The Politically Correct assault on the university is relentless but the University of Chicago has recently seemingly provided a victory for fans of intellectual freedom. John Ellison, Chicago’s Dean of Students sent a letter to the incoming freshmen class stating, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship.” And, of the utmost importance, the University embraces this discomfort because it is a defining characteristic of “…our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” He goes on to say that Chicago will not be a place of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions” nor will it disinvite speakers due to their unpopular views. Members of the community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas. Hard to be more unPC than that!
Does this herald the long awaited push back against campus PC? Will professors now be energized to expose students to “controversial,” supposedly highly offensive views? Based on my four decades of teaching political science at top universities, let me suggest that little will change. The Social Justice Warriors and thin-skinned “communities of color” among others will continue to throttle lively classroom conversations and any professor who insists that matters have improved, still risks his career.
The reason for this dismal prognosis is that frank, often disconcerting exchanges celebrated by Chicago’s Dean of Students are mentally beyond many students and ideas that professors consider “thought-provoking” will be deemed “hateful” for the simple reason that countless students cannot grasp them or just garble the professor’s point. That students are perplexed by intellectually demanding discussions is hardly new; what is new is that their bewilderment, misperceiving black as white, is now taken seriously by boot-licking administrators. Take my word for it—even at decent schools innumerable students lack the intellectual agility and knack for abstraction necessary for free-wheeling, enthusiastic debates. Faced with these students, a savvy professor will continue to avoid anything that might, however unlikely, be misinterpreted as “hate.” Even if everything is explicitly hypothetical and the lecture’s purpose is just to explore possibilities, why risk student outrage?
Keep in mind that it takes only a single student to complain to the Dean to launch a time-consuming investigation and even if cleared, this investigation itself will remain a blot on one’s academic record in a world where even a suspicion of insensitivity can be costly. And the odds of having one such hyper-sensitive student unable to grasp subtle arguments can only grow as universities diversify their recruitment pool to those who would normally fail to make the academic cut. If American higher education all resembled the high-IQ University of Chicago, and no admission exceptions were made for the doltish, the PC pox would vanish.
In an environment where even the slightest misstep can be a micro-aggression, forget about playing Devil’s Advocate to stimulate re-thinking a seemingly settled orthodoxy. Woe to the professor who to get the intellectual juices flowing, said, “Just for the sake of argument, let me suggest that most of today’s former colonies, nations such as India, Nigeria and Kenya, would be economically prosperous, less violent and enjoy a better standard of living if they lived under colonial rule. Does anybody here disagree?”
Yes, a few students—probably the smartest in the class–would find this discussion inviting but for those with modest cognitive ability—some of whom might be half asleep during the lecture or heard of it only second hand–the professor’s musings will be misconstrued as endorsing colonial rule, i.e., whites dominating people of color, a hanging offense on today’s campuses. Moreover, a particularly vigorous Devil’s Advocate performance would only compound the professor’s blasphemy. Imagine this professor rattling off statistics demonstrating that many ex-colonies are now worse off than when under British or French rule? Further imagine that this pedagogical exercise convinced a few students that colonialism was a good deal for the locals. Even if outraged students remained silent, they would give the “racist” professor terrible marks on the anonymous, un-appealable course evaluation, no small matter in today’s “customer-oriented” university.
A similar trouble-inviting, but intellectually stimulating enterprise is to re-visit old, now discredited laws that only today seem unthinkable. How about asking students to travel back to the days when homosexuality was a criminal offense? Surely, the professor could argue, there must be some reason why nearly every society, for thousands of years, made homosexuality a crime, so what did law-makers have in mind? Yes, the brave professor would continue, such laws reflect religious prohibitions, but why would nearly all the world’s religions outlaw homosexuality, including making it a capital offense? Did the biblical prophets or today’s mullahs know something that has been forgotten? Moreover, what are the benefits of de-criminalization other than for homosexuals themselves?
Another tactic to generate lively class discussion was to argue that benefits achieved via political pressure may also entail major (though hidden) liabilities. My favorite example explains how anti-discrimination employment laws make the targeted beneficiaries more expensive to hire and thus encourage employers to employ those lacking legal protection or, in some instances, either outsource jobs overseas or automate the task. I make this point concretely by noting that paralleling all the legislation protecting African Americans from racial discrimination has been increasing black unemployment and corresponding increase in hiring illegal Hispanic employees who will never file complaints of racial discrimination. In other words, cherished benefits may not be worth it.
Now, try to imagine a class in which I engaged students with these (and similar “controversial”) arguments. No doubt, regardless of hedging that that these discussions were entirely intellectual exercises, not advocacy of any policy, my course would unlikely survive past the mid-term exam. All the snowflakes and Social Justice Warriors would be demanding that the Dean fire me immediately as a racist, misogynist, xenophobic hate-monger. The safe space venues would be over-flowing while the traumatized received anti-anxiety drugs at the Student Health Center. How can a respectable university employ a teacher who tells his students that the willingness of women to take a lower salary is a competitive advantage? And what about his alleged view that anti-discrimination laws should be repealed?
The bottom line here is that that admitting those who struggle with complicated intellectual arguments is inimical to sustaining lively, wide-ranging classroom give-and-take. That understood, it is pointless to issue proclamations endorsing a vigorous marketplace of ideas. What drives today’s campus PC is the decision by the administration to coddle those “offended” even if this hurt reflects an inability to understand that the professor is not a Nazi when he plays Devil’s Advocate to explain Adolph Hitler’s racial theories. Dean Ellison may be receiving kudos for his letter, this is only a gesture. Campus PC is not going away.