage.

“Lastly,” they wrote, “we are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement.”

And this is where Aristotle comes in. Courage, Aristotle pointed out, is the most important virtue, because without it you cannot practice the others. Courage has been in short supply on American campuses. Those independent-minded students at Claremont provided a breath of fresh air. It will be interesting to see if it penetrates the fetid atmosphere that has settled over so much of American academic life.

A couple of years ago at Encounter Books, I was proud to publish The Demon in Democracy by the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko. A prominent theme in that book is the persistence of totalitarian impulses in putatively liberal societies. Last spring, as if to illustrate that thesis, Middlebury College suddenly rescinded an invitation to Legutko to speak. Why? Because a handful of student snowflakes decided that Legutko’s ideas were not in perfect harmony with their own.

Middlebury, of course, is the institution that covered itself in shame two years ago when protestors there loudly and violently prevented the social scientist Charles Murray from speaking and then, in the resulting melee, sent a female faculty member to the hospital. And here’s the kicker: Middlebury is not some wacko exception. On the contrary, its malignant embrace of woke identity politics is the rule in the American educational establishment, and, increasingly, in the American workplace. I see that Murray is scheduled to make a return visit to Middlebury soon to discuss his new book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. I hope that he has some bodyguards in tow. 

The suppression of free speech by the wardens of wokeness has prompted many conservatives to champion free speech as an all-purpose antidote. I sympathize with that endeavor, and have written probably dozens of articles defending a robust idea of free speech. In my view, if you say “I am for free speech, but not ‘hate speech’ or speech that offends Mohammed or speech that insults Greens or speech that mocks, satirizes, ridicules, and laughs at some P.C. icon,” etc. then you are not for free speech at all. Your “but” is merely a species of capitulation pretending to be redemptive conceptual nuance. Free speech is by nature offensive speech, at least potentially. If it couldn’t offend, if it couldn’t insult, it also couldn’t enlighten.

That said, I’d like this evening to take a stab at putting the debate over free speech into a larger context.

Ted Streshinsky/Corbis via Getty Images

What Is Free Speech?

The fact that the Left celebrated free speech in 1964 and now abominates it as a token of white supremacist ideology suggests the issue is not really, or not only, free speech. 

Like all freedoms, free speech is defined by the responsibilities it embraces and the culture in which it thrives. Some advocates of free speech maintain that, when it comes to the free expression of ideas, anything goes. No ideas, they say, should be off-limits. They say that. But I do not think that they really believe it, since one can easily produce a long list of ideas that they would be horrified to see circulating.

But that in turn suggests that the whole debate over free speech needs to be seen in the context of its larger purpose: its role in the metabolism of education, first of all, but also the place of education in the social-political dispensation of our country.

For assistance in making this point, I’d like to introduce you to a once potent, now largely forgotten political thinker named Willmoore Kendall. Kendall was an important mentor of William F. Buckley at Yale in the late 1940s. He was a founding editor of National Review. Leo Strauss said he was the most important political theorist of his generation.

Among other things, Kendall saw deeply into the dialectic of disagreement and free speech. It is understandable that conservatives should react to woke intolerance by celebrating free speech. After all, the criminalization of policy differences that underwrites woke culture is an alarming development. But I think that Kendall was right when he contended that “by no means are all questions open questions.”

To explain this, Kendall points out that all societies are founded on a “consensus,” what he calls “a hard core of shared beliefs.” This is especially true, he notes, for the United States, whose founding principles are of recent vintage and are clearly and deliberately set forth. 

Freedom of thought and expression are important, Kendall acknowledges, but only “within limits set by the basic consensus.” Should that consensus be challenged by something “with genuine civil war potential,” the proper response is not debate but interdiction. Edmund Burke made a similar point in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, as did James Madison when he spoke of “that veneration” for tradition—what he called “the prejudices of the community”—which even the wisest societies abandon at their peril. Abraham Lincoln, in his stalwart prosecution of the Civil War, demonstrated his agreement with Kendall’s insight.

Kendall was writing at a moment when international Communism posed an existential threat to the United States. With that in mind, he argued, “Some questions involve matters so basic to the consensus” that, in declaring them open, a society would in effect “abolish itself [and] commit suicide.” Accordingly, Kendall outlined two views of free speech. The first, dedicated to the proposition that “no truth in particular is true,” holds that all questions are open and that no one position is to be preferred to another. 

The second view, his view, turns on two words: “We” and “truth,” as in the phrase “We hold these truths” from the Declaration of Independence. The identity of that “We” and the substance of those truths mark the limits of interrogation.

Legal historians will note the similarity between what Kendall says and a famous observation made by Justice Robert Jackson in his dissent in Terminiello v. City of Chicago in 1949. The Bill of Rights, Justice Jackson said, is not “a suicide pact.” In other words, when it comes to free speech the choice “is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

Conservatives have rightly lamented the assault on free speech that is such a conspicuous and disfiguring reality of life in America today. But that loss only achieves its true significance in the context of a more fundamental erosion: the erosion of that shared political consensus, that community of sentiment, which gives life to the first-person plural, that “We, the People,” which made us who we are. Should we lose that, we shall have lost everything.

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