Betrayal of Liberty and Intellectual Pluralism on American Campuses

Campus Reform Reporter
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By Alan Charles Kors, Professor of History -- University of Pennsylvania.

Click here to watch the speech.

There is, in higher education, my own field of experience and study, the ongoing, well-known threat to liberty posed by its domination by the state. The second meaning, less recognized, is the absence of liberty-in substance and in practice-from private higher education, a system that, with so few exceptions, has become a governmentally subsidized, closed-shop, political fiefdom. Higher education has become, in its current incarnation, the enemy of-and a genuine threat to-a free society.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the radical left controlled and coerced appointments and curriculum at French universities. By the mid-sixties, I would say to French friends that there would be terrible consequences for a nation where no one at a university ever heard a dissident conservative or classical liberal voice. French friends would answer lightly, “No, they’re communists as students, but they’ll vote on the Right after that.” The Center-Right, in France, of course, is scarcely distinguishable in its statism from the French Left-how unbearable Alain Madelin was for them-and the only choice in France is between various levels of intolerable collectivism and statism. Perhaps my friends should have taken higher education seriously after all. French academic leftism only sought to control the classroom; American leftists seek to control the whole of student life. The stakes are very high, and I am thrilled that this gathering of individuals who love and understand liberty and the rights of free men and women are determined to think about the sad status of higher education.

My concern for these issues arose on my own campus, in the course of visits to and talks at scores of other campuses around the world, and in the research that led to the writing of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. At my own University of Pennsylvania, I saw someone who then was the best economic historian of early-modern France of his generation, Hilton Root, denied tenure and driven from the profession because his brilliant book on seventeenth-century peasant adaptations to markets was denounced as “an apologia for capitalism,” and because someone who believed that Lenin had a superb understanding of agriculture and the peasantry argued that Hilton had no understanding of rural life. One of the pieces of evidence used against him was that he had assigned an article by Friedrich Hayek to his students, eliciting from dogmatic and politicized theorists the opinion that Hilton had unbearably politicized his syllabus. I also saw John Lott denied tenure at Penn because his criticism of Clinton’s health-care scheme in the Wall Street Journal was against the “mission” of the Public Policy program at Wharton.

At Penn State University, I defended the Young Americans for Freedom, who were denied recognition because their charter declared "rights to be from God and thus beyond the reach of any government” – not free speech or freedom of association in the University's view, but religious discrimination. This occurred in the same week that the president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, was defending a “Sex Fair,” with a “C*** Fest,” before an outraged state legislature, on grounds of the fullness of free speech at his school. I have defended a student they forced into mandatory “homophobia” training for laughing at someone else’s joke. My own son, on his first day at Colgate University, was part of an “ice-breaking” group asked to separate on the question, “Do the rich pay too much in taxes?” Everyone but my son and one other person went to the side that said the rich paid too few taxes. “Why do you think the rich pay too much in taxes?” the “facilitator” asked sarcastically. “Because it’s their money,” my son replied, “and because everyone pays too much in taxes.” The other students, however, already had learned the official view, before a single reading and before a single debate.

Political litmus tests in hiring have virtually eliminated certain points of view from most departments of the Humanities and soft Social Sciences at most universities. Each year, I teach a course on “Currents of Classical Liberal Thought.” Students, on anonymous questionnaires, uniformly attest to not knowing my own political or ideological views from the course, since our focus is analytic and comparative. They read Mill, Bastiat, Spencer, Mises, Hayek (twice), Peter Bauer, Friedman, McElroy, Rand, and Norberg, among others. At most, they had heard of Mill. Invariably, year after year, students across the political spectrum ask me the same question at the end of the semester: Why have I have never encountered these extraordinary authors and theories before? I tell them, “That is a good question, and you should try to find the answer.” They have read Foucault in a dozen courses, Gramsci again and again, and they know all about the Haymarket Riots without having a clue as to how the West generated surplus, wealth, and choice beyond prior human dreams. Universities are the last place to learn about freedom or to live it.

American student activists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s claimed that they wanted freedom of speech, association, and conscience, but, in fact, too many wanted these merely as means to advance their own partisan, political agendas. The students who followed them, however, did not look up to the aging heirs of the ‘60s as gurus or as moral and political leaders. In 1984, a majority of American college and university students voted for Ronald Reagan for president of the United States. You may date coercive, bitter, contemptuous political correctness from that moment. For the heirs of the ‘60s these students had to be saved from themselves and from American society. Freedom and fairness were the first thing to be sacrificed, and then came political litmus tests to make sure that administrators and professors toed the party line.

Campus zealots have changed their motto from “Don’t trust anyone over 30” to “Don’t trust anyone under 30.” Students, it turns out, will not take politicized courses over courses of value, so the ideologues have virtually abolished fields such as diplomatic history, for example, in favor of sexual oppression history, and they seek control of student life, thought, and expression outside of the classroom. It is worse than you think, even if you are pessimists. Even if students avoid them by their choice of major and discipline, the ideological Left controls freshman orientation, conduct and speech codes, judicial systems, and residential programming. It controls coercively the symbolic environment on almost every major campus.

