Higher Education and the Shape of Things to Come

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“Mizzou's enrollment plummet is more drastic than previously projected.” So blared a May headline in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. The situation at the University of Missouri at Columbia (about which I have written previously in these pages) has gone from bad to worse. It began last fall, with student protests — followed by a pusillanimous response from senior university officials — that sparked outrage among those still old-fashioned enough to believe that taxpayer-funded universities have a duty to focus on teaching and learning, rather than political activism.

The public’s discontent with the school has yielded powerful, tangible results. In February, the university announced that its incoming freshmen enrollment for the fall had dropped by 900 students, though this projection proved overly optimistic. The school now admits that the decrease in next year’s freshman enrollment will approach 1,500. For the first time in nearly a decade, Mizzou will have a freshman class of fewer than 5,000 students. (7,600 freshmen enrolled last fall.)

On top of this enrollment drop, state lawmakers have threated to cut the school’s funding, while nearly $2 million in donor pledges have been rescinded. I, for one, hoped that the situation at Mizzou would restore sanity on our college campuses. Other universities might see the writing on the wall and get back to the real business of higher education.

Not likely — at least if the reaction of one Williams College official is at all indicative. Instead of retreating, Ferentz Lafargue, director of Williams’s Davis Center, doubled down in a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “‘coddled’ students and their ‘safe spaces’ aren’t the problem. Bigots are.”

In an introduction to the piece, Post reporter Susan Svrluga informs the reader that Lafargue “writes at a time when two speakers who had been invited to Williams as part of a series meant to challenge students with unfamiliar or unpopular views were canceled recently — first by students, last spring, then by the president.” For these denials of free speech — to say nothing of the education to which free speech contributes — Lafargue offers no apology. Quite the contrary. Censoring speech, Lafargue argues, is required by “our efforts in pursuit of equity.”

To that end, Lafargue defends “counsel[ing] students against donning offensive Halloween costumes” and the school’s “distribution of a ‘Pronouns Matter’ pamphlet last fall.” (He makes no mention of the two disinvited speakers.) Responding to the charge that campus censorship and “safe spaces” do not prepare students for the “real world,” Lafargue concedes that “the real world is full of anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and racism.” But the “question,” he thinks, is whether “we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or … prepare them to change it?” Up until now, we are told, universities have told students to “grin and bear” such intolerance, which is “the last thing one should do as an educator.”

Left unanswered is the question of how, precisely, safe spaces and censorship help students learn “important lessons about how to fight [discrimination] everywhere.” Curling up in an emotional ball and refusing even to entertain arguments one finds unpleasant is the opposite of “fighting discrimination.” Responding effectively to opposing views requires moral courage and deep study of the issues at stake; this means serious investigation of both sides of the argument.

Once upon a time, universities saw it as their duty to inculcate such habits of mind and character in their students. No more, apparently.

Now, students are taught that they have a right not to hear anything offensive, and that those unenlightened enough to say offensive things have no rights deserving of respect. The free marketplace of ideas has been replaced by the tyranny of sensitivity. And if you have a problem with any of this, you are cast alongside those who counsel the oppressed simply to “grin and bear it.”

If Williams’s intransigence — rather than Mizzou’s comeuppance — represents the shape of things to come, what will this mean for the rest of society? An answer was already provided by the subtitle of Allan Bloom’s bestselling The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Instead of coming to colleges animated by Socrates’ famous maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” students will arrive only to find that the “openness of indifference” trumps the quest for truth. In place of rigorous examination of timeless questions, students will be spoon-fed the latest progressive maxims, the questioning of which risks expulsion from polite society.

Is there any doubt that ideas have consequences? Here is what the new model of the university as ideological training camp has already wrought: “40 percent of millennials” now approve “limiting speech offensive to minorities,” according to a Pew survey. Millennials were found to be much more in favor of censorship than Gen Xers (27 percent), Boomers (24 percent), and Silents (12 percent).

“Give me just one generation of youth, and I'll transform the whole world,” wrote Lenin. With the “graying” of free speech supporters, we can expect our society to look more and more like our campuses today. We can expect our future leaders to have little regard for the First Amendment and those who defend individual liberty to be branded —as they already are on college campuses — defenders of “homophobia, income inequality, misogyny, poverty, racism, sexism, white supremacy and xenophobia,” to use Lafargue’s phrase. In sum, we can expect that, with time, fewer and fewer Americans will know why we need a First Amendment — or even remember that we have it.

Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

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