Have the recent campus protests—ranging from demonstrations to the use of safety spaces—against mainly right-wing speakers contributed to a dumbing down of American colleges, or are they effective and necessary?
On a cold Saturday night in the winter of 1991, I went to see Sonic
youth on my college campus. I say I went to see Sonic youth, which is
accurate, but Sonic youth and their touring partners, Social Distortion,
were the undercard. The headliner, who I cared little about at the time,
was Neil young and Crazy Horse.
A couple of noise-bands trying out new music in a college town wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except that the college was the United States Military Academy (West Point) and the Saturday was the 23rd of February: the day before the American ground assault in Desert Storm began.
Aside from the fantastic noise and rush of energy I felt when I heard Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore attack their instruments, I only remember two other things from that night. First is how fantastically grueling—even painful—it was to engage in a rock-androll show while wearing the gray-on-gray, priest-collared, heavy wool uniform of a West Point cadet. Second is the ten-foot dove of peace, olive branch in its beak, that was lowered from the rigging as Neil young played “Love and Only Love” to a crowd of aspiring warriors.
There were cheers, but I also remember gasps and even a few boos. Can you imagine that? Gasps at a dove of peace. We were young then.
The next day my ears still rung as I sat in a communal dayroom to watch Peter Arnett report on the combat action in the Middle East. I worried then that the war might not last long enough for me to get involved. Little did I know that my chance would come and come again.
I also remember wondering if our Dean (a general) or our Superintendent (also a general) would make a statement about the inappropriateness of Neil young’s actions. To me and many others, spotlighting a dove as our comrades in arms prepared for battle was a challenge to our chosen profession. To others it was a repugnant finger of disdain pointed directly at our chests. Still others thought the action had value simply because it made us think.
Our generals stayed silent, and think we did. yes, we were military, but we were also college students. The administration granted us the space to talk it out among ourselves, argue merits and demerits, then come to our own personal conclusions. We argued about the music, but mostly we argued about the right of hippie civilians to question military decisions and actions. Can those who have not walked in our boots question the direction we walk? To many, the clear answer was no. To some, our civil-military traditions not only allow civilians to question the military, but also it encourages them. Most stayed firm in their positions, but I remember being swayed by the arguments of a history major. This student reminded us that control of the military rightly belongs to our elected leaders, and those elected leaders are working for all of us. In his argument, civilians have a right (even a duty) to question both the civilian and the military.
Civil society is built on trust. Trust is built on discourse, and real discourse includes differing perspectives and the ability to change one’s mind because of the logic or passion of another. We learn, or should learn, this truth in college.
At college age most of us have enough experiences to shape a valid opinion. That is why the current climate on many of our campuses is hindering not only our universities, it is hindering our society. Sanctioned exclusion from uncomfortable ideas puts ideology over scholarship. Americans, led by our universities, have shouted and hid for so long, they may have forgotten how to stand and listen.
Disagreements in our society are almost always about the future and how that future might be shaped. At their core, conflict between conservatives and liberals, between old and young, between evangelical and atheist revolve around a set of closely held beliefs which are assumptions about societal or human nature. If you assume that our government’s job is to limit restriction and free up its citizens to succeed for the betterment of all, you could establish a thoughtful, logical argument for less regulation, fewer taxes, and stricter crime enforcement. If you assume that our government’s job includes ensuring that those disadvantaged most by our society are protected and supported, you could establish a thoughtful, logical argument for increased taxation, more social supports, and a reimagined criminal justice system. Neither is inherently wrong.
But what is happening at UC Berkeley (where I once taught military science courses), at Middlebury College, at Liberty University, and at many other campuses around the country is we have forgotten that the basis of all forward thinking is assumption. Much of the discourse in our academy has devolved into name-calling, fearmongering, and exclusion. Let’s get to the assumptions and, in good faith, argue from there.
Do we need more thoughtful conservative voices on our college campuses? Surely. Do we need more thoughtful liberal voices on our campuses? Probably. Maybe what we need is simply more thoughtful voices, and we need these voices to speak from the same dais. What we don’t need is anger, hatred, and overt provocation couched in pseudoacademic terms and proclaimed from our teaching platforms and event stages. Silencing, prohibiting, or segregating the messenger can be understood as a natural (and effective) response to venom. But it is the wrong response. Concerns over diversity or inclusion or fear of offense should not be used to end conversation.
