Recent troubles at Yale, Missouri, and other campuses have made me think about how the academic culture has changed – much for the worse I believe. But a former colleague (who recently passed) used to tell me how much better the academic world seemed to him now than when he was a graduate student circa 1970.
My friend, as he explained, enjoyed strolling to class from his house a few blocks away and was glad there were no foul-smelling protestors to heckle him as he stepped on campus. Unfortunately, he was comparing unlike things, large state universities during the height of the Vietnam War and the small college in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside where we taught.
A better comparison would have been between our place of employment in the 1960s and the same institution fifty years later.
Back then we were dealing with a distinctly religious college, with strict dress and behavioral codes, prohibitions against bringing alcohol on to campus, and required prayer sessions. Now the same college barely mentions Christmas (as opposed to Kwanza and Black History Month), has mixed dorms with lots of sexual mingling (in all senses), and features diversity as its highest value.
In the 1960s, students across the country were demonstrating or rioting against the Vietnam War and occupying campus buildings to dramatize their antiwar fervor. Early this November, the president of the University of Missouri had to resign after black students and their supporters (including members of the football team) demanded his immediate resignation. His administration was accused of not having investigated energetically enough alleged racial slurs against blacks.
Needless to say, slurs against whites coming from a Black Studies department or against white men coming from a Women’s Studies department would not have made news or occasioned any protest . Those engaging in such differently viewed slurs would be treated as honest scholars calling attention to “social injustice.”
To see how things have changed in the academic world, consider Professor Leonard Jeffries. He chaired the Department of African-American Studies for eons at City University of New York, where he presented the white race as intrinsically inferior “ice men” in relation to spiritually superior black “sun people.” No one, not even Jews who were bothered by Jeffries’s anti-Semitic effusions, demanded that the university chancellor must resign because a handsomely paid faculty member denigrated whites.
These days , officially designated victims on American campuses don’t hold back from venting their anger at “white-bread” Americans. We find racism “institutionalized” as at the University of Delaware, which requires all residence hall students to acknowledge that “all whites are racist” and to attend “therapeutic” classes aimed at curing them of their inborn collective defect.
Black and Latino students are not obliged to attend similar therapy sessions since, as privileged victims, it would be impossible for them to be “racists.” To my knowledge, white parents have not complained about this unequal treatment. How passive the supposed victimizers have become in the face of their own degradation.
Universities today are far less tolerant than they were at the height of the antiwar protest movement. I noticed this lessening of academic freedom and the eroding belief in the value of honest debate during my own academic career.
Allow me to suggest two reasons why this has happened.
First, in the 1960s students and faculty strongly opposed the Vietnam War. Many were soft on communist totalitarianism, but these positions did not seep into everything they said and wrote. Compartmentalization was still possible. I encountered many students and even professors who were frantic antiwar protestors and even fans of the Vietcong but who were still capable of responding in a non-ideological fashion to political theory, artistic movements and historical events.
I had colleagues who opposed the war but described themselves as sympathetic to monarchy. I even knew one “comsymp” (that’s what I called such people back then) who rooted for the Communists everywhere but had written a dissertation favorable to James I in his battles with Puritan parliamentarians.
Moreover, the protesters were addressing the bigness and impersonal nature of universities. Those were and are genuine problems. Traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet wrote books that engaged many of the same grievances as those the students highlighted. Such complaints were far more thoughtful than such current academic concerns as “microaggressions.”
As a young professor, I noticed that my students and colleagues were sometimes pointing to real issues. Mega-universities processing students in return for rising tuitions and a seemingly endless war in Southeast Asia were serious issues. They didn’t simply bully people into going along with whatever notions came into their heads.
What we hear these days from campus feminists and Social Justice Warrior types are almost always manufactured grievances or pure hoaxes, often pushed by administrators trying to justify the presence of diversity deans and minority consciousness-raisers on their staff. I still recall the manufactured incident of a noose suddenly appearing on the door of an education professor at Columbia in October 2007, who was about to be let go because of plagiarism. Protests were mounted on campus and the apparently outraged prof brought a suit for $200 million. It was soon discovered this outrage was committed by friends of the aggrieved party, but one had to search hard in the New York Times for this embarrassing revelation. I remember speaking to a colleague at the time who indicated that even if this specific incident had not occurred, it was typical of the institutionalized racism and sexism that are rampant on our campuses.
Around the time of my retirement, my college vibrated with excitement, and even a thinly disguised ecstasy, when a gay student discovered that someone had scrawled the word “fag” on his dorm door. The student had been in everyone’s face playing up his lifestyle and alienated even politically sympathetic classmates.
Still, it was not clear whether a fellow-student had been responsible for the act or whether it had been an outside job. No matter! We had a case of spine-tingling insensitivity without having to invent one, the way some other “institutions of higher learning” have done. Sensitivity classes were organized, and the failure to reveal the “full extent” of the incident, according to some on the faculty, indicated that we had become morally callous.
Around the same time it was reported that someone had scrawled unkind comments on the dorm door of a black student. This was an added reason for required sensitivity training for everyone, although it turned out that the scribbling had been done by someone outside the college sneaking into the dorms.
Second, victimology hysteria together with the loss of academic dignity and intellectual freedom are the results of changes undergone by the Left since the 1960s.
When I started my professorial career, most leftists whom I encountered identified themselves as Marxists. They railed against large corporations and the military-industrial complex and attributed the war in Vietnam to a late form of capitalism. Although I found such thinking to be simplistic, it did follow an internal logic; and one could respond to an opponent’s assertions by showing they were empirically false.
What has happened, as I try to show in my book The Strange Death of Marxism is that traditional Marxist thought has been replaced by an ideology of political correctness and assigned victimhood.
In this post-Marxist leftist worldview, it became impossible to dissent from “sensitive” speech without being attacked as a fascist, racist or something equally negative. This is the ideology that now dominates our universities and increasingly, our political journalism. It excludes discussion of anything that our elites don’t want to hear discussed.
This same ideology assigns rights, including the right to express an opinion, on the basis of who stands higher or lower in a hierarchy of victims. Therefore, black studies professors demeaning whites or feminists belittling the male gender has “educational value,” while whites or males saying abrasive things about those with a higher victim status must be treated as a criminal outrage.
What has been called “cultural Marxism,” (which isn’t really Marxism at all), is now pervasive and I doubt that universities will be free of its influence in the near future.
In the 1960s when universities were being convulsed by protests against the Vietnam War, this now triumphant ideology had just begun to surface among black activists and their white supporters. Their ideas were not powerful enough to snuff out intellectual freedom on American campuses. Now they are.