A specter is haunting academia, the specter of specters — ghosts, goblins and “cultural appropriation” through insensitive Halloween costumes. Institutions of higher education are engaged in the low comedy of avoiding the agonies of Yale University.
Last October, the university was rocked to its 315-year-old foundations by the wife of a residential college master (a title subsequently expunged from Yale’s vocabulary lest it trigger traumas by reminding people that slavery once existed). In response to a university memorandum urging students to wear culturally sensitive costumes — e.g., no sombreros — she wrote an email saying it should be permissible for young people to be inappropriate, provocative or even offensive because “the ability to tolerate offense” is a hallmark of “a free and open society.”
Named for the chairman of the committee that produced it, historian C. Vann Woodward, the report was written after Yale’s awkward handling of some controversial speakers. Reaffirming freedom of expression’s “superior importance to other laudable principles and values,” the report said:
“Without sacrificing its central purpose, [a university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility or mutual respect. . . . It will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose.”
That purpose, as Hanna Holborn Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago, once said, is not to make young adults comfortable, it is to make them think. Since 1975, however, universities have embraced the doctrine that speech that offends people actually harms them, mentally and even physically. The decision to treat young adults as fragile and perpetually vulnerable to victimization coincided with academia’s turn away from the world: Fifty years ago, student assertiveness concerned momentous issues of war and civil rights. Today, students have macro tantrums about micro-aggressions (e.g., sombreros). Time was, students rebelled against universities acting in loco parentis . Today, they welcome having their sexual and other social interactions minutely subjected to government regulations administered by Pecksniffs with PhDs.
Fortunately, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some schools are having second thoughts about their “bias-response teams,” which spring into action when someone says that someone has said something offensive. These schools have noticed the obvious: When such teams elevate campus harmony as the supreme value, they become civility enforcers with a chilling effect on speech.
America’s great research universities are the ornaments of Western civilization, so their descent into authoritarianism and infantilization matters. Because conservatives are largely absent from faculties, and conservative students are regarded as a rebarbative presence, many conservatives welcome academia’s marginalization of itself by behavior that invites ridicule. But universities are squandering the cultural patrimony that conservatism exists to conserve.
And what happens on campuses does not stay on campuses. According to the Pew Research Center, American millennials (ages 18 to 34) “are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.” Forty percent of this cohort think government should be empowered to jettison much constitutional law concerning the First Amendment in order to censor speech offensive to minority groups.
Gerard Alexander, a University of Virginia political scientist, argues in National Affairs quarterly that a university’s “permanent population,” the faculty, is secure in the tenure system and maintains its monochrome intellectual culture by hiring from a PhD pipeline that young conservatives are understandably reluctant to enter. He could have added that faculties’ ideological tendencies are reinforced by peer review of publications.
“Schools,” Alexander notes, “have applied millions of hours of work to the priority of improving racial, ethnic and gender diversity. Viewpoint diversity could be elevated to similar prominence and urgency.” This would improve scholarship, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Their research concerns economic behavior, the meaning and importance of classic literature, which social problems matter most and the evidence about ways of addressing them, how to evaluate different ethical positions and legal systems, and which aspects of history most merit study. Viewpoint diversity in faculties would, Alexander argues, at least pit one scholar’s susceptibility to “confirmation bias” — the tendency to seek, and be receptive to, evidence that buttresses one’s beliefs — against another’s different bias.
Academia just now needs a reminder akin to Florence Nightingale’s terse axiom that whatever else hospitals might do, they should not spread disease. Universities, as the word suggests, have many missions, but becoming safe spaces for faculty and student juvenility is not among them.
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