Most Colleges Have Given Up on Real Education. Middlebury is Just One Example.

By John Zmirak Published on March 7, 2017

Free speech is dead at many if not most American colleges.

Its open-coffin wake took place when administrators at America’s largest Catholic university, DePaul in Chicago, refused to let mainstream conservative Ben Shapiro speak on campus, accepting claims of leftists that his opinions made them feel “unsafe.” Fun fact: of the ten colleges rated worst for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, three claim to be Catholic, and two are run by the same religious order, the Jesuits.

The funeral was grueling: It happened when administrators at U.C. Berkeley allowed a mob of masked “antifa” thugs armed with iron rods to prevent a speech by flippant controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos in January.

But free speech’s body was dropped in an open, unmarked grave just last week, when distinguished social scientist Charles Murray was prevented from speaking to students at Middlebury College by a violent mob, which shouted down his speech, then trapped and menaced Dr. Murray in his car as he tried to leave, and hospitalized a professor with injuries. (Read Dr. Murray’s gracious, flummoxed account of this incident here.) So far, administrators have refused to punish the students and other activists involved. If they allow these thugs to go unpunished, they will drop the last few handfuls of dirt on top of free speech’s corpse.

I have been sitting at free speech’s deathwatch for most of my life.

At 18, I learned from editors of the Yale Daily News that my arguments against abortion and gay activism could not be published because they were “offensive.” When I answered that I was equally offended by much of what I heard in class, but I didn’t try to shout it down, the editor just shrugged. My pieces didn’t appear.

While earning my Ph.D. in English lit at Louisiana State University, I saw younger faculty answer a more conservative colleague’s reasoned complaints about the aggressively feminist curriculum being imposed on the English department with the threat of a personal lawsuit, on the grounds that criticizing feminism was a form of sexual harassment. Eventually that conservative professor, worn down by shunning, gave up tenure and went to live in an ashram in India. I saw an English professor give a student a zero (not an F, but a ZERO) on a final seminar paper because she chose to use Thomas Aquinas as a source for literary theory. It caused her to drop out of grad school.

I heard grad students and faculty argue right in front of me that conservative and Christian positions did not deserve First Amendment protection, since they had such a long heritage of “privilege” behind them, even allowing them to be aired was unjust to disadvantaged groups. (This makes no Constitutional sense of course, but then the Constitution is also an artifact of white male privilege.) 

For ten years, I edited the guide to U.S. education Choosing the Right College, which tracked the academic quality, campus life, and level of free expression at more than 100 American colleges. The job got more and more depressing over the years, as one school after another junked its curriculum, homogenized its faculty, and tightened the screws on political and even academic speech.

Why Bother Having Colleges?

The main argument for free speech on campus is actually the same argument for bothering to have universities in the first place, instead of just tightly targeted vocational schools that prepare us for employment: We accept a series of claims made by certain ancient Greek white males, and Jewish prophets, then finally Jesus, who taught that:

  • Truth is a thing that the mind can get some hold on;
  • Truth is coherent and important;
  • Truth is the same for everyone, regardless of race, sex, or social class;
  • Truth is not touched by our feelings about it, or the political uses we make of it;
  • Truth judges power, and the deeds of the powerful — not the other way around;
  • Knowing the truth makes our lives better, more fulfilling, and happier;
  • The only way you get to the truth is by arguing about it, and listening honestly to those with different theories about it.

This was the whole idea behind what we always called a “liberal” education, whose opposite wasn’t a conservative but a “servile” education — a formation that “served” the narrow purpose of preparing someone for a job. In ancient Greece, only aristocrats got an education for freedom, while slaves were taught how to work. It was one of the great achievements of modern America that we offered a free man’s education to everyman — including the kids and grandkids of immigrants, blue collar workers, and the descendants of literal slaves. 

Liberals Strangled Liberal Education

We no longer do. You cannot label “free” an education where 90 percent or more of your professors belong to just one political party; where opinions that might offend an intolerant majority are violently driven off campus; where academic assignments are treated as teaching moments for “correcting” the moral and political values of students. A recent, all too typical, example of the latter appeared just recently on Twitter:

This sort of abuse is not the exception. It is the rule.

Apart from a handful of honorable exceptions, colleges no longer teach the liberal arts or social sciences as means to open students’ minds and encourage them to seek objective truth. Instead, a privileged professorial class that has mostly purged itself of dissenters uses its distinct social power to re-educate, intimidate, shame and indoctrinate students whose views are more conservative or religious. Faculty don’t like to admit that they are wielding power and privilege, but that is what we give them, when we let colleges serve as the gatekeepers to gainful employment, and lavish them with public and private money to indulge their extremist projects.

We can’t indulge the illusion that the U.S. higher education can be fixed by removing a few bad apples. At this point, there are just a few good apples, hiding in barrels of squishy, rotting mulch.

Cut Off the Money and Wait for the Bubble to Burst

We should pressure administrators to enforce the U.S. Constitution on campus, including the First Amendment. We should support lonely, harassed dissenters wherever we find them. But we can’t indulge the illusion that the U.S. higher education can be fixed by removing a few bad apples. At this point, there are just a few good apples, hiding in obscurity in barrels of squishy, rotting mulch, whose toxic emissions addle the brain.

American academia is as beyond repair as the Soviet system was in 1989.

Parents need to carefully prepare their students at very young ages to be skeptical, fearless, and cussedly independent. They will need the faith of St. Paul, the charity of William Wilberforce, and the thick skin of H.L. Mencken. Home schooling or carefully vetted religious schools makes sense for K through 12.

But apart from a few deeply religious schools that (alas) lack much prestige with future employers, give up on the idea that your kids will go through college with a fair chance to speak their minds and expand them. At best they will fight a dogged, rear-guard battle against bullies with tenure and leftists with arbitrary power to censure and expel.

As I wrote in this survival guide for Christians on campus, Christian kids should pretend they’re in ISIS-controlled territory and learn to keep their mouths shut. Their teachers don’t want to hear it. They won’t vote to hire colleagues who disagree with them, and conservative or even moderate scholars have stopped pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities or social sciences as a result. American academia is as beyond repair as the Soviet system was in 1989.

As citizens, we need to admit that our universities are likely unfixable, and deny public funding to most universities and colleges, except for the narrow fields where they still do their job: in science, technology, engineering, business, and mathematics. Why use taxpayer money to fund the bloated salaries of tenured radicals, so they can poison Shakespeare, U.S. history, and the Bible for a new generation of students?

Soon enough, as Charles Murray has warned, the noxious bubble that is U.S. higher education will burst — the moment, in fact, that employers figure out another way to verify that students are intelligent and sociable, and students figure out that for most of them, college is a waste of time. That collapse can’t happen soon enough.

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