Middlebury College and Liberal Education

Elizabeth Corey

On March 2, 2017, Charles Murray was a featured speaker at Middlebury College. As readers of this journal know, over the course of the evening student protests against Murray became violent, and professor Allison Stanger was physically assaulted. Stanger, a distinguished professor in the political science department at Middlebury, had offered to co-host Murray during his visit to the college, despite not sharing his conservative political views. She had planned to ask him “hard questions” about the arguments he had made in his famous 1994 book, The Bell Curve. Instead, she and Murray were forced to leave town immediately after the talk. Stanger suffered a concussion at the hands of angry protestors. She had to wear a neck brace and required six months of therapy to restore full functioning.

The incident made national news, and in its aftermath a group of over one hundred Middlebury professors penned a set of core principles that they later published in the Wall Street Journal. These principles are more or less a summary of the now-famous Chicago Statement, which was first published in January 2015 as an explicit declaration of the free speech principles that have traditionally governed American universities. The Chicago Statement quotes former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, who had defended his principles in allowing a Communist party presidential candidate to speak on campus. University students, said Hutchins, “should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He maintained that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life . . . universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] . . . without it they cease to be universities.”

Prior to about 2005, anyone in the academic world who did not hold some version of this view would have been viewed as odd or eccentric. These are, after all, principles famously articulated by John Stuart Mill in his essay from On Liberty, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” which argues that all views—even those considered odious at the moment—may have some value. Or, perhaps, an unorthodox view might point to something else of value that could not be discovered but for the fact that different opinions might be freely aired and debated. Those who have never “thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them,” wrote Mill, are unprepared fully to understand, much less defend, their own doctrines.

However, these principles are no longer universally valued by university teachers, administrators, and students. The Middlebury faculty statement of unassailable principles, “Free Inquiry on Campus,” was in fact assailed by a group of Middlebury students who wrote (ironically, and unconsciously channeling Mill) that the principles warranted “robust, nuanced, and continuing civil debate.” Yet they used their public proclamation to argue, this time against Mill, that certain opinions are simply beyond the pale. As they put it, “some views are not worthy of a platform” and “we have a responsibility to articulate some parameters for which viewpoints are worthy.” Those unworthy views were not theirs, of course, but rather Charles Murray’s. How did they know this? Their own unassailable first principles told them so. Bigotry is not worthy of a platform; Charles Murray is a bigot; therefore, Charles Murray should be prevented from speaking.

It is easy to criticize these students on the grounds that they have failed to internalize the Chicago Statement, or the principles espoused by the Middlebury faculty, or the principles that Mill set out a long time ago. It is also easy to criticize them for their selective and capricious use of Mill, whereby they get to use Mill’s free-exchange idea to express their own views while preventing others from doing the same. But a more interesting exercise is to get inside the heads of the students, to view the world as they do, and to see how the free exchange of ideas really does constitute a threat to the world as they experience it.

Perhaps this idea of experience offers a starting point. For one of the most important ideas that the Middlebury students express in their manifesto is a particular notion of experience and the personal identity that emerges from it. Experience, here, is contrasted with reason. Experience is rich, multi-faceted, idiosyncratic, lived, felt, intuited, sometimes tribal. Reason is antiseptic, cold, analytical, emotionless, individualistic.

The Middlebury faculty write that “only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.” The students reply as follows: “To state that these protests are the product of mere ‘opinion’ is to dismiss the real, felt experiences of the students who chose to dissent in various forms. We contend that experiences and emotions are valid ways to see the world, and that the hegemony of the rational thought-based perspective often found in a university setting limit [sic] our collective creativity, health and potential.” It is imperative, they continue, “to listen, understand, and reflect upon the various lenses members of our community use to view the world.”

Of course, they are not wholly wrong. Civil society—or at least a flourishing civil society—requires that we listen with charity to the opinions, ideas, and worldviews of others, even when we do not share their conclusions. But the student statement implies more than charitable disagreement. It implies a fundamentally new paradigm for universities, one that stands in stark contrast to the university assumed by Mill, the Middlebury faculty, and the authors of the Chicago statement.

