Monday, November 17, 2014

"The Illiberal University"

                   Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Illiberal University”
November 13, 2014

Mottos carved in granite over our nation’s universities carry words like “wisdom,” “truth,” “knowledge,” “virtue,” and “justice.” They are generally inscribed in Latin, which emits an even greater sense of solemnity and reverence. They are noble words that convey impartiality, places where contrary opinions can be debated and knowledge is imparted didactically. They suggest institutions from which students will graduate with unlimited possibilities.

Unfortunately those words lie. It is ideology not knowledge that students today are taught and that they master. Most of today’s great universities no longer search for an illusive “truth.” The quaint concept of “virtue,” or the fairness embedded in “justice” are just words whose definitions are irrelevant. Professors offer opinions as fact.

There are no ivy-covered arches etched with the words, “Ignorantia vos Servitus,” yet that motto would more accurately capture many of today’s universities. Too many students graduate ignorant of ideas and opinions that do not accord with those of their teachers and fellow students. Consequently, too many grow up dependent, either on family or government. It is curious how closely aligned are the traits, rebellion and conformity. Today’s students are both rebellious and conformists. They rebel against the evil they are told is personified in the Koch brothers, while admitting no one into their circle that does not conform to their political leanings. They shun independent thinking. They feel sanctimonious, yet lack virtue. It is an attitude both arrogant and supercilious. It is elitism at its most foul. It is not education these students are receiving; it’s indoctrination.

One manifestation has been the reluctance of teachers and administrators to allow those deemed politically incorrect to speak on their campuses. Last spring, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was denied the opportunity at Rutgers, despite her being the first African-American woman to serve in that role. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim convert to atheism and a woman who suffered genital mutilation as a child, was denied a promised honorary degree and disinvited from speaking at Brandeis this past spring.

Perhaps, though, the tide is turning. This past fall Ms. Hirsi was invited to speak at the William F. Buckley, Jr. Lecture Series at Yale, which she did, despite opposition from the Muslim Student Association and thirty other student groups. At the University of California at Berkley students were forced by Muslim agitators, led by Professor Hatem Bazian, to withdraw an invitation to Bill Maher to speak at the university’s annual lecture honoring Mario Savio, the founder of the Free Speech Movement. Fortunately, however, the school’s administration made an “adult intervention.” Mr. Maher is still invited.

The most deplorable decision was the one made when students and faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine forced Dr. Ben Carson to withdraw from giving the commencement address in 2013, a place where he had spent 36 years. Dr. Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, is controversial and has strong opinions regarding social issues, including marriage. Nevertheless, one does not have to agree with him to recognize his extraordinary career, rising from the ghettos of Detroit to a student at Yale, and then at age 33 to become the youngest division head at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His crime? He is a social conservative – a casus belli among today’s college elites.

Universities are supposed to be cauldrons of opinions, where even the most outrageous are allowed to speak without fear of reprisal. Instead, they have become incubators of a culture of condescension, bred from political correctness, toward those to whom they feel morally and intellectually superior – the “stupid” masses, as Jonathon Gruber might say. It is ironic that much of today’s infringement on speech comes from the inheritors of those who began the free speech movement in the early 1960s. These had been people who grew up during the McCarthy era, when it was the Right that impeded freedom of speech. Today’s Leftists have borrowed and improved on their means.

This political correctness is mirrored in courses offered by our elite colleges and universities. For example, for $65,000 parents can send their daughter or son to Occidental College where the student might study “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie: Race and Popular Culture in the United States,” or “Stupidity: Comparing the American Presidency to Beavis and Butthead.” For $60,000, an impressionable Princeton student can study “The Cultural Production of Early Modern Women, with emphasis on prostitutes, cross-dressing and same-sex eroticism in the modern woman.” Not to be outdone, the University of California, Los Angeles offers “The Psychology of the Lesbian Experience.” (There is no mention in the syllabus of either college as to whether the courses include lab work.) At Alfred University there is a course that might have some practical application – “Nip, Tuck, Perm, Pierce and Tattoo.” But, it is a far cry from studying quantum physics, mechanical engineering or reading Dickens. For a mere $63,000, one can send their little darling to Brown where the youngster can study “Black Lavender: A Study of Black, Gay and Lesbian Plays,” a course sure to earn them a spot on the trading desk at Goldman!

Is it any wonder that too many of our students leave college undereducated and ill-prepared for the real world? While the previous paragraph was an exaggeration, in that most courses offered students today are not dissimilar to those offered fifty years ago, one should also understand that there are no courses on White Supremacy, The Care and Handling of Firearms in the Suburban Household, White Slavery in North Africa, or the Importance of Heterosexuality in The Modern World. Nor should there be; the college experience should be one of broadening the mind, not a temple for advocacy. Evangelical groups, which exist because of nondiscrimination policies, have now lost their official status at Bowdoin, Tufts, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College.

It is the ends not the means that drives the arrogance of the Left at our most elite colleges and universities. For instance, they tell us that global warming is “settled science,” yet ignore the hundreds of agnostics who question those conclusions. They are as fervent in their beliefs as the most rabid, bible-thumping, southern preacher, yet belittle the latter as ignorant, while praising themselves as omniscient.

Humans adjust to changing social mores over time. The do not need trigger warnings. They cannot be forced. Issues are manufactured where none exist. Attitudes toward race and gender have changed dramatically in the past fifty years. Today’s race-baiting has set back progress that had been fifty years in the making. All the ink spilt on differences between the earnings of women and men ignores differences in hours worked and fails to acknowledge five decades of progress. The same is true regarding today’s attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Just three years ago President Obama claimed that marriage was between a man and a woman. That is no longer his definition. The change from his then public attitude to today’s may have been politically motivated, but one cannot say the same for changing attitudes among Americans. Behavior cannot be legislated; it adapts over time to changes in reality and perceptions.

In last Friday’s strategy piece, “Morning Tack,” Raymond James analysts Jeffrey Saut and Andrew Adams quoted Stephen Hawking: “While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behavior, because there are far too many equations to solve. I’m no better than anyone else at understanding what makes people tick…” Human behavior cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Studying Shakespeare will help a student better understand human behavior than the course that compares ancient-to-modern Greek gay sexuality that is taught at the University of Michigan, or “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ancient Egypt,” at Johns Hopkins.


Young people need the skills that allow them to work in today’s increasingly globally competitive environment. They also need exposure to all political and religious philosophies, to help hone their judgment, both in their everyday lives as well as at the polls. Our democracy demands an educated voter. Certainty leads to doctrinarism. It is a hallmark of a closed mind. It is doubt that raises questions and it is through questioning that we learn. 

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