"Collective Certainty" at Work

Peter Wood

One of the delightful rituals of the academic calendar is the September address by the college president. College presidents typically don’t have anything important or pressing to say but feel the weight of many centuries of tradition demanding that they stand before the assembled students and deliver a speech that combines high-minded sentiment, the common touch, a dash of self-deprecating humor, and a reminder of the Serious Purpose that can go without saying but will on this occasion be Said Anyway.

The fall addresses of college presidents are a goldmine for observers, and not just because they are stuffed full of the gold and russet leaves of impending autumn and other banalities (“As the leaves change over our beautiful campus this fall, so too you will be changed…”). These speeches are also stuffed with the iron pyrite of academe—the fool’s gold of political correctness. A few weeks ago in “Never Waste a Good Cliché” we touched on a good example: the address by Joan Stewart, president of Hamilton College in upstate New York, who constructed an elaborate play on the 97 meanings of the word “sustain.” But the leaves keep falling or the pyrite keeps gleaming. We have another example at hand. 

President Brian Rosenberg of Macalester College in St. Paul has rewarded us with an outstanding example of the form, titled “What Am I Doing Here?” President Rosenberg gets right to the self-deprecation part: he explains that he is giving the speech himself to avoid writing a “hefty check” to an outside speaker. 

Before I continue or allow President Rosenberg to get on with his speech, I should acknowledge that we’ve paid disproportionate attention to little Macalester College in the last six months. Back in May, I commented in “Macalester Preps for World Domination” on Macalester’s new Institute for Global Citizenship, which I had noticed while walking through campus. The article also took happy note of the philosophical ramblings of undergraduate would-be citizen of the world Peter Truax, who gave us a taste of how Global Citizenship plays out in the Macalester psyche. 

Mr. Truax was none too pleased with the attention, but the article caught the more approving notice of Roger Peterson, who leads a group of moderately aggrieved alumni called the Macalester Alumni of Moderation. We then wrote about the Mac Mods’ protest at being excluded from a summer reunion.   A group called Free Exchange on Campus (Freex) took umbrage at the Mac Mods for making “frivolous accusations.” Not wanting to miss out on the frivolity, we wrote about Freex in “Exchange Counter.”   Mr. Peterson himself wrote about the Mac Mods’ travails on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call, in “Turning Left and Driving Blindly.” 

One thing leads to another, and Macalester president has decided at last to offer an olive branch to the College’s critics. Sort of.  It looks suspiciously like plastic vegetables to us. Back to the speech. 

First, the (seeming) good news. President Rosenberg reiterates his commitment to academic excellence. He says that a college president:

…should be expected to model those attributes that are to a learning community most essential, including clarity of language and thought, civility, scholarly curiosity and rigor, openness to views that are different from one’s own, and an unwavering commitment to ethical behavior;

He finds in these commitments grounds to exercise restraint in expressing his own views of controversial matters:

My personal desire to express publicly my opinions on controversial issues often comes into direct conflict with my professional responsibility to preserve academic freedom and an atmosphere of openness to all reasonable perspectives that are civilly stated.

And he holds that this should be a general rule for college presidents:

But my conviction is that in agreeing to become a college president, a willingness to be measured and restrained in one’s public statements—to accept one’s status as a walking, talking logo—is part of the deal.

And Rosenberg is specific about some of what he, as Macalester’s president should not say. He shouldn’t endorse parties or candidates in gubernatorial elections. And he draws some other lines:

In general, when I speak to issues of public significance, I try to focus on those that I take to be so central to the educational mission of Macalester as to require the college to make a decision about its policies and practices.

[...]

I do not believe that I should be staking out through my public remarks Macalester’s position on health care reform or cap and trade or military intervention in Afghanistan.

He never mentions Mac Mods by name but it is hard to think that he isn’t thinking of them when he says:

One of my tasks—indeed, one of the tasks for all of us—is to create an environment within which the views of the minority can be freely expressed and listened to carefully, critically, and with respect. We do not achieve this by putting the weight of the college in every instance behind the views of the majority.

