A Crucial Word Goes Missing From Higher Education: ‘Wrong’

By Tom Gilson Published on April 10, 2017

Something crucial is missing in higher education. Recent events at two California colleges illustrate the problem. It isn’t just a California problem, though. It’s nationwide.

On Thursday, April 6, protestors shut down a speech by conservative author Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. Video reveals an ugly scene of profanity-laced anti-police demonstrations. Doors to the venue were completely blocked. MacDonald was allowed to give her speech via live stream, but some reports say even that was cut short.

 

Compared to similar protests around the country, this administration’s response was one of the best I’ve seen. That’s not saying much, unfortunately. And something crucial was missing anyway.

The Vice President’s Appeal

Let’s begin with what was commendable about the response.

The college’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Peter Uvin, emailed students and staff, urging them to treat future speakers and their ideas with respect. (His email in that report is marked as having been sent two days before the events. I assume that’s a simple typo.)

His message begins, “We are of course disappointed that people could not attend the lecture.”

Disappointed? That’s not the word I’d have opened with. But see what bothered him most about it:

What we face here is not an attempt to demonstrate, or to ask tough questions of our speaker, all of which are both protected and cherished on this campus, but rather to make it impossible for her to speak, for you to listen, and for all of us to debate. This we could not accept.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in what he wrote there. (My concern is for what isn’t there.) Institutions of higher learning ought to set an extremely high value on listening and debate. Uvin even went on to quote three paragraphs from a statement written by top Christian thinker Robert George and Cornel West, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”

It was, as I’ve said, one of the stronger responses to this kind of campus protest I’ve seen.

Meanwhile, Further North

It’s certainly a lot better than what Cal State Fresno’s response to lecturer Lars Maischak’s stream of tweets calling for death to President Trump and the execution of Republicans:

A spokeswoman for CSU Fresno told The Daily Caller News Foundation Maischak’s comments on social media do not represent the university. “Lars Maischak is employed as a lecturer at Fresno State,” Kathleen Schock told TheDCNF. “Statements made on his personal social media accounts are his alone and are not endorsed by or reflect the position of the University.”

Not endorsed? That’s the best he could do?

Claremont McKenna’s President’s Appeal

Nevertheless there was something just as noticeably missing from Peter Uvin’s Claremont email as it was from Kathleen Schock’s statement in Fresno. It was also absent from an email sent the following day by Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College. He referred to policy, freedoms and strategy:

Blocking access to buildings violates College policy. CMC students who are found to have violated policies will be held accountable. …

Finally, the breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively. We will be developing new strategies for how best to protect open, safe access to our events.

The president and vice president both defended listening, dialogue and debate. I commend them for that. (Though note the self-centeredness of his concern for “our freedoms” and not for Heather MacDonald’s).

Why Not Say It Was Wrong?

Notice what’s missing? Why didn’t they say that what the violent protestors did was wrong?

Why didn’t they say that what the violent protestors did was wrong?

Is it wrong to shut down debate? Or is it merely some sort of inconvenience, a disturbance to some vaguely valuable educational process? Which is it? Can you tell from these emails? I can’t.

That simple yet ethically powerful word wrong is missing from all these college communications.

Is it wrong to shout obscenities at police officers? If so, why wouldn’t they say so?

To Cal State Fresno I ask: Is it wrong to advocate killing a president and executing your political opponents? Yes, obviously. So why not say so?

It appears that administrators don’t recognize the real authority of right and wrong. And they don’t expect anyone in the rest of their institutions to recognize it, either.

Lessons For Parents and For All

There’s a lesson here for those of us with children. If you want your kids to know right from wrong, you should realize that most colleges don’t think right and wrong are worth mentioning anymore, at least not when some else’s ox is gored.

They’ll devote all kinds of attention to “intolerance” or “microaggressions” being “wrong,” although loud, profane protests and death threats don’t seem to count as microaggressions. It depends on who the target is. They’ll make it clear that sexual experimentation is “right.” But they will give no support at all to right and wrong as you want your kids to understand it.

And there’s a further lesson for us all: Our institutions of higher education have become centers of moral confusion. Schools don’t have to say, “Right and wrong are unimportant.” They can simply let the words slip out of usage. Or rather, they can confine them to matters that support their progressive beliefs and values, and avoid them things they care less about: violence and threats toward conservatives, for example.

Students pick up the message. They carry their schools’ confused moral lessons into their families, their work places and their communities.

We all need to wake up to that reality, too.

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