Closing the American mouth
Colleges are teaching students what to think rather than how to think
College kids do the darndest things. You send them away to open up their minds and they learn to close them, for themselves and for others. The tantrum generation just managed a left-wing coup at the University of Missouri, stifling freedom of expression and forcing out the president and chancellor of the university.
In his 1987 book, “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom wrote a surprising bestseller demonstrating how college students are no longer exposed to the great books and that higher education impoverishes rather than enhances the intellect. Someone could write a sequel called “The Closing of the American Mouth,” where political correctness silences dissent on campus, revealing a deep ignorance of many things, including the classic essays on behalf of free speech from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to the Bill of Rights. Ignorance breeds intolerance.
Once upon a time, panty raids and swallowing goldfish was the rite of passage for sophomores, challenging authority on campus with innocence and high spirits. Student rebellion darkened with the free speech movement at the University of California in the 1960s. Today free speech on campus is under attack from the students themselves.
Protests at the University of Missouri started over concerns of racism, but moved quickly to suppress free speech for anyone who disagrees with the politically correct. The protestors tried to prevent student reporters from covering the story, and a video gone viral shows Melissa Click, a professor of media in the department of communications, assisting the students challenging a photographer for the student newspaper, calling for help to chase him away: “I need some muscle over here.”
Her outburst took place in a space on campus that is specifically designated for free expression, and though she later apologized for her “language” and “strategy,” and might have expected students to line up to take her course next semester, she felt the better part of valor was to resign from the School of Journalism. Freedom of speech won that one.
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine compares the tactics of political correctness on campuses to traditional Marxist methods of repression, the ideology that “prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement.”
At the University of Missouri, concern over racism became increasingly self-serving and selective. In calling for a 10 percent increase in black professors, for example, the offended students were not at all concerned by the disproportionate number of black athletes on the football team, whose refusal to play was the tipping point for the resignations of the president and chancellor.
Proportional increases based on race are a double-edged and dangerous strategy. Columnist Victor Davis Hanson suggests wryly that such logic requires a rewrite of the dictum from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”: “All hiring, admission, and participation shall reflect the racial diversity of the campus — except sports teams, given that sports is a far more important activity than scholarship and teaching and thus alone requires selection solely on legitimate criteria of merit.”
When and where you’re born determines your politics, of course, but this generation of college students seems particularly fearful of thinking for themselves, and is quick to stifle debate on issues they oppose. A bizarre controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale is particularly to the point. Two Yale professors, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, husband and wife who are resident masters in a Yale dormitory, spoke up for the rational and suffered abuse for not getting with the program.
Erika Christakis, a child development psychologist, lauds being inoffensive in selection of costumes of ghosts and goblins, but questioned administrative “control” of what could be “properly” worn. She asks, plaintively, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” She suggests taking personal responsibility in an appeal to “self-censure” rather than seeking prohibitions from institutional authority. For that she was reviled for sanctioning imaginative costumes that could degrade and marginalize minorities. Hundreds of students are now shouting offensive epithets and insults at the resident masters, demanding their ouster.
If Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” was the first shot in the culture wars, it has been followed by a barrage of bullets to silence free speech, spreading intolerance through ignorance, infantilizing students who want to be coddled rather than challenged. College was once a preparation for adulthood, where exposure to different points of view taught a student how to think rather than what to think. Without the ability to reason and argue, they fall prey to thuggish tactics. They become the narrow and intolerant force they rail against. Life gets complicated, as the Statler Brothers once sang, “when you get past 18.” Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.