First, it assumes that what has traditionally been the work of universities—disinterested inquiry in various social and natural sciences and in the humanities, art, and music—is no longer their primary task. Their primary task has become quasi-therapeutic. This calls for airing out the musty rooms of scholarship, method, peer review, critique, and criticism. We must now embrace new “lenses” of inquiry: reflection on lived experience, on ethnic identity, on gender and class and sexual orientation, on activism, on privilege and oppression, and much else besides.

The point here is that the supposedly sterile world of scholarly inquiry restricts, while the lived experience of many different people expands and broadens. And each person’s experience is unique; we cannot “speak into” the world of someone else; scholarship is no longer subject to critique but each person’s work stands as a unique artistic expression. This also means that what was formerly understood as the free exchange of ideas is now hurtful and pain-inducing for some members of the university community. It may even be “unhealthy,” “unsafe,” or “violent.” As feminist standpoint-theorist Sandra Harding has expressed it, the traditional disciplines of the university are “complicitious with sexist and androcentric agendas.” Therefore, the task of certain members of the university community must be to oppose and resist those agendas. This is what the Middlebury students think that they are doing in protesting Charles Murray.

The second assumption of the Middlebury students is the goodness of radical egalitarianism. If disinterested learning—making mental effort under criticism—is no longer the focus of university studies, then the traditional hierarchy of professor and student can be disposed of too. Authority itself is suspect. Thus, we see the rise of “student-led learning” and pedagogical techniques like “flipping the classroom.” Students can now engage in “active learning techniques” instead of listening to boring lectures delivered by white men with yellowing notes.

More important than these techniques, though, is the students’ egalitarian assumption that in fact professors and visiting speakers have nothing to teach them. Underlying the entire Charles Murray debacle is the idea that students already knew that Murray was a bigot. They “knew” it before he arrived, and this was what gave them the moral authority to protest his very presence on campus. But the odds are good that few to none of them have actually read the book on which his reputation is based. Packed with statistics and complicated methodology, The Bell Curve is tough sledding. And truth be told, it does not in fact advance a white supremacist argument.1

The book does, however, take up difficult and politically incorrect questions. Coming to terms with the subtleties of its argument might best happen over the course of a daylong seminar with statisticians, methodologists, and experts in racial politics. But this would require epistemic humility and a willingness to be refuted. Far easier, and more politically expedient, to accept the critics’ assessment of Murray as a hater and racist than actually to understand what he said. The position is essentially that of a petulant adolescent: “I already know what you’re trying to tell me! Don’t complicate my world!” And it speaks to a profound intellectual immaturity, of the kind Plato tried over and over again to confront and tame in his aporetic dialogues.

For the truth is that despite the students’ passionate demands for equality—they say it is the College’s duty “to provide an environment that supports [students] as equals” and to support the “fundamental human agenda of insisting upon the basic equality of all individuals”—equality itself is a prime example of something that ought to be examined carefully in a university, especially as it relates to other virtues like individual liberty and economic freedom, which make demands of their own. If we are all equal, why? Are we endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights? Or is there a basis for equality that has nothing to do with God? We certainly won’t find equality by looking at actual human beings. What comes out in surveying the great diversity of people is precisely the ways people are unequal and different: in beauty, wealth, intelligence, privilege, athletic ability, race, class, gender, virtues, vices, and inclinations. So what does equality really mean, and where is it located on the hierarchy of human values?

Finally, what emerges quite clearly in the student manifesto is a deep aversion to pain and discomfort, almost an indignance that anyone should suffer such things. Middlebury College, the students say, is obliged to protect them, and has failed to do so in the face of events that were “exhausting, upsetting, and deeply stressful for many in our community.” Schools like Middlebury must not be narrowly committed only to students’ academic well-being but also to their “physical, emotional, and spiritual health.”

On a common sense understanding of universities, this is partially right. What else do the armies of mid-level administrators exist to do in the modern university, if not to counsel students in mental distress, staff student life centers, and ensure academic support in “success centers” and writing labs and other such initiatives? Some level of this tangential support is obligatory.

Still—and perhaps this is an unfashionable view—pain, distress, and embarrassment may sometimes be not just unavoidable but even beneficial to the learning process. Every notion of evaluation, critique, and criticism presupposes external standards that are either met or not met. An earnest student is likely to feel some pain and embarrassment when he fails to meet those standards; and next time that student will likely work to avoid a similar outcome. Pain and discomfort are vital to the development of character and persistence.