The corollary to freedom of speech is not freedom to be heard, it is the responsibility to listen. That responsibility is honed on our campuses. If not on a university campus, then where in our society can we first work through differing opinions? And if not now, then when should we get started?
Through the power of the internet, I learned this week that Neil young didn’t use that ten-foot peace dove again during his spring ’91 tour. Maybe that was coincidence or maybe the rigging didn’t work properly, but I like to think that Neil young did it on purpose. The dove was meant for us, for me.
“Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down
Love and only love.”
When I was in high school, a teacher performed what she called a social
experiment. She divided our class into two different sections. A small
majority got to sit in the front of the room and do whatever they
wanted during the class period. The rest of us had to sit in the back,
do what the other kids said, and not go into the taped-off section. The
kids up front were given water and snacks. For a few minutes, people
began to adjust to the new status quo. None of the people who were in
the front of the room complained. A few of my classmates in the back
said that this was very weird.
I was livid. It wasn’t just that we were doing an experiment I found dumb. It was also because, thinking about it later, it was deeply triggering to me. I was the only black person in the school at that time. There were about six other people who were not white in the approximately 1,500- person school. In previous years, where we took the time to talk about race, about the United States’s history of inequality, I was expected to be an ambassador for all black people outside of the classroom. My classmates would ask me if I was scared that slavery would happen again. Did I feel grateful to get to go to white schools like theirs? Their grandparents were so racist, but that’s just how old people are. Those were questions and comments from kids who thought they were being kind. I used to dread the days where we talked about segregation and slavery because they always reminded me of an unfortunate truth: there are some people who take deep comfort in inequality.
Paying attention to the news, it feels like a truth that won’t go away. From “Muslim bans” to the deep focus spent on trying to abolish the Affordable Care Act to the government-ignored surges in hate crimes after the 2016 election to a president whose primary belief seems to be that he is better than others, it can feel like our government has shifted toward not wanting to uphold the high-minded principles of the Constitution but to reaffirm at every turn that it is a right to think other people deserve less. And to take it even further, that dehumanizing others is a legitimate way of thinking.
I find the campus protests of speakers whose “academic foundations” are built upon reinforcing inequalities extremely heartening. On a basic academic level, the protests show that the students who are engaged in these events have the strong analytical skills that are supposed to be a part of a good liberal arts education. They’ve analyzed the data and realized there is truly no backing or warrant for claims that anyone is less than anyone else. They’re rejecting outdated pseudoscience regarding differing IQs based upon race, the myths of misogyny, and questioning why someone would even posit arguments using inequality as the backing for their claims. These students are also questioning why university money and resources are being used to support academics whose papers, findings, source work, and arguments would probably struggle to receive a C in a rigorous first-year composition course.
When I’m at my most optimistic, I view the inviting of speakers and the protests as the beginnings of an acknowledgment that academia might truly be changing. That we are moving toward intersectionality, toward making room for many different perspectives. That inviting individuals who have built careers and personas on perniciousness is a last gasp toward maintaining a status quo. This way of thinking doesn’t mean conservative speakers can’t be allowed to speak. Universities should be able to find conservative speakers who are willing to engage in question-and-answer sessions, give clear, honest explanations of their methodology, and explain how they accounted for biases among their reasoning; all people giving university lectures should be held accountable in this way.
When I was a teenager in that classroom, I couldn’t take more than a few minutes of the experiment. I got up out of my desk. Ignored the teacher when she told me to sit down. I crossed the line, drank some of the water. I said that these divisions were arbitrary. That this was how it started when the Nazis took over Germany, this was like segregation. I know that was a very melodramatic thing to say. But I was a teenager, I was upset, and I think on some level, I thought this was also a test. That it was possible my teacher was going to reward me for my perseverance, for knowing what the right things were to say in that moment, to see the situation clearly. Instead, she ordered me to the principal’s office for disrupting the class.
