Clos­ing the Amer­i­can mouth

Col­leges are teach­ing stu­dents what to think rather than how to think

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

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.


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