Hijacked: Un-education in the modern American university

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Ariel Hayat/File

In May, as the audience gathered at UC Berkeley’s International House for a forum, “What Makes a University Public?,” few could have anticipated that 20 or so students had other plans for the evening. Apparently uninterested in the introductory panel discussion featuring Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele, these students intended neither to heed their administrators’ remarks nor to ask any cogent questions — which would have been difficult, considering how many arrived with their mouths fastened shut by duct tape. Instead, they aimed to wrest control of the event from the organizers or else shut it down altogether.

What followed was depressingly predictable: the descent of misguided student activism into outright obstruction of the university’s essential functions. Some protesters continuously heckled Dirks and Steele with a barrage of complaints; others stood silently in front of the stage. Steele tried to reason with the crowd, pleading, “All you guys do is yell. … I can’t get anything out with you guys yelling,” but to no avail. The chancellor and provost were escorted from the building to a shower of boos, effectively censoring the evening’s debate.

The incident marked the second time in the last academic year that an event sponsored by the Berkeley Forum — a nonpartisan student group on campus — was cut short by protesters with grievances largely irrelevant to the topic at hand. But it was just one of many times that UC Berkeley students’ shrill political rhetoric has drowned out the sort of rational public discourse that all universities are meant to encourage and sustain. In April, some 50 students demonstrating against alleged racial prejudices on campus blockaded Sather Gate and physically prevented students from passing through it on their way to class. In December, protesters rallying in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner interrupted an unrelated address by technologist Peter Thiel. In November, students protesting proposed UC tuition hikes occupied Wheeler Hall and took to interrupting classes in hopes of winning new recruits.

So often, in fact, are discussions about matters of current public interest usurped by ideological invective that it has become more the rule than the exception. Attempts at civil dialogue about the most contentious topics on college campuses today — including sexual assault, race relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pedagogy in the humanities — are invariably co-opted by a vague and unbending dogma of “identity,” “progress” and “equality,” any dissent from which immediately merits suspicion. Yet, unlike the radicalism of the 1960s, the political views dominating today’s universities are hardly distinguishable from the popular platitudes and truisms circulated by Fox News, MSNBC and other media outlets. Unsurprisingly, the moral and political deadlock long gripping American society has come to plague even the hallowed halls of higher education.

The judicious detachment from everyday public hubbub which was once a hallmark of the U.S. university has steadily deteriorated over the years into an awkward embrace of popular political agendas as guiding principles for campus instruction and public exchange. The consequences are palpable: The feel-good cliches and mythological metanarratives of today’s popular ideologies — on both the Left and Right — have so swamped the political imagination of American students that they are hardly capable of thinking for themselves, let alone prepared to reason clearly about opposing viewpoints. The result, all too often, is the capitulation of public reason to passion, bombast and melodrama.

I.

Observations such as these are far from novel. At Oxford’s Christ Church College last year, administrators scrapped a scheduled debate on abortion after feminist students threatened to disrupt it because both debaters were men. At Smith College, Haverford College and Rutgers University in May, threats of disruption by politically antagonistic student and faculty activists persuaded three widely respected public intellectuals — two of whom were women — to withdraw from their scheduled commencement addresses.

Political correctness has borne the brunt of the blame for the growing inability of students to meaningfully engage one another in the collegiate public square. Led by the left-leaning Jonathan Chait — whose meticulously researched New York Magazine article “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” has sparked considerable debate — critics of political correctness blame the re-emergence of certain academic social theories from as long ago as the 1970s for college students’ new inability to engage with rational argument. Now-familiar terms such as “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” have been embraced by college administrators in recent efforts to protect their most easily offended students from intellectual “oppression” in classes and on campus. Their goal is to foster a “positive campus climate” in which ideas can be debated without a trace of personal offense to any of the parties involved, or to any witnesses of the discussion, by removing certain words and phrases from the academic and political lexicon — but this is delusional at best and dishonest at worst. After all, the only reason people disagree about anything at all is that they take the most basic form of offense at someone else’s proposition: They believe it be untrue.

