In recent years there has been a disturbing phenomenon on college campuses across the US, which in turn reflects a growing trend within the nation as a whole. This phenomenon can be described as “un-American” at best; different groups of overly sensitive people demanding an absolute conformity of opinions, behaviors, and personal beliefs. Anyone failing to conform (or assumed to be failing) is immediately demonized as hateful, prejudiced, narrow-minded, immoral, unpatriotic, or whatever else seems appropriate. Unfortunately in recent times the response to unwanted persons, including university guest speakers that have been invited by faculty, is for people to loudly and rudely protest or even hold a school hostage by rioting.
This article will examine the beginning of this disturbing trend of aberrant behavior, and how it has evolved over the past few decades. Several questions will be raised which are relevant to university life and to the productivity of the population as a whole. How did academia lose its historic goal of free and open debate? Why are university students seemingly eager to protest, riot, and in general make nuisances of themselves? Will this affect the creativity of the average citizen?
In 1987 University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom published an unexpected best seller bearing the title “The Closing of the American Mind”. In his book the author argued that "higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students”. His argument was that today’s colleges have put too much emphasis on relativism and have thus given students a misguided understanding of history, culture, and society. The book is lengthy and can be difficult to comprehend; however, the problems the author is discussing have only gotten worse as time has progressed. This book is even more relevant today than it was in 1987, the close-minded perspective has only gotten worse over the decades, and it is of benefit to review some of the major points.
The author begins by discussing the purpose of education and its desired goals. The discussion continues by describing how different societies seek different outcomes from an education system. He uses the example of the early American republic seeking people with certain characteristics: honesty; industriousness; love of family; knowledge of the “natural” rights embedded in the Declaration of Independence; and an understanding and appreciation for the form of government designed by the Founding Fathers. He compares this with more traditional autocratic societies in which myth, fantasy, severe discipline, and extended family or tribal connections, produce a fanatical loyalty to the nation which is in contrast to the rational, reflective, and even self-interested loyalty to a democratic form of government and its rational principles. The difference in the two is the understanding of natural rights. The American public is united in a certain brotherhood by its common appreciation for the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all citizens; regardless of race, class, religion, or ethnicity.
The author makes the argument that the modern educational system focusing on openness and relevancy has rejected all such ideas; it ignores the idea of natural rights and the historical development of the nation. In more recent times, three decades after the book’s printing, many in academia have gone so far as to condemn most of the Founding Fathers for various reasons other than their efforts to form a new nation: some were slave owners, others kept mistresses, others had illegitimate children, some were Roman Catholics while others were deists, all were “rich old white men”, and none had the foresight to live in accordance with the narrow-minded political correctness which has come to dominate the nation two-hundred years later.
In recent years the mentality on university campuses has become increasingly insular and often petty. Many students and university administrators have come to reject the idea of Freedom of Speech and Expression, in an effort to stamp out anything which may be in some way construed as hate, racism, sexism, or possibly offensive. There are examples of students demanding the removal of plaques, titles, or memorabilia, because the name of the associated person sounds prejudiced or unpleasant; regardless of the person’s history, contribution, character, or complete innocence of any wrongdoing. Theater performances, works of art, statues of significant historical figures, and other works of design or beauty, have also received similar treatment.
This trend towards increasingly insular thinking has taken a turn to the worse, towards violence and rioting; but it is not always the students at fault. In 2015 a student photographer filming a student gathering on school grounds was accosted by a professor of Journalism demanding he leave the premises. The professor made national headlines when she was caught on film while shouting “I need some muscle over here”. After a strong response from the community, the local prosecutor filed charges against the professor and the university terminated her employment. However, there is a deeper issue at stake. What prompted this professor of journalism to behave in this outrageous and criminal manner? Did she believe that she would have been justified if the student journalist was assaulted or injured? Fortunately, in this instance, there was video evidence of her behavior. What would have happened if the video was not available?
There have been many cases in which students have turned to violence, in order to keep invited speakers from entering campus grounds. Milo Yiannopoulos, an admittedly controversial individual, was greeted by rioters on his way to deliver a speech at Berkley. However, in the case of Charles Murray, a respected researcher and well known political scientist whose only crime has been to express carefully researched ideas, Middlebury College became the site of rioting and mayhem, without any sort of reasoning or justification. The violent response was egged on by some of the faculty, but it turns out that neither the faculty nor protesting students has actually read any of Mr. Murray’s work. Their actions were based purely on rumors, assumptions and ignorance. One of the faculty members accompanying Mr. Murray was attacked by the rioters and required hospitalization. Is this the “tolerance” which is championed by the very people that wish to silence anyone accused of “hate”?
The repression of this extreme political correctness is constantly evolving. A perfect example of this repressive behavior is a recent incident in which a student of Latin-American origin publicly denounced “white girls” for wearing hoop earrings, which in her mind are associated with ghettos and poor people of color. She described this as “cultural appropriation” on the part of white women. This may seem like the righteous indignation of members of a victimized minority: however, upon the most rudimentary research it’s discovered that hoop earrings have no connections whatsoever to slavery, ghettos, or any particular ethnic group. Even well-known comedians, whose names are household items, have been avoiding college campuses out of the fear that they may inadvertently cause offense and set off a riot.
As can be imagined, given the seemingly hair trigger temper of overly sensitive college students, free and open academic discussion has taken a severe blow. Academia should be the one place where everything is open to discussion, and all opinions are respected. If debate is constrained and only certain opinions are permissible, then society becomes as stagnant and monolithic as certain repressed nations where the entire society is based upon fanatical interpretations of Islam.
The current climate of repression has been developing for many years, at least thirty-five years given the copyright date of Professor Bloom’s work. If the current batch of students was born to those on college campuses during the 1980’s, what sort of people will be raised by the current students? It is a frightening thought that future generations may become even worse. Some schools are fighting back against this repression of speech, but it may be too little and too late.
There is another issue which must be considered. What happens when these violence prone students attempt to enter the workforce? One of the hallmarks of America’s greatness has been the unrestricted creativity and ingenuity of the public. That creativity which has kept America great is now jeopardized and is in danger of disappearing. There is not an easy solution to this problem; it has taken decades to develop and it will take decades to correct. However, for the sake of the nation, and the success of future generations, society must recognize the inherent danger this phenomenon of repressive thoughts and behaviors represents.