Now for the bad news. Those quotations are plucked from a speech that is brimming with affirmations of conventional PC pieties. President Rosenberg defines “the central end” of a Macalester education to be preparing students for: 

“the duties of world citizenship,” which I take to mean preparation for socially responsible leadership and constructive participation in local, national, and transnational communities.

Among the items in the good news I quoted Rosenberg’s inspiring half-sentence about the need for “openness to views that are different from one’s own.” The other half of that sentence, however, nullifies the thought by displaying Rosenberg’s own lack of openness. He contrasts the irenic intellectual tolerance on campus with the qualities he sees “manifested at the recent town hall meetings on health care reform.” Some openness you’re modeling there, Brian. 

President Rosenberg, as we saw, holds that college presidents should restrain themselves and avoid politicizing their institutions. He is willing to make cautious exceptions for some issues of “public significance.” Pray tell, which are those? It turns out that they are pretty much the whole agenda of the academic left: 

On the other hand, I have spoken out both individually and on behalf of Macalester on issues including the importance of diversity to higher education and the necessity for all of us to practice and model environmental responsibility. For me, these issues are inseparable from and directly relevant to our work as a college and therefore ones that I can and should address. So we have taken such public actions as signing an amicus brief in the University of Michigan affirmative action case and becoming early signers of the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Let’s take note of his admissions. Macalester is ready to put its ideological stakes in the ground for three things: “global citizenship,” diversity, and the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  Maybe these terms have become too banal for outside observers to register properly what they mean, but they are the lodestars of the left’s politicization of the university.  “Global citizenship” is the polite veneer often layered on top of disdain for American institutions.  “Diversity” is the rubric of hard-core identity politics.  The “Climate Commitment” is about one-third environmentalism and two-thirds anti-capitalism. 

Rosenberg, as we saw, forthrightly calls on the Macalester community to allow the “views of the minority” to be “freely expressed.” How freely? Not so freely as to disturb anything in St. Paul:

One of the most comfortable and at times energizing things about Macalester is that there is so much more consensus about potentially divisive matters than there is in the society at large. I suspect that this is why a fair number of you elected to enroll here.

Ah, the comforts of conformity!  The delights of not having to bother with what society at large thinks!  The market advantages of having the reputation of ‘We all think and say the same things!’ 

Rosenberg sees some danger in being “swept up in the collective certainty,” but the danger that really bothers him is that Macalester might come to resemble those ignorant masses (like the ones at town hall meetings) that “we are constantly striving to rise above.”

Near the end of his talk, President Rosenberg says, “I wish I had foolproof advice about how to avoid these things.” He is referring to that collective certainty, which makes it “a little too easy to become intellectually lazy,” “cruel,” and similar to those “whose intolerance we are constantly striving to rise above.” Well, we don’t know whether there is something like “foolproof advice.” Advice doesn’t come with guarantees. But we do think that President Rosenberg might benefit from deeper examination of his own role in fostering a climate of intellectual snobbery, narrowness, and conformity on his campus. 

The line he draws between outright political endorsements and issues advocacy on one hand, and “issues of public significance…central to the educational mission” of the college on the other, is perhaps better than no line at all. But it is nonetheless a grand rationalization for politicizing the college anyway. The so-called “issues of public significance” on which Rosenberg is willing to have Macalester take a stand are precisely the matters that define the key debates in higher education and American culture. “Tolerating minority views” in this context is just a way of marginalizing scholars and viewpoints other than those decided in advance by a combination of administrative fiat and “collective certainty.” 

It seems to us that President Rosenberg’s speech has value beyond Macalester College as an unusually vivid display of the arrogance and hypocrisy of the academic left in full flood. He knows the right things to say, and he says them. And then he reassures his audience that they really don’t matter. Diffidence about expressing political views, considerate attention to disfavored ideas, and wariness toward the tyranny of the majority are all nice—but we needn’t let them get in the way of our main agenda.           

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