Academic Freedom in the Age of Double-Mindedness

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: The following is a speech delivered by Peter Wood on October 16, 2019, at a gala hosted by Encounter Books at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington DC.


I am deeply honored to receive this award named for one of the intellectual heroes of the last quarter of the twentieth century. This is the 40th anniversary of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous essay in Commentary. In November 1979, she published “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which was a blistering attack on President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. She argued that Carter and fellow progressives were sacrificing America’s national interests to the opportunity to side with leftist insurgents wherever they might be found. The result was that the U.S. was ready “to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world.”

I was a graduate student in anthropology at the time Kirkpatrick wrote this and paying little attention to U.S. foreign policy. But on November 4, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American hostages. The Shah had been deposed earlier in the year, and Kirkpatrick had captured that in her article, but this mass kidnapping and ritual humiliation of the U.S came after she had gone to press.

The hostage crisis unlocked something in me. It quickened my sense of American identity and provoked my recognition that political freedom cannot be taken for granted. It was something like 9-11 for a later generation. Kirkpatrick’s essay helped me see that the political left, in ascendency all around me in the university, was profoundly hostile to our country and our freedoms.

This was also the moment I witnessed something else. Phyllis Schlafly came to the University of Rochester (where I was studying) to give a lecture. I was in the audience and was appalled when students around me, many of them young feminists, began to stomp their feet in unison and shout out her down. It was an early demonstration of a now familiar tactic.

In the years that followed I went to work in John Silber’s administration at Boston University. I read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I joined the National Association of Scholars, founded in 1987. And I became a thorough skeptic towards the quasi-totalitarian ideologies that began to manifest themselves with force in the 1980s. All that lies behind how I eventually left anthropology and then left the university entirely to helm the National Association of Scholars, which is one of a half-dozen or so organizations on the periphery of the academy that advocate for academic and intellectual freedom—and I should say the classic liberal arts, Western civilization, and virtuous citizenship.

We do so because those freedoms are in peril. It always helps to have a specific example, and I have time for only one. Last week a freshman at Yale, Madison Hahamy, published an op-ed in the Yale Daily News, objecting to the selection of Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield as a speaker at Directed Studies event. Ms. Hahamy faulted Professor Mansfield on all the usual lines. He speaks dismissively of rape culture; he considers homosexuality “a misfortune”; he believes grade inflation at Harvard is connected to the admission of underqualified black students; and on. Ms. Hahamy’s diatribe, however, becomes interesting at this point. She presents herself as a champion of academic freedom. She wrote:

I want to make it clear that I believe reasoned discourse is necessary. Democracy does not thrive when views are left unchallenged, and I consider open-mindedness a virtue that I constantly work to uphold. However, philosophical and political disputes should be separated from views that dehumanize others. Mansfield’s beliefs fall into the second camp. His views are undeniably bigoted, and it is emotionally draining to have to engage with him. I should not have to prove my worth as a human just because Harvey Mansfield believes I am less intelligent than my male peers.

There is more in this vein, including Ms. Hahamy’s claim that Mansfield’s “beliefs, including the most heinous ones, stem from his reading of the ‘Great Books’ of the Western Canon.” So out goes the Western Canon too. Ms. Hahamy says she defends Mansfield’s free speech, as long as he takes it elsewhere. She just doesn’t want Yale to “elevate his voice” in the program in which she is studying.

Ms. Hahamy is up to something, but what? She seems to take a comprehensively hostile view of the culture around her. Once again, Jeane Kirkpatrick helps to explain this. In her 1984 address to the Republican Presidential convention, Kirkpatrick upbraids critics of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy:

They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do - they didn't blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians - they blamed the United States instead.

But then, somehow, they always blame America first.

She repeated that last line five times, but it has been repeated tens of thousands of times since in the minds of people who look at what has happened to American higher education and elite culture in America.