Simply put, political correctness — and its appeal to personal experiences — now trumps reason. It so stifles the substantive exchange of ideas that meaningful debate invariably descends into circular quarreling about which party is being “oppressed” and which is the “oppressor”; each takes offense at the arguments of the other until the debate is no longer about the arguments at all but rather about the perceived compatibility of those arguments with the other party’s pre-established identity. Of course, when it comes time to finally adjudicate the parties’ differences, the position of the “oppressed” takes automatic precedence, while the arguments of the “oppressor” are dismissed as bigotry. Continually seeking to gain the upper hand by identifying and condemning even the most harmless purported microaggressions, students end up hiding from the big ideas and great conversations at the heart of a college education — or worse, actively censoring them — precisely because they might be forced to reconsider some of their beliefs (the point, at least in part, of higher education in the first place).

Just in February, UC President Janet Napolitano convened a series of seminars for deans and department chairs systemwide on the topic of “Fostering Inclusive Excellence,” which encouraged faculty to avoid microaggressions by purging their parlance of such innocuous phrases as “America is the melting pot” (implicit message: “assimilate to the dominant culture”), “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” (“the playing field is even”), “Where are you from?” (“you are not a true American”) and “Speak up more” (again, “assimilate to the dominant culture”). The trouble is not that tolerance and inclusion are objectionable values in themselves but that there is a certain standard of “correct” conduct, language and thought associated with them from which students and faculty should not deviate. Policies intended to promote civility and protect diversity in fact achieve precisely the opposite: a disconcerting degree of social homogeneity and intolerance toward nonconformist viewpoints.

Chait and others have argued that the antidote to this narrowing tolerance for dissent is stronger protection of the freedom of speech on campus so that activists’ impulses to ostracize unorthodox opinions are restrained and honest debate in the public square is protected. According to this view, the problem with contemporary campus culture is that it has inadvertently limited freedom of thought and political expression through some form of social censorship; the only appropriate response is to restore free speech by placing limits on the ability of social groups to silence dissidents.

Nevertheless, political correctness is more a symptom than a cause of the malady plaguing U.S. universities, and the First Amendment makes a poor panacea. To understand why this is the case, however, is no simple feat: Americans are awash in political rhetoric claiming that if the self-evident, universal rights enshrined in the Constitution are respected only in the “right” way, then all will be well. It requires no legal expertise to discern the error in that argument or to detect more fundamental principles lurking unspoken in the background of most Constitutional debate — but it does require a willingness to step beyond the categories of conventional politics, which most American university students never have.

II.

The difficulty lies in the fact that when Americans debate the Constitution, they are nearly always arguing about anything but the Constitution. The rights enshrined in that document, after all, have been invoked by both sides of every pivotal moral dispute in U.S. history: Slave owners and abolitionists, industrialists and muckrakers, sexual revolutionaries and neoconservatives have all called the Constitution their own and claimed a special insight into its contemporary meaning. Consider the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the legality of homosexual marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges: Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, found in the 14th Amendment’s promises of equal protection and due process a certain “fundamental right” for individuals “to define and express their identity” as they see fit. Chief Justice John Roberts, dissenting, not only failed to find this “fundamental right” anywhere in the Constitution but even went so far as to accuse Kennedy of grossly overstepping the power of the Court. It should be obvious enough that Roberts and Kennedy were not actually arguing about the content of the Constitution (what is there to debate?) but about some other principles — political, moral, legal — that govern its interpretation and application. The wild diversity of these interpretations over the years should make it quite clear that the particular power of Constitutional rights in practical governance is not universal moral authority but rather a remarkable ability to translate the higher principles of ethics, metaphysics and religion into concrete political realities.

There is an element of evaluative moral judgment inherent in all interpretations of Constitutional freedom. The right to free speech, in itself, offers no guidance whatsoever as to what might constitute good speech; yet when Americans are confronted with the task of defining freedom and its limits, they must make precisely such an inference by appealing to external moral standards. If these moral first principles are the real bases of debates about Constitutional rights, it might be asked of Chait and other critics of political correctness: Why not make them the focus of public discourse? Simply invoking the sacrality of Constitutional freedoms without providing reasonable grounds for their interpretation will never be enough to prove that they have been violated.