Nothing great is easy, as the saying goes; and nothing great can emerge without failures along the way. As Avi Mintz observes in the Handbook on the Philosophy of Pain, “we ought to provide our students and our children with a narrative about learning in which their educational pains—failure, frustration, anxiety and fear—are not indicators of innate deficits but are rather rungs on the ladder of educational success, a proper part of the educational journey.” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a similar point in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), about cognitive behavioral therapy and its imperative to embrace the discomfort of anxiety and fear as a way of ultimately overcoming such feelings.

This does not mean, of course, that pain should be inflicted in a sadistic way. It is rather that excellence, achievement, and genuine learning incidentally involve the pain of self-denial, self-judgment, recognition of one’s own deficits and defects, and the embarrassment that comes with realizing that we often do not know as much as we initially thought. A significant part of maturation is learning to live with such things gracefully, or developing a thick skin so that we do not take offense at every slight. Engagement with people whose views are strange, offensive, and even odious is a vital part of moving out of adolescence and into adulthood. This exposure is what colleges have traditionally provided.

But if speech is deemed equivalent to violence, as it is in Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech (quoted in the Middlebury students’ manifesto), then people may feel justified in avoiding it altogether. “Oppressive language,” wrote Morrison, “does more than represent violence; it is violence . . . Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” In other words, Charles Murray’s language is actual violence and the students are being hurt. Some views, the students assert with Toni Morrison, are just beyond the pale.

Those of us who would sign the Chicago or Middlebury statements will no doubt find it hard to sympathize with students who appear immature, or perhaps just petulant and entitled. But there is value in seeing clearly the fundamental presuppositions of these students. For such students the university is not disinterested and truth-seeking but therapeutic. It is a training ground for political and social activism. These students reject hierarchy and deference to authority in favor of radical egalitarianism. And they wish to avoid pain and the “violence” of speech that does not support them in their already-formed views.

While attempting to understand these student views is worthwhile, we need not accept these views, or suppose that they are merely another benign approach to academic life. In truth, the vision of the Middlebury students is a complete inversion of traditional academic standards. In this new dispensation, truth bows to power and intersectionality becomes the fundamental paradigm of university life. Speech is measured by its potential to offend, and speakers are judged in terms of their unearned privilege or oppression scores. Even traditional ideas about peer review and tenure are thought to reinforce systems of oppression. Honest conversation cannot take place if participants constantly fear saying something insensitive, or being reported to the Bias Response Team, or being hauled before a Student Life committee to “apologize” for legitimate, if controversial, views.

I argued above that students have rejected authority in favor of radical egalitarianism. They stand as judges of every visiting speaker, of the ideas of their insufficiently woke professors, and of their peers who do not share their views. But in another sense they are too deferential to authority. For where are they getting the views they espouse? I doubt it is from their wide and deep high-school reading in Marxist and neo-Marxist theory. It is much more likely that they are hearing it in presentations when they arrive at college, offered by the burgeoning class of re-education professionals in the “student support services” sectors of universities.

They are also receiving it from their professors, who skew so far to the left that in some fields there are virtually no moderates, much less conservatives. About sixty percent of American social science professors are liberal, while fewer than ten percent are conservatives. Democrats outnumber Republicans “by ratios of at least 8 to 1.”2 These are likely the professors who encouraged the Middlebury students in their protests, reassuring them that they need not get caught up in the details of issues before engaging in activism. This, too, is a kind of immaturity on the part of the students. For they are taking the easier path of accepting a fully-formed view of the world (which just happens to be the fashionable progressive view) where judgments about good guys and bad guys have been determined for them in advance.

This, then, is the contemporary situation. Students are at once scornful of traditional authority and too deferential to their professors. They are eager to protest but quick to demand therapy for emotional pain if things go badly. As parents and teachers we are partly to blame. For we have been so focused on our children’s worldly success that we have allowed them little of the natural pain and discomfort that accompany boredom, failure, and real moral challenge. Instead, we have scheduled them and entertained them, given them opportunity and diversion.

Despite our good intentions, we have allowed them to remain children far longer than past generations. It is time for those of us who work in colleges and universities to show our students what adulthood means. Professors and administrators must have the courage to speak freely and frankly, without fear of reprimand or silencing. If we do not, we will have abandoned the western intellectual tradition and given the field to those who want to enforce a narrow, time bound vision of a progressive future.

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