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The Closing of the Academic Mind

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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From Brandeis on the Atlantic to Azusa on the Pacific, an iron curtain has descended across academia. Behind that line lie all the classrooms of the ancient schools of America. Wesleyan, Brown, Princeton, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Berkeley, Bowdoin, and Stanford, all these famous colleges and the populations within them lie in what we must call the Liberal sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from the commissars of Liberal Orthodoxy. .  .  .

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How can one resist the chance to echo Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech? Okay, it’s not a precise analogy. It’s true that liberalism isn’t communism. It’s true that today’s liberals deploy the wet blanket of conformity rather than the clenched fist of suppression. It’s true that communism crushed minds, while today’s liberalism is merely engaged in closing them. And it’s true that most of the denizens of our universities, unlike the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, embrace their commissars. But commissars they are.

On April 8, the admirable human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali had an honorary degree from Brandeis University revoked because some of her criticisms of Islamism—and yes, even (God forbid!) of Islam itself—were judged by that university’s president “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Apparently two of Brandeis’s core values are cowardice in the face of Islamists and timidity in the face of intolerance. Less than two weeks later, on April 21, an appearance by the formidable social scientist Charles Murray at Azusa Pacific University was canceled by its president, two days before Murray was to have appeared. The administration was afraid Murray’s presence on campus might hurt the feelings of some Asuza students and faculty. The same day, at Eastern Connecticut State University, a professor told his creative writing class that Republicans are “racist, misogynist, money-grubbing people” who “want things to go back—not to 1955, but to 1855,” and that “colleges will start closing up” if the GOP takes control of the Senate this November. If only!

What’s striking about all three episodes isn’t so much the illiberal complaints of professors and students. It is the pathetic behavior of the university administrators. Thus, a spokesperson for Eastern Connecticut State University explained, “Our faculty has academic freedom to conduct their classes in whatever way they choose, this is not a university matter.”

So what a professor says in the classroom “is not a university matter”? Apparently not. On the other hand, it turns out that the administrators of a Jewish university in Boston, a Christian school in California, and a state college in Connecticut are in agreement about what is a “university matter”: protecting the “university community” from discomforting thoughts.

In an open letter to the students of Asuza Pacific University, Charles Murray wrote, “Asuza Pacific’s administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.” The question is worth asking. Students and their parents should ask it. But the honest answer from the groves of academe would be: Well, now that you ask .  .  . yes.

In her statement on Brandeis’s withdrawal of its honorary degree, Ayaan Hirsi Ali noted, “What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The ‘spirit of free expression’ referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here.” But the founding principles of Brandeis are no longer its governing principles. The spirit of free expression is not the spirit of Liberal Orthodoxy. And it is the illiberal spirit of Liberal Orthodoxy that dominates, that governs, that controls our colleges and universities. 

But there is an alternative to Liberal Orthodoxy. It is liberal education. Liberal education can be pursued today, as it has been for most of history, outside the official “educational” institutions of the society. Those institutions have embraced their closed-mindedness. But that doesn’t mean the American mind has to close. There is a great country out there beyond academe. In it, free speech can be defended and real education can be supported. Liberal education can be fostered even if the academy has become illiberal. The fact that our colleges and universities have betrayed the cause of liberal education means the rest of us have the grave responsibility—but also the golden opportunity and the distinct honor—to defend and advance it.

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