Recently here on The D.C. Writeup, Max Rossett opined that censorship at Yale University may mark "the start of a dark period in American higher education." However, the anti-intellectualism that Max fears has already succeeded in a quiet coup d'état of campus culture. This past summer I spent my time interning with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and learned just how rare it is for a college campus, indeed even an elite college campus, to embody the traditional "marketplace place of ideas" that they, more so than any other place in society, are thought to represent.
Max is quite correct to note the slippery slope of abandoning freedom of speech and academic freedom—values at the core of a rigorous academic environment. Allowing political agendas to affect the teaching and research of a university does a grave disservice to the students that study there, the professors operating under its institutional umbrella, and society at large. Students graduate unexposed to ideas and arguments that can enhance their curricular understanding; professors must tailor their work so as not to reach conclusions outside of preordained parameters of acceptability; and all are depraved of the tested intellectual discourse, which expands our understanding of the world, that unfettered inquiry produces.
Yale is not alone in its attack on academic liberty; its peer institutions have likewise abandoned such basic freedoms. At Cornell University, this ill-conceived mentality has become so pervasive that it has trickled down into the student body itself. Not only do administrators attempt to censor expression whose "content" they disfavor, but also students themselves latch onto the censorial bandwagon, seeking to proscribe politically unfavorable viewpoints from the campus dialogue. For example, as I have previously discussed, a Cornell administrator removed a student group's university-approved display because of its "content," and the Student Assembly (SA) has tried to punish and de-fund a conservative campus publication for printing satire that the SA found politically incorrect.
Such tyranny exists writ-large in the academy. Currently, a disturbing 74% of universities maintain policies that "clearly restrict speech" on their campus. FIRE's President Greg Lukianoff remonstratesthe "absurd" and "tenacious" speech codes that are "everywhere" at colleges today. But how have we reached this sad state of affairs, where universities abandon the very principles upon which they really?
Greg Lukianoff suggests that the "unlearning of liberty" at our colleges and universities is to blame. But the root of these evils lies even deeper within society. Along with the many important and significant victories of the civil rights movement — particularly on college campuses — came the unintended consequence of casting doubt upon society's chief means of learning and progress, free inquiry into scholastic and scientific matters. This occurred because, while the civil rights movement succeeded in redressing many of society's ills, it did so by creating a new creed that would come to challenge the utility of free inquiry, described by Jonathan Rauch in his brilliant book Kindly Inquisitors as, "thou shalt not hurt others with words." This is precisely the position that the SA at Cornell and the Yale University Press adopted when reasoning that some expression, because some may find it objectionable, is not fit for print.
Tracing the history of this new tenet, which has come to rival and even trump basic notions of free debate and inquiry, brings us back again to the actions of students at Cornell. The systemic discrimination and true harassment tackled by the civil rights movement caused activists, in their well-intentioned fervor, to create a culture of "victimism," which "involves elevating social justice claims and identity politics over the principles and practices of free inquiry and intellectual conscience." At Cornell, the tension between this "victimism" and academic integrity boiled over in April 1969, when activists, who later armed themselves, staged a takeover of the student union. According to Professor Donald Downs, the university's acquiescence to the coercion was aharbinger of things to come. By refusing to stand by the principles of the university, Cornell took the first steps towards where it, and higher education generally, are today.
The current state of higher education is certainly improved in many respects thanks to the civil rights movement. No longer do universities shun minority students. The integration of all members of society into institutions of higher learning is of benefit to all. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1816, "bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both." However, although more people than ever have access to an education, the form that education takes has drastically changed. Thomas Jefferson was well aware that both "education and free discussion" are vital to society. Moreover, free discussion is a necessary component of that education. Today, we have improved one at the expense of the other, but we can again make our campuses bastions of free thought and expression without sacrificing the gains that have been made. Doing so will create better educated students and a more tolerant society, providing both with a better understanding of the need for free and open debate in the marketplace of ideas.
John Cetta, an undergraduate at Cornell University, is a regular contributor to The D.C. Writeup.