I went. I told them what happened and said that I didn’t regret how I had behaved. Soon, a few more people from my class arrived. Eventually, we were all summoned back to the classroom. The teacher talked about why she had done the experiment, discussed privilege, and stood up for what was right. She had us journal about it. At some point, I started crying. It was deeply embarrassing and I couldn’t hide it, but I also couldn’t stop. The teacher held me back after class. And in a moment where I think I might have been the most honest, the bluntest about race that I had ever been with an authority figure at that time, I told her, “I don’t get to move on from this.” She apologized multiple times and reminded me I had done the right thing: I had stood up for myself and others. It wasn’t cathartic. I missed my last class and spoke to her throughout her free period. My teacher listened to me, didn’t interrupt, didn’t make excuses, and considered my perspective with empathy. When I think about how she reacted, how she treated me in the aftermath, it reminds me of how much better the world can feel when people treat each other with respect.
Testifying to the “dumbing down” of American colleges, two reasons
rise above an unquantifiable mass of others: for-profit education that
abides by “the customer is always right” and the devaluation of the
humanities. Neither of these reasons implicate the rhetoric of campus
protests per se, but by this essay’s end I hope to connect these systemic
issues with the question at hand. For it isn’t a matter of whether
American colleges are more dumb, but that they are more numb.
The customer is always right. In my experience teaching undergraduate students from all academic departments at both public and private colleges, it has become clear that we—the student and the instructor—find each other in a double bind: we both feel we are the preferred customer. As a young female PhD candidate in a humanities program, you want to hold on to idealism. you take time to help students develop critical thinking skills. you evaluate their work with an endless fair-trade supply of all letters of the alphabet (mainly five). you consider the fact that they have much more interesting lives outside of your course. This process, ideally, would help students in their future endeavors, in whatever field to which they take these developed skills. As this PhD candidate in the humanities, with no hopes for a lucrative position in the contemporary market, you have bought this idealism at a high price.
The student, on the other hand, enters an academic environment in which a host of systemic changes—including severe budget cuts to public institutions and upper administrative malpractices—have forced universities to scramble to retain students. What that student buys into after tuition is that being physically present will do. This end result may not even be, and is more likely not, consciously pursued or bad intentioned. The student can spend class time surfing social media, shopping, texting, or inventing a host of impressive new typos by writing a last-minute paper, then skip office hours and not even participate actively in class discussion. And it is this student who feels an injustice when they receive a fitting grade from an idealistic instructor with the aforementioned fair-trade supply of letters. A confrontation ensues. When a student complains, “I feel that this grade is unfair,” it warrants a never-delivered response along the lines of, “I feel that your feeling that this grade is unfair is unfair.” Each customer becomes a victim. When we each bring concrete facts to back up these feelings, we are stuck in feeling our facts weigh equally for the guidelines we set (the instructor’s guidelines become negotiable in this status as equally preferred customers). In such a double bind, there is little room for constructive criticism, and hence little room for development of either the student or instructor. Being socialized into this customer-y way precludes students from seeing that the very base of education is (ideally) about hearing one’s voice in context.
HUMANITIES. Acronyms, though they thrive on exclusion, seem necessary in the contemporary market. I try to piece together an acronym for Humanities, History, Reading, Writing, Languages, Political Science, Critical Thinking—only to envy how easily STE(A)M materializes.
But this is not about the marketing failures of the humanities. It’s about what it is that the rapid expansion of STE(A)M fields and as rapid contracting of humanities funding is costing us: the widespread loss of deep historical knowledge of globally interconnected changes in social experience. In a phrase: critical thinking.
Critical thinking resists exclusionary binary logic and insists on a constellational map, wherein, to return directly to the question this symposium asks, the rhetoric of the “right wing” can be contextualized, relevant, and even digestible to the “left wing,” and vice versa. We might begin by asking what it means to be “right wing” or “left wing” in our contemporary moment. How have these connotations changed through time—locally, nationally, globally? How might we critically reevaluate these terms when what is at stake, what students are largely protesting for, are long-developing human rights (not without their own implications, as it were)? How might we avoid isolating campus protests within the walls of academia? How do pleas on American campuses relate to global institutional trends?
