Today’s college students don’t oppose free speech, they just want previously excluded groups to feel comfortable exercising it. (AP)
James Piltch is a research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School and writes on citizenship and the history of education

Republicans have declared war on American universities. The GOP’s proposed tax bill threatens to wreak havoc on graduate programs and to tax university endowments that are crucial for providing financial aid. Meanwhile, the heavily Republican state legislatures in Wisconsin and North Carolina have passed laws that will require public university administrators to punish college students who are found to inhibit others’ free speech. Republican-led legislatures in several other states are considering similar bills.

Republican voters are likely cheering this offensive. Pew recently found that 58 percent of Republicans believe colleges negatively impact students — over 20 points higher than in 2015.

It’s not hard to see the cause of this growing animosity. Since 2015, protests have been a consistent presence on college campuses. From a Yale student yelling at professor and administrator Nicholas Christakis to Middlebury students refusing to allow conservative commentator Charles Murray to speak, there has been a string of headline-grabbing events that has created the impression that college students today are biased against conservatism and free speech.

On this matter, many liberal and conservative writers actually agree, believing there’s a new strain of illiberalism and thoughtlessness on campus that must be stamped out. They may not spend much time on campus, but these critics are convinced that today’s students just don’t get it.

But this hand-wringing didn’t begin in 2015. Indeed, the current intellectual conflicts about free speech and ideological difference have been brewing for decades. In the midst of the culture wars that raged during the 1980s, the conservative philosopher Allan Bloom predicted that this conflict was virtually inevitable — and he has proven to be correct. Those skirmishes from 30 years ago are crucial to understanding not only why college campuses became a battlefield, but also suggest these conflicts might not doom the cherished value of free speech on campus.

Bloom’s seminal 1987 book, “The Closing of the American Mind,” is perhaps best remembered for lamenting the fall of the Western canon on campus. He declared that requirements to learn about other cultures were “demagogic” and that the turn toward cultural relativism had — as the book’s blistering subtitle suggested — “failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.”

Bloom also identified what has now become the primary point of contention on college campuses. He worried that students’ commitment to openness as a value might lead them to be skeptical of anyone who wasn’t open enough. He feared above all that openness would eventually come into conflict with free speech.

Bloom’s book became a New York Times bestseller as the American public sought to understand these potentially alarming changes in campus life.

Of course, Bloom wasn’t writing in a vacuum. His work was actually part of an extensive academic feud — dating to the early ’80s — over what to teach in classrooms. The conversations taking place in history and literature departments across America had undergone a transformation by the time that Bloom exposed these debates to public scrutiny.

In English departments, professors were starting to teach Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare. In history classes, the Constitution could now be read not as American history’s holy text, but as a document filled with false promises. As liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. worried in his hand-wringing over the “disuniting of America,” the national narrative had turned away from the melting pot. Instead, critics argued that such a monolithic view of American history “united” the country at the exclusion of women and minorities.

Critics like Bloom saw this attention to difference, power and openness as antithetical to liberal arts education. Conservatives outside the intelligentsia also began to take notice. The same year “The Closing of the American Mind” was published, Lynne Cheney, then the director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, highlighted a different concern about higher education: if American professors no longer prioritized celebrating American greatness and oneness, what would happen to America’s children?

For Herbert London, then a dean at NYU, these fights over curriculum weren’t just a philosophical battle. He worried they might threaten universities’ stability. He wrote in 1987 that since the 1960s and the Vietnam War protests, professors had often become “subservient to politics.”

London feared that a “conventional wisdom” had emerged on campus. To fit in, students and professors needed to accept feminism and affirmative action and reject inequality. He believed — correctly, as it turned out — that as university tuition rates climbed, people would look at how political colleges appeared and feel like they didn’t need a university degree.

These university conflicts only escalated as they transitioned from the academy to the public arena. Writing in the early ’90s, conservatives Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza argued that the university’s “tenured radicals” would encourage students and administrators to prioritize political correctness and diverse representation over freedom of expression and “objective” standards.

D’Souza was especially concerned with affirmative action. He saw the idea as antithetical to American liberalism and meritocracy. While Bloom was concerned about the focus on diverse perspectives in the classroom, the conservative critics who followed him worried that a commitment to diversity would dictate every aspect of university life.

The curricular part of these conflicts has largely been settled for years. Multiculturalism rules the day. Many universities have women and gender studies and various ethnic studies departments. Similarly, the Western canon is no longer the intellectual focus of most students’ liberal arts  education. Instead, students now learn about the importance of diversity and the need to highlight voices that have often been silenced.

As a result, intellectual disputes on campus today are no longer between professors fighting over what to teach in classrooms. Instead, they are often among students in public spaces. While Bloom’s arguments about curriculum seem outdated, his worry that college students were becoming increasingly illiberal is now one of the primary conservative attacks against student protesters.

But by focusing on students’ tactics, critics miss that many student demands aren’t inherently at odds with liberalism. Bloom isn’t necessarily right that the desire for more diverse faculty and more diverse student populations undermines a classically liberal education. In fact, a commitment to diversity can strengthen it: The more perspectives and arguments that are brought forward, the better public discourse about freedom, justice and equality can be.

With student bodies that come from increasingly different backgrounds, universities are being forced to reckon with the fact that they haven’t historically valued the free expression of all groups equally. History and English professors have made a concerted effort to address this problem in their classrooms. It’s not as clear, though, that universities have confronted it in their public spaces.

Now, students demand intellectual equality and equal opportunity to engage, regardless of race, religion or class. Critics are quick to point out that this effort often omits conservative students. Yet universities constantly feature a competition of ideas. Right now, conservative students’ voices might be less prominent, but that hasn’t and won’t always be true. So long as left-leaning groups don’t call for an end to Republican clubs or the removal of conservative students from classrooms, it’s important to remember that social stigmas and pressure are different from the formal censuring of speech.

While violence is objectionable, students’ protests are not. Students are not snowflakes unable to handle ideological difference. They’re simply using the free speech that liberal universities have always valued in order to guarantee that the multicultural ideas and commitment to intellectual justice they’ve learned in the classroom are respected outside the classroom. In the spirit of a liberal university, critics and conservatives should engage those ideas on their merits, not ask protesters to give up their own speech so that some people feel more comfortable.