This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on June 21, 2016.
The great threat to academic freedom today arises not from plutocrats determined to weed from the campus garden any sprouts of pro-unionism; nor from censorious divines on the hunt for misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount; nor yet from defenders of the flag who suspect disloyal thoughts among the cosmopolitan professoriate. Those were demons of another age. Perhaps in honor of the great liberal scholar who dedicated much of his life to fighting those demons, we can call it the Age of Hofstadter. Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published Academic Freedom in the Age of the College in 1955—a masterly work on the sectarian squabbles that bedeviled American colleges through the 19th century.
Hofstadter famously championed progressive causes and idealized university education right up until the point in spring 1968 when student thugs occupied and trashed the president’s office at Columbia and made a point of defecating on his desk. In Hofstadter’s 1968 Columbia commencement address he enunciated once again his vision of the university as “committed to certain basic values of freedom, rationality, inquiry, [and] discussion.” He insisted that the university is “a citadel of intellectual individualism” and stands for “the most benign side of our society.”
Professor Hofstadter, meet Melissa Click.
The Age of Hofstadter has clearly passed. What we have now is the age of cry bullies, trigger warnings, safe spaces, Black Lives Matter, dis-invitations, and all the other cogs and gears that make up the tyrannical machinery of “social justice” on campus. Professor Melissa Click’s call last year at a University of Missouri Black Lives Matter protest for “some muscle” to eject a student reporter from the event was no worse than some of the other things that radicalized professors and students did on campuses across the country, but it was caught perfectly on video and can stand as metonym for the moment. The Age of Click.
In the Age of Click, academic freedom is mainly at risk from academicians. This is hardly news. It has been amply documented at Minding the Campus. But how do we explain how Hofstadter’s beloved university, founded on freedom and rationality and “a citadel of intellectual individualism,” flipped into a bastion of proud ignorance and our society’s greatest engine of aggressive intolerance? What caused our most “benign institution” to become its opposite?
British education writer Joanna Williams is the latest to attempt an explanation.
Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, joins a handful of others, including Kim Holmes’ The Closing of the Liberal Mind (2016), Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (2015), and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012), as an autopsy of the old liberal university. It’s an indictment of the new progressive campus and a call for some kind of resurrection. Holmes, Walsh, and Haidt are American observers.
Williams, the Education Editor of the UK journal Spiked, brings an off-shore perspective to a shared problem. This difference alone makes her book of serious interest to American readers, who will be struck by the divergent forms of protest and controversy surrounding what look like the same set of underlying principles. What does the debate on academic freedom look like in a social order that has no equivalent of America’s First Amendment?
Williams commences where no American writer would: with legislation pushed by the government to “prevent students from being ‘radicalized’ into joining extremist groups.” The UK “Prevent” strategy has no exact equivalent in the U.S., although the Patriot Act opened up some minor pathways to government monitoring of American colleges and universities. Does anyone recall the hubbub among librarians in 2006 when the reauthorization of the Patriot Act allowed that the federal government might want to know which books potential terrorists were borrowing? They went into a frenzy about something far more mild than what had become standard practice in Britannia. In any case, American campuses have not become significant conduits of recruitment for Muslim terrorists. Thus, the basic framing of the debate over academic freedom in the U.K. and the U.S. differs.
But in other respects, our countries act in parallel ways, even down to the level of bureaucrats magnifying petty sleights to take down people they disagree with. We learn, for example, of Warwick University English professor Thomas Docherty, famous for criticizing British higher education policy, who was suspended from his position for nine months. The official reason for his punishment, of course, was not the substance of his criticisms. Rather, he was “insubordinate” as evidenced by his use of sarcasm and “inappropriate sighing in job interviews.”
“Inappropriate sighing” seems like something from a Monty Python skit, but there must be a cultural equivalent somewhere in America. One possibility: Marquette University professor John McAdams. He faces an effort by his institution to strip him of tenure because he published the name of a graduate student who had peremptorily refused to let a student in her ethics class bring up his criticisms of gay marriage. As in England, the pretext is process, but the real cause is dissent from progressive orthodoxy.
