BY PETER SCHEER—There’s nothing like the massacre of 129 Parisian civilians at the hands of jihadi sociopaths, utterly convinced that their barbarism manifests the will of God, to provide some perspective on the recent whinings of students at a number of America’s most elite colleges and universities.
For the past few weeks, students across the country—at Yale University in Connecticut, Amherst College in Massachusetts, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri, and southern California colleges Claremont McKenna and Occidental—have been testing the limits of academic liberalism. Students have demanded official mea culpas for alleged institutional racism, sexism and other “structural” sins against “marginalized” groups (defined mainly on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation or gender ), while expressing intolerance for criticism and outright hostility for the principle of free speech.
At Amherst, students calling themselves the “Amherst Uprising” demanded that students responsible for circulating “free speech” fliers be disciplined for their nonconforming views and given “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” They also demanded that the college president apologize for the school’s “institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.” (Disclosure: I graduated from Amherst several decades ago).
If there is a common denominator to the complaints, it is students’ expectation that they are entitled to a campus that is a “safe place” —-by which is meant an academic environment uncontaminated with ideas that they find “offensive.” And by “offensive,” students mean expression that deviates from a politically correct orthodoxy of received opinion. By this standard, any criticism, any dissent or disagreement, is not merely unwelcome, but actually threatening and harmful in a way that demands immediate protective measures by college administrators.
This is a new and disturbing phenomenon. While the current generation of college students is not the first to be seduced by the power of censorship, it may be the first to insist on that power as a means of protection from viewpoints that are insufficiently sensitive to their self-image as victims. When did college students become so fearful of competing ideas? When did they become so emotionally frail that even the hint of criticism is seen as a hostile act from which they must be shielded (and for which perpetrators must be re-educated)?
College students always say and do stupid things; it goes with the territory. But today’s students’ equating of hurt feelings with scarring wounds is a departure that leads to dangerous overreaction. When unwelcome ideas are decried in the language of pain and injury, the impulse to suppress them—rather than to challenge and debate them—can be irresistible. This is so because protection of students’ personal welfare always trumps other considerations—even intellectual diversity and freedom of speech.
College campuses, with their security guards and gated accommodations, are, in fact, very safe places. The world has no shortage of dangerous neighborhoods, but college classrooms, bulletin boards and student publications are not among them. The latter are overwhelmingly safe, both in absolute and relative terms, notwithstanding the occasional graffiti of insults and indignities that, regrettably, are part of the background noise of life in the age of social media.
Success in the real world demands a thick skin. Not every barbed comment is a casus belli. Not every fellow student born of “privilege” is an enemy. And while one should never have to suffer bigotry, there is a difference between uttering fighting words and expressing an idea, however distasteful. A successful liberal arts education equips students to recognize real bias, to contest it, and to use verbal skill to disarm those who would act on it.
Kids will be kids. But where are the adults? Students experimenting with extremism need to be (and may even expect to be) confronted with limits prescribed by faculty and administrators committed to the rule of law and open debate. Instead, students discover that when they push, all restraints give way: deans resign; resistant teachers are discredited; college presidents beg for “dialogue.” The message conveyed to students is that coups are much more efficient than having to prevail in a free market of ideas.
Faculty and administrators need to find some backbone. Their mission is not to be popular but to teach. The terrorist attack in Paris offers them a teachable moment, an opportunity to open students’ eyes to the difference between truth and propaganda; between governing by fiat and governing by persuasion; between intellectual rigidity and intolerance, on one hand, and free and robust debate, on the other.
It’s not too late.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here are his only; they do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the FAC Board of Directors.