Our colleges and universities are now dominated by faculty and administrators for who see America as a terrible place, overrun with sexism, racism, hatred of immigrants, greed, ignorance, and oppression of all sorts. This nightmarish vision is fueled by and in turn fuels anger. Those caught up in this vision believe it with passionate intensity, and often seem beyond any glimmer of recognition that they may be mistaken. We call this frozen state of mind by the blandly ironic term “political correctness.” But it is really an intellectual pathology. I call it ripped-jeans totalitarianism.

The stories of what happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna head a very long list of such transgressions. But those who suppress academic and intellectual freedom have many other weapons at hand.

Ideas get suppressed more directly through the dismantling of core requirements, canceling courses, and adding new requirements rooted in ideology, such as courses on diversity or social justice. San Francisco State University, Springfield College, and Salem State, for example, have mandatory social justice requirements. Student life is rife with the suppression of intellectual inquiry through speech codes, bias reporting, staged emergencies, and corvée labor for progressive causes, which some student wags call voluntyranny.

Numerous topics are off-limits for campus debate. Joseph Overton at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, coined the term “Overton Window” for the range of policy ideas considered legitimate in public debate. Until recently, for example, if I were to propose banning chocolate to combat obesity, I trust we would agree that idea is outside the Overton Window. But the idea of shutting down a carbon-based economy in favor of windmills and solar panels is squarely inside the Overton Window.

Many people believe that higher education is the place where the Overton Window should be at its widest. To learn to think well, we have to sort through contending claims. We need a safe space for controversial ideas. We need a university that can entertain rational inquiry and civil discussion of ideas such as skepticism towards the diversity doctrine; catastrophic global warming; feminist theories of patriarchy; the New York Times’ 1619 thesis; and many more. We also need a university willing to debate the advantages of nuclear power; the importance of national borders; a more restrictionist immigration policy; the benefits of European colonialism; and more on this list as well.

At the moment, the university is pretty much the last place one would look for robust debate on any of these matters. The dissenters from the orthodox left’s views are to be found in think tanks and among the educated public outside the university. That doesn’t mean that the university lacks scholars who hold such dissenting views. They simply hold those views very, very quietly, as though cradling cups of nitroglycerin.

When the left seized the university it found advantages in keeping old terms such as “liberal education” and “critical thinking” in circulation, while entirely changing their meaning. Liberal education is now, in effect, a program aimed at eradicating intellectual curiosity and traditional values and replacing them with hard-core commitments to progressive dogmas. “Critical thinking” is uncritical acceptance of leftist shibboleths. Similarly, the university’s long-standing commitment to cultivating good citizenship was massaged into persuading students they are now citizens of the world. Students go to college now to discover or have reinforced that they are primarily members of ethnic groups each of which has its own history of oppression and its culture of resistance, and increasingly its own epistemology that stands in defiance of age-old norms of intellectual inquiry.

Jeane Kirkpatrick no doubt would shake her head at this bewildering descent into academic nonsense. An award named in her honor should at least come with the stipulation that the awardee do more than merely bemoan our situation.

What can we do to throw open the Overton Window to the topics currently excluded?

We can dare to say what other deem unsayable.

We can say these things in ways that demonstrate respect for good argument, sound evidence, and civil discourse.

We can defend others who speak out with untimely truths or provocative opinions.

We can criticize the unexamined premises of the group-think that has taken the place of real debate.

Many in this room already do these things. We benefit from journals that have the independence and courage to publish our views. Journals such as The New Criterion, the Claremont Review of Books, and anywhere that publishes essays by Victor Davis Hanson.

Some of this is work for America’s conservative intellectuals, but the populist side matters too. Since I have been president of the National Association of Scholars, we have published more than a dozen long, detailed reports such as What Does Bowdoin Teach?, The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science, Outsourced to China, and Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. But I never turn down an opportunity to speak on talk radio or to fly to Omaha to talk to the Liberty Ladies.

Jeane Kirkpatrick would have approved this approach. As the American Ambassador to the United Nations she perfected the kind of speech that was both erudite and able to reach over the heads of the academic censors to the rest of America and the world. In that spirit, I am deeply touched to be honored in her name and to receive this award.

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