British activists took the lead in developing the practice of “no-platforming.” We know that practice mainly in the form of dis-invitations, based on the idea that proponents of certain views should be prevented from speaking on campus. Williams cites feminist “critical” lawyers as among the pioneers of this stratagem. A group of such lawyers at the University of Kent, for example, published in 2013 a petition calling on the London School of Economics to no-platform two writers, Helen Reece and Barbara Hewson, who had expressed doubts about the prevalence of “rape myths.” Reece and Hewson had been invited by LSE to be part of a public “debate.” Excluding people from a debate because you disagree with their views is an odd conceit, but odder still is that the practice has rapidly gained credibility on both sides of the Atlantic as morally valid.
Justice Only for the Left
Williams holds that academic freedom lies at “the heart of the university” and is “integral to the collective enterprise to critique and advance knowledge.” She is, in other words, a time traveler from the Age of Hofstadter. Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity sets out to dismantle the now pervasive left-wing conceit that academic freedom is “an elitist principle” that deserves either to be re-defined in the name of “justice” as a right to be reserved exclusively to the left itself, or banished altogether. Williams counters these political claims with the argument that “knowledge should be evaluated solely on the basis of intellectual merit.” In this light, censorship of controversial ideas is never justified.
Williams is not engaged in an idealization of the academic past. For her, there was no “Golden Age,” but she is alert to the particular dangers right now. In a chapter on “Conformity in the Academy,” she takes up the implications of treating students as consumers to be “flattered and appeased rather than challenged.” This is surely a key element in the emergence of “snowflake” students, who demand that the university cater to their psychological fragility. Williams also nails the sorry feedback loop between self-censorship by scholars and the peer-review system that rewards those who “merely confirm that which has gone before.” The chapter is of particular value, however, in Williams’ lucid account of what happens when “knowledge” is severed from the pursuit of truth.
The effort to make knowledge into a construct of its own apart from whether it is true is not just a giddy conceit of the post-modernists. It is also the stock-in-trade of supposedly practical people interested in data, information, skills, and “human capital.” Utilitarianism has limited interest in what is true; what matters is whether something works. As Williams notes, this blurs knowledge with skill to the disadvantage of knowledge. Knowledge is reduced to instrumental knowledge. The post-modern left, the social justice crowd, and the utilitarian right find common ground in pushing the pursuit of truth to the margins. The result is a university where “many academics feel more comfortable concerning themselves with nurturing students’ employability skills or personal values,” than they do in helping students come to a true knowledge of the subjects they study.
The Trap of Global Citizenship
Williams’ strictures on this provide a new way to look at higher education’s strange new emphasis on the imaginary category of “global citizenship.” As she points out, the term doesn’t stand for “any particular knowledge about the world,” but rather “changes in students’ attitudes” mostly in the form of rejection of “national identity.” Global citizenship “connects private feeling and qualities such as care, empathy and awareness, with the global issues of the day.” It thus “places whole areas of knowledge beyond debate.” The “homogeneity of political views” on campus is thus driven as much by efforts to manipulate the psychological vulnerabilities of students as it is by the effort of faculty members to steer away from the hard task of attempting to sort truth from opinion.
Williams herself doesn’t flinch in that effort. Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity is a short (198 page) book written in lively English and rich with examples, but it is thick with thought-provoking arguments on exactly how the “benign institution” of the university somersaulted to the frequently malign institution we have today. She finds some of impetus in what happened in the academic disciplines, and more of it in the pernicious influence of academic feminism. These are compellingly presented, but American readers will note that Williams has next to nothing to say about “diversity,” race, and multiculturalism as the anvils on which academic freedom in our universities has frequently been crushed.
The absence of these topics from a book about enforced conformity on campus is arresting, and serves perhaps as testimony to the “exceptional” character of America’s descent into leftist intolerance. Our campuses share with Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world an invasive new hatred of intellectual freedom. But we have added to it our own homebrew of racial grievance and identity politics. Britain certainly has experienced the woeful side of multiculturalism as well, but Williams treats it as secondary thread. For us, in the Age of Click, it is primary.
Britain’s example shows that the intolerance endangering academic freedom is not tied to a particular grievance, but has become a force in its own right.