This commentary was originally published on Forbes on September 25, 2016.
Until recently, virtually all of us thought that our universities were intellectually vibrant arenas. We thought that higher education institutions presented history’s great, competing ideas, scrutinized each, and thereby prepared students for the attainment of the highest form of freedom—intellectual freedom, freedom from unexamined assumptions. We thought that higher education was and should be the one place freest of mere partisanship and ideology. We thought that it was the one place where truth by itself was a sufficient defense, and that our universities’ quest for truth required and thus justified academic freedom. We thought that higher education continued to define itself in reference to Socrates’ famous maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
No more, it appears. With the national attention given to the attacks on free speech perpetrated last year at the University of Missouri and Yale, among others, the public’s eyes have opened to a brutal fact: Nowhere today is freedom of speech more threatened than at our colleges and universities, the very places whose existence depends most on such freedom.
Nor is this all. The suppression of free speech and debate is not being imposed by “barbarians outside the gates,” but by the universities themselves, as—to cite just the latest example—Northwestern University’s president made cringingly clear in his attempt to defend “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” On display for all to see, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, exposed the intellectual intolerance of political correctness when he labeled as an “idiot” and “lunatic” anyone who dares to question and debate the merits and demerits of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
But it would be unfair to focus simply on President Schapiro, who is far from alone in defending misology. In truth, our universities’ open assault on the conditions of learning is not of recent origin. Abraham Lincoln analyst, the late Harry V. Jaffa, saw this coming as far back as 1973 when, in the introduction to his Crisis of the House Divided, he observed that our universities had already become “the decisive source of the ruling opinions in our country.” On this basis, he predicted that that the “utopianism and intolerance” taught then (and today) in our universities “would surely spell the end of constitutional democracy.”
We have now reached the critical point in this country where serious minds of all political stripes worry over the future of constitutional democracy in America. If in fact we are witnessing its end, no small share of the blame will have to be placed at the feet of our institutions of higher education.
But not all them. As I wrote here last month, the University of Chicago has taken up Socrates’ baton and has informed its students that the U of C’s “commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
In addition to Northwestern’s president, a number of academics and administrators have assembled to denounce Chicago’s position and to trumpet the closemindedness that passes for “sensitivity” on campuses currently. Surveying this battleground, the Pope Center’s George Leef wrote recently, “Sadly, the fact that there is so much opposition to the principles of free speech the University of Chicago is trying to uphold tells us that this will be a long, bitter fight.”
In fact, a long and bitter fight is likely the best outcome defenders of free speech can hope for at present. Why? Before the University of Chicago announced its principled stand, free-speech advocates worried that the battle on behalf of genuine learning would be lost, “not with a bang but a whimper.” That is, the fear among freedom’s defenders has been that, under the pressure of ideology, college administrators would bend to even the most illiberal demands of those who live by the maxim, “Free speech for me, but not for thee.”
The University of Chicago apparently has decided that, if we are witnessing freedom’s demise, it intends to go out with a bang. It has commenced a struggle the outcome of which will decide not only the future of academic freedom but, with it, political freedom, as the latter cannot exist without the former.
Thus, the stakes in what might initially appear to be merely an “academic question” could not be higher. If truth-seeking through inquiry and debate is crushed in higher education, which needs such freedom most, it will only be a matter of time before the hemlock cup is passed down to the political sphere, courtesy of the simultaneously coddled and oppressive recent college graduates whose experience on campus has taught them to view unfettered debate as—to quote one U of C student—a shield for “hate speech.” (For his rigorous questioning of Athens’s unexamined assumptions, Socrates was sentenced to death as a “corrupter of the youth.” Given campus ideologues’ proclaimed hostility to such questioning today, one can only wonder how they’d have voted had they been on the Athenian jury that decided Socrates should quaff hemlock for attempting to provide his fellow citizens a liberal education.)
In taking up freedom’s banner, the U of C finds itself opposed not only by some of its own students, but also a number of its faculty. And it hasn’t stopped there. Daggers are flying from all directions, as this article chronicles: “Outrage over U. Chicago Trigger Warning Letter Shows Power of Political Correctness.”
The University of Chicago’s action, together with the reactions it has provoked, demonstrates the cleft in the soul of American higher education. This fissure will be closed, one way or the other. Either freedom will be restored or Chicago’s position will be unable to stand firm, and be deemed down the road as merely the last backlash of reactionary forces.
As the battle rages, prospective students, their parents, alumni, and college donors need not stand idly by. In the final count, their pocketbook-votes will help to determine whether Chicago becomes the model or the oddity, an agent of rebirth or a relic.