To all parents who have just gone into mourning over the news that they will be denied the privilege of spending more than $16,000 a year to send their children to one of the great Ivy League colleges, I offer the connent Harvard professor named James Q. Wilson.
Writing in 1972, Wilson said that of all the institutions in which he had lived as an adult, among them the Catholic Church, the U.S. Navy and a small college in California, Harvard was perhaps the least conducive to "free and uninhibited discussion."
Wilson went on to say that Harvard was by no means the only great American university where intolerance and incivility had made the airing of all sides of certain issues "risky, if not impossible." Nor, as I gather from my own experience as a visiting lecturer and from the testimony of professors I have consulted, has the situation improved all that much in the past 15 years.
Consider, for example, Wilson's list of the positions that could be argued "in a free and open forum" at the Harvard of 1972 only under "mental and social duress."
"To be specific," he wrote, "a spokesman for South Vietnam, a critic of liberal policies toward the ghettos, a scientist who claimed that intelligence is largely inherited and a corporate executive who denied that his firm was morally responsible for the regime in South Africa have all been harassed and in some cases forcibly denied an opportunity to speak."
Amazingly, with the obvious exception of South Vietnam (a country that no longer has any spokesmen to harass because it has been "forcibly denied an opportunity" to exist), the very same list of forbidden opinions is still in force in 1986.
By now, moreover, this Ivy League index has grown to include a number of additional ideas: that homosexuality is abnormal; that the Soviet Union is incorrigibly expansionist; that nuclear disarmament is not necessarily desirable, and that the anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua and Angola deserve American support.
Nowadays visiting speakers holding those ideas and others like them are not booed or shouted down as often as they used to be. Such things still happen (ask Jeane Kirkpatrick). But for the most part dissenting opinions, if they are listened to at all, are greeted with a mixture of clenched coldness and visible incredulity.
As for the simple intellectual curiosity that presumably less intellectual audiences (businessmen, for instance) often manifest in response to any speaker with unexpected views, it is almost entirely absent from the great Ivy League campuses.
Worse yet, professors and students at these campuses can (so I am told) express dissenting positions only under the same "mental and social duress" that Wilson asserted was the personal cost of defying the prevailing climate of opinion in 1972.
To the extent, then, that our most prestigious universities advertise themselves as sanctuaries of free thought and free discussion, places where the young can spend four years in a fearless critical examination of all "the conventional wisdoms," they are making the kind of fraudulent claim that would get an ordinary business enterprise into trouble with the law.
In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Ivy League colleges have become perhaps the most narrow-minded and bigoted communities since the passing of the old American small town so mercilessly satirized by Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken and many other writers of the 1920s.
Of course, this contemporary version of the old American small town is governed by a new set of bigotries, known oxymoronically as "liberal." The consequence is that a student coming to one of the Ivy League colleges from what today passes for a liberal background will rarely be challenged (as every student once was, no matter where he came from) to examine the ideas and attitudes he has taken for granted all his life.
On the contrary, his commitment to those ideas and attitudes will be deepened by his professors in the classroom and reinforced by his classmates in the dorm. In that sense, Harvard or Yale will have much the same effect on a young liberal as Oral Roberts or Bob Jones universities will have on a young fundamentalist Christian.
For parents who are pious devotees of the new liberal religion, this may be worth $16,000 a year -- especially when added to the professional advantages of a degree from an Ivy League college. But it is a different story for parents of any other persuasion, or even liberal parents who want their children to get a solid grounding in the great traditions of Western civilization.
For such of those parents who are now in mourning over the letters of rejection that arrived on "Black Monday," there is some consolation to be had from reflecting on what it is likely they are being spared. I know, I know: things are not likely to be much better in the second-or third-rank colleges by which their children will by now have been accepted. But at least they are likely to be a little less expensive.