The above talk is from Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. I don’t know Dreger personally, but she seems like a brave and courageous person. In the broadest strokes there’s very little where we disagree. Yes, our politics, and many of our specific beliefs, diverge, but we generally at least hold to the ideal of truth.
There is one section of her talk where Dreger waxes eloquently about the Enlightenment, and freedom of thought, which caught my attention. We have always missed the mark, but at there was a point where in Western intellectual culture the idea that freedom of thought and striving toward truth was at least the paramount method and goal. I am not so sure that is the case today.
When Dreger pointed approvingly on Twitter to University of Chicago’s statement on “safe spaces,” I told her that most of my liberal Twitter follows were enthusiastically sharing this piece, UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. The piece makes some coherent points, but mostly it is self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation. At a certain point the cultural Left no longer made any pretense to being liberal, and transformed themselves into “progressives.” They have taken Marcuse’s thesis in Repressive Tolerance to heart.
Though I hope that Dreger and her fellow travelers succeed in rolling back the clock, I suspect that the battle here is lost. She points out, correctly, that the total politicization of academia will destroy its existence as a producer of truth in any independent and objective manner. More concretely, she suggests it is likely that conservatives will simply start to defund and direct higher education even more stridently than they do now, because they will correctly see higher education as purely a tool toward the politics of their antagonists. I happen to be a conservative, and one who is pessimistic about the persistence of a public liberal space for ideas that offend. If progressives give up on liberalism of ideas, and it seems that many are (the most famous defenders of the old ideals are people from earlier generations, such as Nadine Strossen and Wendy Kaminer, with Dreger being a young example), I can’t see those of us in the broadly libertarian wing of conservatism making the last stand alone.
Honestly, I don’t want any of my children learning “liberal arts” from the high priests of the post-colonial cult. In the near future the last resistance on the Left to the ascendency of identity politics will probably be extinguished, as the old guard retires and dies naturally. The battle will be lost. Conservatives who value learning, and intellectual discourse, need to regroup. Currently there is a populist moood in conservatism that has been cresting for a generation. But the wave of identity politics is likely to swallow the campus Left with its intellectual nihilism. Instead of expanding outward it is almost certain that academia will start cannibalizing itself in internecine conflict when all the old enemies have been vanquished.
Let the private universities, such as Oberlin, wallow in their identity politics contradictions. Dreger already points to the path we will probably have to take: gut the public universities even more than we have. Leave STEM and some professional schools intact, and transform them for all practical purposes into technical universities. All the other disciplines? Some private universities, the playgrounds of the rich and successful, will continue to be traditionalist in maintaining “liberal arts,” which properly parrot the latest post-colonial cant. But much learning will be privatized, and knowledge will spread through segregated “safe spaces.” Those of us who read and think will continue to read and think, like we always have. We just won’t have institutional backing, because there’s not going to be a societal consensus for such support.