It’s become commonplace in political discourse that if you cannot “name” a movement, if you refuse to speak about what truly motivates it, you cannot hope to counter it. If we cannot, for instance, speak the words “radical Islam,” we risk misunderstanding the essence, the animating spirit, of our attackers.
Look at our universities today. It is increasingly clear that the destruction of the heart of education, which began over forty years ago, is reaching a culmination. How shall we understand those who seem intent on destroying what remains of the core of higher education—its devotion to open, free, and rational inquiry? Shall we say, as many of our conservative brethren do, that those who demand “trigger warnings” and protection from troubling ideas are “snowflakes”? Shall we try to shame those who work to silence all opposition by describing them as weak and wayward souls, children of disrupted families in need of greater nurturing? Are we not witnessing, rather, something far more sinister than whining and psychological distress—something that looks to be the complete reevaluation, indeed purposeful eradication, of what it has historically meant to become educated?
While some of our colleagues might be tempted to belittle the players on the other side, those who would tear down the university have a better grasp of words and a surer, if more dishonest, set of rhetorical skills. Consider the words “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “multiculturalism.” There was a time when the ideas contained in these words were fully in the arsenal of the defenders of traditional education. The finest education had always consisted of more than knowing our own, or even of knowing how to accomplish great and useful things. The highest education—let’s call it a liberal education—was always comprehensive, wide-ranging, and open to knowledge no matter how ancient, how radical, or how challenging to entrenched orthodoxies. The highest education had always been, in that way, fundamentally diverse and multicultural.
But from the 1960s through the 1980s we were informed that traditional liberal education was not broad, not liberating, not open to diverse ideas, but simply the academic mausoleum of dead white men. The new radicals told us that all that came before would now be enriched, opened up, and made more inclusive under the banner of multiculturalism.
It never seemed to work that way. What arose were enclaves of separatism: racial-ethnic-gender-specific departments, racially and ethnically separate living arrangements, monocultural and mono-racial centers, and ever heightened race-based affirmative action in admission, retention, and scholarship programs. These new departments and studies rarely sought to integrate into or inform traditional courses, for the new multiculturalism never wanted to reinvigorate crosscultural studies or expand requirements in foreign languages. In most places, rather, they became separate programs of grievance and outrage.
So one might be forgiven for thinking that the call for diversity that arose over forty years ago was a canard, a ruse to marginalize some of the best approaches to liberal education we had. Still, until recently, in many places liberal education limped on.
But today’s radicals are considerably more ferocious—and more radical—than those of the 1960s and 1970s. They seek not to marginalize but to eliminate. Any attempt to consider multiple points of view on serious issues in the humanities or the social sciences now risks being labeled as aggression and offense. Where true liberal diversity once sought to recognize and understand points of view different, indeed contrary, to our own, obedience to this new brand of “diversity” demands silence and recantation. Alternative sociological views are in danger of being branded racist; much of literature threatens to be labeled homophobic or sexist; unseasonable philosophical inquiry into the meaning of morality and justice risks disturbing today’s “social justice” warriors, who already have the only acceptable answers; and all potential deviations from today’s orthodoxies are evidence of systemic racism in need of perpetual diversity training and reeducation classes. Into all this a phalanx of thought-review administrators—“diversity inclusion and equity officers” as we learn from Ol’ Mizzou—will now watchfully police the campus. Nor is it simply offensive speech or racist slurs that “trigger” a radical response. More serious, more offensive would be honest debate and reasoned argument.
Gone is any hope that under the regime of contemporary multiculturalism and diversity students will experience “enhanced classroom dialogue” (as the Supreme Court recently opined) and learn from one another. Can, for example, an open discussion of the causes of black poverty or black crime—other than “racism”—be held in many campus sociology classes? Can honest discussions of equality and its limits or the character of human nature be openly discussed in political science? Today, identity politics masquerading as a demand for diversity has turned the university world upside down. Some of our once best liberal arts universities risk becoming the most anti-intellectual institutions in the nation.
Yes, the universities have called it upon themselves. Rather than expand the core of higher learning to include new and varied cultural insights they used the cover of “diversity” to shatter that core to set up and empower separate identity-based studies and programs that feed only upon themselves. And the universities then praised these separatist views as the embodiment of some sort of higher morality, opposition to whose aims and ideas could only be designated as reactionary, racist, and fundamentally unjust. It is not some abstract notion of “free speech” that is at risk. Once it is understood that the enemy is not offensive words but offensive ideas—arguments or opinions that might disquiet, discomfort, or distress—then the meaning of “diversity,” and with it “higher education,” is lost.
One would hope that responsible university administrators take this latest wave of anti-intellectual radicalism as an opportunity to rethink the mission of the university and work towards its restoration. After all, if storming a university library, silencing speakers, calling for race-based reeducation camps, and demanding that professors who head and teach in select departments be appointed on the basis of their race with the promise of violence if student demands are not met are not catalysts for courage and determination on the part of trustees, state legislatures, administrators and faculty, then perhaps the doors should be closed, since the soul of the place is dead.
But before it gets to that, let’s call the movement to eradicate unorthodox/heterodox/dissenting thoughts and reasoned opinions for what it is: students who shout down lecturers who challenge the current orthodoxy or status quo are not “snowflakes” or delicate flowers begging for affirmations of their self-esteem or a JV team of radicals who cannot bear to encounter disquieting ideas—they are the storm troopers and brownshirts of the academic world.