To combat endless decontextualized data about real social experiences, such questions may need to lead our objections to what hurts. Straightforward one-liners are generative for energizing mass protests, but true healing requires narratives that are long, non-linear, many-voiced, and in multiple languages, oral and written. I fear such a collection of narratives would include those to whom it is hardest to listen and those who find it hardest to listen to others—fear because it takes energy, anxiety, anger, and sadness to listen to bigotry and worse. This idealism would support the needed thought that one can incite genuine curiosity among the masses—both “left” and “right”—to find ways to stop trends in exclusionary rhetoric. Instead, to listen and contextualize would be primary. How we may incite this genuine curiosity en masse and quickly is a question that stands.
I think suddenly of Brian Friel’s “To remember everything is a form of madness” from his Translations play. Writing about HUMANITIES (an acronym that will never hold), I then think about how any solid humanities project centralizes selective remembering. This process of selectively narrowing down the scope of a project relies on scouring through scores of sources. Through this undertaking, critical thinking guides the researcher so that addressing what is and is not remembered from these sources can be done with sensitivity, clarity, and fairness. Such a humanities project ideally involves a diverse community of voices in its multivalent narrative.
We need a humanities-oriented methodology for the future. Protesting in order to exclude history—whether narratives of the “left” or “right”—has always been easier than working to understand how such a history came to be in the first place. Now, it would be mad to try to work through all the rights and wrongs of both the “left” and “right,” but there is more to be said about hearing one’s voice in context. How do we incite a will to listen en masse? How do we begin constructing narratives of strategically remembering together? How might we acknowledge that there are varieties of victimhood, while other situations have clear perpetrators? How might we avoid battles of comparative suffering—i.e. the stuff of double binds? How do we return concreteness to the interpretability falsely pinned to everything? How do we bring home the fact that, thankfully, you can’t always be right?
What a contrast with the careerism of students during the 1980s and
’90s when I went to school! In 2013 at the Cooper Union, I beamed like
a proud parent as my own spirited students peacefully occupied the
president’s office for more than two months. They protested the
decision of a derelict board of trustees and a domineering president
to end the school’s historic commitment to free tuition, and their well publicized
occupation surely helped attract New york State Attorney
General Eric Schneiderman to investigate. Now Cooper has a new
board and a president dedicated to repairing the fiscal damage and
restoring Peter Cooper’s 1859 vision of free education for all.
That said, some student protests trouble me, at least what I understand about them from news reports and cell phone videos posted on youTube. I’m thinking of the crowd at Middlebury earlier this year that prevented Charles Murray, author of the notorious race-based The Bell Curve, from speaking, and, later that day, of the masked assailants (possibly not students) who injured a professor accompanying Murray and rocked the car they both fled to. I’m thinking, as well, of the selfrighteous Evergreen State College students this past spring who confronted and insulted Professor Bret Weinstein (no relation of mine) after he publicly challenged the ethical propriety of their demand to clear the campus of white people for a day. I’m also thinking of a handful of students at yale two years ago who browbeat Nicholas Christakis, the faculty-in-residence of their college, with shrill demands that he renounce his position that undergrads should have the freedom to make mistakes and talk through disagreements instead of outright banning offensive Halloween costumes, as they had proposed.
My guiding light in making sense of this intolerance and insult is Theodor Adorno. Please bear with me while I explain. Before I understood a word of Adorno’s philosophy, I knew he had fled Nazi Germany for the United States, and that his Dialectic of Enlightenment with Max Horkheimer made the case for linking advanced capitalism with fascism. I also knew that in 1969, German student protestors taunted him with bared breasts and accused him of being a capitalist enabler (“If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease”). When the protestors went so far as to occupy a room at the Institute for Social Research, which he directed in Frankfurt, he called the police. Adorno’s apparent contradictions made me want to learn more.