Rights abhor a vacuum: They must be interpreted in a certain social and moral context, and they must be rooted in the particular character of the community — its underlying moral consensus — in order to function as feasible principles of public order. It is this moral milieu that breathes life into what would otherwise remain lifeless abstractions. Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the historians of ancient Rome — all of whom deeply influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution — often called this crucial quality of the public character “political virtue” or “public spiritedness,” and they all believed it to be the single most important force binding republics and democracies together, despite the tendency of individual self-interest to tear them apart. These classical republican thinkers defined public virtue not as selfless benevolence — which is, needless to say, a rare quality in politics — but as a social consensus on the most elementary standards of reason by which all political policies are conceived and justified, binding citizens to a coherent vision of the greatest good for the community.

How, then, can this virtue be sustained?

III.

According to the classical republican view, the threat to stable democratic governance is descent into mob rule: when the moral consensus of a society declines and self-interested individuals begin to seek their own good before the community’s good, political decisions are made not through rational public discourse but by the random coincidence of individual interests in fickle coalitions with no sense of good beyond the will of the self. These are the mobs that brought down the Roman Republic, that Edmund Burke excoriated in the French Revolution, that James Madison dubbed “factions” in the Federalist Papers and that the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss derisively branded “mass culture.”

The public spiritedness that counteracts this tendency and promotes rational public discourse does not spontaneously arise but must be developed in individuals by a strenuous social effort of instruction: Public virtue requires wisdom and thus education. It is not academic erudition that is necessary, but a knowledge of and abiding appreciation for the sort of virtues that promote the common good over individual desire by acknowledging the importance of something beyond the self — dedication, concentration, thrift, patience, modesty, generosity, humility, charity, temperance, prudence and forgiveness.

These virtues could hardly be more neglected in modern U.S. universities, which generally seek to engage students by schooling them in subjects supposedly more pertinent to public life: race, gender and class. These three charged issues now dominate the humanities, yet they simply do not suffice as instruments of instruction in what Strauss called “human greatness,” in the sort of ideas that force a reckoning with the infinity of the universe and the particularity of the self, in the mysteries of the human condition that have always eluded man’s grasp but that nevertheless require his attention. Rather than promote the liberation that gives “liberal education” its name, instruction focused on race, gender and class — the most intellectually derivative of all U.S. political debates — only chains students to the very factionalism that is the Achilles’ heel of democracy.

A liberal education must be an education in virtue, an immersion in the ideas that allow individuals to reason beyond their mere interests as dictated by circumstance, in the mystery of their place and purpose in the world. Such an education is not “safe”: It requires the uncomfortable examination of values in an environment of withdrawn silence, far from the cacophony of pop culture, daily news and social media that so easily drowns out rational thought. Indeed, liberal education necessitates a sort of structured concentration and perhaps, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, even some form of social “censorship” — all books and teachers, after all, are not equally prepared to educate in this way, and some might even hamper education. What is needed in college education is a period of constant engagement with the quintessential questions of the human experience, which equip students to distinguish most adeptly between what is of the utmost importance in life — principles worth living and dying for — and what are mere passing trends.

This sort of education is rarely offered at UC Berkeley. Rather than present incoming freshmen with a broad, coherent defense of liberal learning and of the worthiness of academic study, the campus assigns students with a breadth requirement of seven unrelated, introductory courses that assume the value of their own special enterprise and make no attempt to place their discipline in the context of general inquiry. Far too often, students are taught not how to think but rather how to speak and how to act so as to appear competent in a field without necessarily assenting to any of its truth claims. Inevitably, they come to believe that there is no such thing as general inquiry or even such a thing as truth; they come to believe that liberal study which produces no obvious benefit — professional marketability, material wealth or social change — is worthless.

