Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet

What Jeff Sessions doesn’t get about U.S. higher education and political correctness

July 31, 2018 at 6:00 AM

On July 24, 2018,  at the High School Leadership Summit of the conservative group Turning Point USA,  a crowd of high school students chanted, “Lock her up!” referring to Hillary Clinton, during a speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who laughed and repeated the words. (Image from Washington Post video/)

Last week, I wrote a post about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s miserable performance at a gathering of high school students — when he had a chance to be a real teacher to young people and blew it.

Related: [Jeff Sessions: The worst teacher of the week (even though it’s only Tuesday)]

This is what happened, according to this Washington Post report:

“I can tell this group isn’t going to have to have Play-Doh when you get attacked in college and you get involved in a debate,” Sessions said. “You’re going to stand up and defend yourselves and the values that you believe in. I like this bunch, I can tell you. You’re not going to be backing down. Go get ’em! Go get ’em!”

The crowd, which had erupted into a “lock her up” chant earlier, began the chant again.

“Lock her up,” Sessions chuckled. The chants continued, and he added, “I heard that a long time over the last campaign.”

“Lock her up” is a reference to the chant about Hillary Clinton frequently heard at Donald Trump’s rallies during his 2016 presidential campaign. I noted that Sessions could have reminded the students that Clinton was never charged with any crimes and that U.S. presidents don’t jail their opponents just because they don’t like them. That’s not what we do in the United States of America.

After the chant, Sessions continued his speech, saying:

“Rather than molding a generation of mature and well-informed adults, some schools are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes. We’re not going to have it.”

There has been more reaction to his appearance, which I think is worth publishing. This is from Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, a nonprofit organization at the intersection of literature and human rights that works to protect open expression:

“Attorney General Sessions is correct when he says that the First Amendment is not a partisan issue. The Attorney General legitimately called out policies and practices that impair open debate on campus, urging students and administrations to strengthen respect for open discourse by rejecting free speech zones, speech codes and other measures that constrict expression. But Sessions’ harsh description of students as ‘sanctimonious’ snowflakes and his one-sided list of examples of speech infringements miscast the argument in ways that will only deepen the rancor over campus speech. Maintaining that threats to speech originate only with the left, Session ignores numerous, widely-publicized examples of threatened and actual reprisals by conservatives against speech with this these disagree. These incidents include demands for Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar to be fired for criticism of former first lady Barbara Bush, violent threats lobbed at Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor  for her pointed criticism of President Trump, or this month’s calls from Kansas’s Republican governor for the removal of a political art piece at the University of Kansas. Nor does Session reference the so-called Professor Watchlist maintained by the organization that hosted him, Turning Point USA. In a frontal attack on academic freedom, the Watchlist website invokes McCarthy-era tropes in an effort to intimidate and discredit left-leaning professors. In using his bully pulpit to call out concerns over the state of campus speech, Sessions should practice what he preaches when it comes to nonpartisanship.”

And the following is from Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University and author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”

By Michael S. Roth

It would be hard to find a period in peacetime when our government has made a more concerted effort to undermine freedom of inquiry and expression. These attacks start with the press and extend to education. Every week President Trump takes aim at journalists, calling them enemies” of the people, or deriding sources he dislikes as “fake news.” As many have documented, his administration has engaged in an assault on the very notions of investigation and truth, doubling down on lies about Russian cyberattacks, economic markets and tariffs, and his own past behavior.

Along with attacks on the press have come attacks on colleges and universities. The link between them is the idea of being politically correct. Trump made political correctness his personal boogeyman, so that when challenged about any variety of salacious improprieties, he would respond that he didn’t have time to be politically correct, or, put more stridently, “political correctness is killing our country.”

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the gratuitous, overheated criticism of higher education — which remains one of the sectors of American culture and economy that has continued to attract respect and engagement from the best and brightest from around the world. Participating in the pile-on culture he claims to deride, Sessions attacked the usual caricatures in his speech to a gathering of conservative students:

“Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microaggressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.”

In the wake of the cruelties and embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction. At a time when law enforcement is separating families and the racist rhetoric of “infestation” has become a regular part of national presidential discourse, we must recognize that criticizing “PC” culture is just a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

When confronted with scandal, conflicts of interest and the inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about threats to conservative activists on campus. I have argued before that many universities should do more to represent conservative points of view in their approaches to the humanities and social sciences. And there is plenty of room for improvement in our efforts to cultivate intellectual diversity.

But it is downright unseemly to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. As the midterm election battles develop, we should expect to see candidates rush to show they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one’s mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

When his audience of high school students began repeating the irresponsible, uninformed chant from the last campaign, “lock her up,” our nation’s foremost guardian of due process and law enforcement had an opportunity to educate them. Did he take that opportunity?

No, he smiled and joined in the groupthink, while also hypocritically calling for “the molding of a generation of mature and well-informed adults.” He went on to claim that colleges and universities “are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” Session played to his base while championing openness to others.

Political correctness remains a scapegoat with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike. Sure, there are campus groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded.

But on my college campus and others I’ve visited, I also see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. Campuses are challenging places when they cultivate diversity of perspective, a sense of belonging and a common devotion to rigorous inquiry.

In an America where there is deep polarization and segregation, one might ask if there are other places today where these arguments are taking place among people from very different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

While the president legitimates fatuous attacks on the press and education, on inquiry and truth telling, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate, intellectual diversity and rigorous inquiry. These have made American universities attractive to people from all over the world.


Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.

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