That was long ago in a graduate seminar on Marxist theory, when I volunteered to make a presentation and write a paper on Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. I thought I could polish off his book in the bathtub. Like smacking into a brick wall, I confronted Adorno’s opening line: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” Philosophy once seemed obsolete? We hadn’t discussed that in class. What moment did Adorno mean? If philosophy had, in fact, been realized (whatever that might mean), was he saying it would have died out? The second sentence didn’t help: “The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.” A defeatism of reason? The attempt to change the world? Was he talking about Enlightenment philosophy? The French Revolution? The Bolsheviks? Hitler? The meanings of words floated and morphed like the bubbles in my bath. Adorno made my brain hurt.
Only through writing a PhD dissertation largely about Adorno did I come to appreciate why his writing is so artfully impenetrable. It demands that readers commit themselves to the hard work of crossing his thicket of pages (the uncommitted give up). What’s more, readers have no choice but to imagine multiple meanings and contexts for words until Adorno’s elasticity of mind becomes their own. Ordinarily, in Marxist theory, thought leads to praxis. For Adorno, thought is praxis. His revolution involves changing how people think, one thinker at a time. He changed me, though I often backslide into what Adorno called “identity thinking.”
An identity thinker draws a literal equivalence between an idea and the thing it refers to: concept = referent. Positive identification. Adorno recognized the roots of this positivism in the Enlightenment, when magic and mystery gave way to science and business. In Marxist terms, the businessperson equates the worth of workers to the use value of their labor, measured in wages, and the worth of materials to their exchange value, measured in market price. Gone is spirituality, sentimentality, and a thinker’s hesitation and humility about passing godlike judgments. In his own time, Adorno recognized the epitome of identity thinking in the way that the Nazis judged their victims as valueless and killed them: “Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death.” To combat this positivist identity thinking after the war, Adorno promoted non-identity thinking through his negative dialectics.
The students who mocked Adorno had no patience for his prescriptions. They wanted to change society. But their insults and intolerance signaled to Adorno the same manner of thinking that had fueled earlier, “miscarried” “attempts to change the world” by Bolshevik instigators, Nazi thugs, and others. Today we surely need a fairer world. If student protestors want a chance to bring it about, they might try to overcome their identity thinking.
Free Speech and the New American Fascism
The wave of controversy that has engulfed American college campuses of late is a disturbing symptom of the rise of a homegrown fascism that has begun to exert a grip on American institutions. The immediate issue has been the brouhaha surrounding the speaking appearances of such alt-right provocateurs as Ann Coulter and Milo yiannopoulos, and, on a slightly more “respectable” level, Charles Murray. The larger one is the deliberate manipulation of free speech to legitimize its opposite number, propaganda. That, I believe, is a question that is particularly sensitive for universities but no less so for other public institutions, including the media.
The classic era of fascism coincided with the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s. Both Mussolini and Hitler used the state as a lever to preserve the interests of capital and to relieve economic distress. Franklin D. Roosevelt applied a variant of these policies in the New Deal with the blessings of Keynesian economics but while preserving formal democratic institutions:—under the circumstances, a considerable achievement. There was nonetheless much interest in the fascist model with attention swirling around the figure of Charles A. Lindbergh. The moment passed but was not forgotten.
After World War II, with the New Deal bureaucratic apparatus still in place and prosperity backstopped by the military-industrial complex, politics slowly returned to the norm of a two-party system competing for the favors of capital. By 1980, with the steady leveraging of corporate tax burdens onto the middle class, levels of income inequality had reached 1910 levels. They have steadily accelerated since, with the blessings of both parties. The squeeze on living standards, compounded by the financial collapse of 2008 and its aftermath, cleared the way for the rise of the maverick demagogue who seized the White House in 2016 as a populist who could rise above party.
Donald Trump has introduced several new elements into the American political equation, notably in popularizing the alt-right notion of “fake news,” meaning any source of information not under his direct control. The title of Ann Coulter’s book, In Trump We Trust, sums up both his attitude and his goal: the President alone tells the truth—indeed, makes it—and anyone who does not echo it lies.
Ann Coulter has every right to be heard, of course; but do colleges and universities have an obligation to offer her a platform? When outside speakers are invited to a campus, it is sometimes because their expertise is valued and sometimes because their views are of interest. Normally, they are sponsored by a recognized campus body which extends an invitation. young Republicans invite their speakers; young Democrats (or other groups) invite theirs. It’s understood that the overture comes from the sponsoring body, which decides whom it wants to hear and has a modestly underwritten budget.