“The university offers no distinctive visage to the young person,” wrote philosopher Allan Bloom nearly 30 years ago in his acclaimed polemic “The Closing of the American Mind.” “He finds a democracy of the disciplines … (but this) democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. … Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice.”

Nevertheless, just as Bloom first observed in the 1960s, students do eventually make choices. According to their tastes and preferences, students choose an academic discipline, a career, a metaphysics (these days, a “spirituality”) and a manner of reasoning upon which to structure their lives. It is impossible, after all, for anyone to live a truthless life, to follow relativism to its extreme and step beyond reason; the very act of thinking requires some commitment to truth, no matter how scant. But without liberal education, cheap slogans and hollow dictums easily masquerade as first principles. Isolated within the confines of their disciplines, students look to mass culture to fill in the gaps where the university stands silent. Campus discourse merges with popular discourse until the two are nearly indistinguishable.

IV.

Several days into the occupation of Wheeler Hall last November, a group of three protesters interrupted my political economy class and urged us to join their demonstration so that “student voices” might be heard by the “greedy” UC Board of Regents through the power of activism.

“Those of us who value an education,” I responded, “will remain here, thank you.”

“You’re just one of those people who think you need others to tell you what to read and how to learn,” one protester answered with an air of righteous anger, to the applause of my graduate student instructor. “But you’re wrong. Education isn’t in here — it’s out there.”

What that protester uttered as a call to social activism was, in fact, nothing less than an attack on the very idea of the university — for the purpose of a university is, necessarily, to tell young people what to read, how to learn and even how to think. The university rests on the understandings that truth is found, not made, and that some people — whom we call teachers — have found more truth than others. To deny the possibility of discovering truth by reason — to assert that truth is instead something forged by the will in a meaningless world — is to reject a liberal education altogether.

It is, by now, commonplace to speculate about the decline of the humanities. Some have blamed political correctness, others the rise of a certain careerism in university curricula, which evaluates every academic pursuit on its relevance to marketable professional skills. But these are symptoms, not causes, of a more fundamental predicament — for what are the humanities but a hobby if there is no truth of things to be found and revealed? To what end do literature, philosophy and history strive if not to the reality of things as they are? What is the university but a professional licensing center if it is not a repository of human excellence? Strip away its soul and the university is but a petty diversion, or a factory for human capital.

A reinvigorated defense of free speech on college campuses will not be enough to save public discourse in the U.S. university: The trouble is not that so many students lack respect for free speech but that they do not know, or even care to know, what makes good speech — in other words, that they are not educated but indoctrinated with an ideology that denies the very possibility of liberal learning and undermines the very function of the university in a democratic society.

Ideology is fundamentally an expression of power: People do not cling to ideology because they choose it but because it is foisted upon them by someone, or something, with dominion over the human soul. American democracy, however, was founded on the hope that reason might replace coercion in politics. The two cannot possibly coexist for long.

V.

When my GSI’s applause died down and the room settled, I noticed something curious: No one, despite the browbeating, had left to join the protest in Wheeler’s foyer. Outside, students screamed their slogans and painted their signs and held their assemblies. They felt good, as if they were fighting for something. Inside, class went on as usual. Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes were still their old selves with their same old theories about industrial economies and modern morality. My GSI tried connecting their ideas to the protests — What would Marx say? Oh, he’d definitely support it; he disapproved of oppression but the response from students was tepid at best. So back to the rote question-and-answer session, right where we’d left off before the protesters stormed our little academic Bastille.

Perhaps the protester had a point: Perhaps the world was passing us by as we sat slunk in our chairs, scanning worn-out books for pithy one-liners to spit up on the midterm. When the protester said that the world of ideas was not real, that inquiry was only some sort of training exercise for what lay ahead, that reality was actually “out there,” I wonder if my peers in that classroom might have quietly agreed. If so, they were unwilling to accept his challenge to take a bold leap into nothingness. Instead, they sat at their desks, rejecting both a liberal education and its antithesis, caught in an unhappy middle ground between the hard truth and the loneliness of pure nihilism.

And in that place, at the edge of reason and the precipice of something unknown — hesitant and circumspect — the university stood with them.