Such, at least, was the former model. It isn’t so anymore. As The New York Times has reported, the young America Foundation, a conservative “advocacy” group funded by the likes of the Koch brothers and Amway billionaires Richard and Helen DeVos (whose daughter-in-law is Trump’s Secretary of Education), dispatched some 111 speakers to 77 campuses last year, a pace that has increased this year. Ann Coulter’s scheduled appearance at Berkeley was part of this campaign, and her $20,000 speaking fee was largely subsidized by the Foundation, which also provides “training” for student leaders in how to organize their events, at its Reston, Virginia, headquarters, and, no doubt, offers them valuable career contacts.1
In short, what we’re looking at is not groups of like-minded students deciding to organize themselves for open discussion; it’s a network of lobbying groups, centrally organized and funded, that have infiltrated universities for the purpose of presenting paid propaganda as free speech and stigmatizing any opposition to it as a denial of academic freedom.
Most of the Foundation’s speakers have no academic credentials, but one who did—of a sort—is Charles Murray, who has spent his career at various right-wing think tanks and whose The Bell Curve argued for an invariant correlation between native, racially linked intelligence and social achievement. This claim, more crudely put by Ben Carson in his recent statement that smart people can’t be kept down and dumb people can’t be helped up, was scathingly rebutted by Stephen Jay Gould and others, and Murray has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since. It erupted again when he appeared at Middlebury College last March at the invitation of a Foundation front, the American Enterprise Institute. Accounts differ, but there was a scuffle, and the college president, Laurie L. Patton, sanctioned seventyfour student protesters after a so-called “independent investigation” (by whom Dr. Patton did not say), including a number who had letters of reprimand inserted into their college files that will accompany them through their working lives. In short, Patton permitted a deliberate provocation by a white supremacist to be staged on her campus in the name of (her phrase) “robust” debate, and punished dozens of students who disagreed with her decision.2
This subversion of free speech and the right of protest that goes with it isn’t particularly new. In 1934, Benito Mussolini sponsored a tour of American campuses by a delegation of Italian students, only to be met with protests at the City University of New york. CUNy’s president, Eugene Robinson, made attendance compulsory for the presentation by Il Duce’s minions for all freshmen and denied protesters the right to picket. When a violent demonstration ensued, Robinson expelled twenty-one students, subjected a hundred more to disciplinary proceedings, and suspended the student government.3
The larger question today, though, isn’t simply the capitulation of administrators in the face of a cynical manipulation of legitimate campus dialogue by paid propagandists. We aren’t just talking about speakers, either. Conservative funders have been seeding American universities with programs and institutes designed to promote, among other causes, libertarianism and “faith” in free markets. A good case is that of Wake Forest University, whose provost and deans colluded in a charter that states, among other things, that its new Koch-funded campus institute will maintain “sole discretion over its sponsored research and educational activities.” So much for free and open debate, and a faculty-approved curriculum.4
The next step will be a litmus test for faculty themselves. John Fry, the president of my own institution, Drexel University, recently suggested in an op-ed piece that the school hire more “conservative” and “independent” scholars, presumably to balance a public perception of liberal bias for which the only evidence was a tweet by a single faculty member.5 Shades of a certain junior senator from Wisconsin.
The academy, of course, is not the only institution under attack. Trump daily derides the idea of a free press and not without effect: the slightly liberal-leaning MSNBC has now restocked itself with conservatives, and even The New York Times has felt the need to take on ballast from the right. The Republican Party, meanwhile, has made itself available to a demagogue whose every word and gesture breathes contempt for democratic process and the rule of law, insofar as he understands such concepts. No, it isn’t quite fascism yet: Trump is too clownish a figure. But the damage he does every day to constitutional protections and civic discourse prepares the way for someone who can game the system more cleverly, and when such a person appears, he will not need to build a political party as Hitler and Mussolini did: he already has one essentially at his disposal.
1. The New York Times, May 21, 2017.
2. The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 2017; The Wall Street Journal, June 10-11, 2017.
3.The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2017.
4. Ibid., May 12, 2017.
5. The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 2017.