The Left on our campuses believes that most undergraduates are intellectual and political children who enter universities inadequately aware of the effects of capitalism and its caste system of “racism, sexism, heterosexism, and Eurocentrism” on them and on capitalism’s victims. Free riders on the capital, productivity, risk, and daring of others, they are convinced that capitalism and individualism are cruel, inefficient, oppressive systems and ideologies of greed. They also believe that most Americans who are themselves so-called “minorities,” including women (the majority of students) do not understand their own “oppression” and have internalized the very values by which America oppresses them. They have a special and cruel contempt for blacks and women who think for themselves. They are determined to create a radical leadership among what they see as the victim groups of our society, and to make the heirs of successful families uneasy in the moral right of their possessions and opportunities. That is what really matters to them.

We have moved at campus after campus from their Free Speech movement to their speech codes, from their own struggle against mandatory chapel to their own struggle for mandatory diversity education and sensitivity seminars, from their struggle for racial integration to their efforts for new forms of separate racial programs. American students are victims of a generational swindle of truly epic proportions. Those who love liberty must make an ongoing act of will and intelligence to protect, pass on, and expand liberty, individual rights, legal equality, and the sanctity of conscience at the very places to which we send the brightest of our young.

Universities have a sadly impoverished notion of “diversity”: race, sex, and sexuality, as if each of these had one appropriate worldview and voice, but not religion, class, psychological type, taste, or private passions and commitments, and, above all, not political beliefs or ideologies, where, indeed, it is precisely diversity that they seek to suppress. They also believe that privilege has made whites, Christian men, and heterosexuals arrogant and strong, while victimhood has made ethnic minorities, women, and gays in need of special protections. So, while religious students on our nation's campuses are asked to bear any number of affronts to their beliefs in the name of freedom without feeling vulnerable at all, a woman or so-called minority must be protected from the punch line of a joke, as if women or blacks were too weak to live with freedom or the Bill of Rights. We need to send a different message out: that no one who tells you that you are too weak to live with freedom and individual responsibility is your friend.

The deeper question, though, is why do we not have universities of free individuals who define themselves? Universities do not want that kind of diversity, because their agendas are based entirely upon something that truly threatens the heart of American values: They believe in the rights and responsibilities of groups, not of equal individuals. They believe in and teach group identity, group liberty, and group responsibility.

North American universities obsess on human externalities, the antithesis of individual identity. They conflate those look-alike, think-alike Finns and Sicilians, French atheists and Eastern Orthodox Slavs, Basques and Washingtonians into one identity, “Eurocentric Europeans.” They conflate hidalgos, Peruvian Indians, and the children of Panamanian businessmen into one category of oppressed “Hispanics.” They conflate Indian and Pakistani, Tamil and Sinhalese, Japanese and Koreans into one category of “marginalized Asians.” They identify one and only one official voice of each such congeries. It is only in meritocratic, mobile, dynamic, free-market societies, of course, where the descendants of Serb and Croat, Irish and Scots, Koreans and Japanese, Hutu and Tutsi, can live together in productive peace. To understand why, one would have to understand the liberating and humanizing effects of free enterprise and individualism, but that is an understanding our universities will not teach.

Universities deny the only authentic meaning of liberation: the right to individuate, by one’s own fights, free of external coercion and impositions. It is the right of all free men and women to decide for themselves the meaning and importance (or relative unimportance) of their race, ethnicity, religion, and sex. On almost every campus, however, we have Women's Centers and Multicultural Centers that distinguish in their funding and programming between, on the one hand, “real” women and “real” ethnic groups with appropriate radical consciousness and, on the other hand, somehow fake women and minorities who have “internalized their oppression.” Group¬identity and collectivist power on our campuses needs to demonstrate that it controls the symbolic and judicial environment, which has given rise to the astonishing American phenomenon of campus speech codes, a phenomenon about which Europeans laugh, but those Europeans, of course, have hate speech laws that go far beyond the worst of American codes. In most Western European societies, so debased is their understanding of how free individuals respond to intellectual absurdity or error, it is literally a crime to “minimize” the crimes of Hitler. Minimizing the crimes of Stalin, on the other hand, is a fast track to a brilliant academic career.

Of course, a private, voluntary association may adopt whatever rules, within the law, it chooses. It is part of our pluralism and liberty that a nation may have Catholic seminaries or neo-Marxist institutes. Most universities, however, promise academic freedom but deliver selective oppression and censorship; most promise nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, and sexuality, but then extend rights and programs differentially precisely on such grounds. We have names for that in civil society: fraudulent inducement, false advertising, and breach of contract.

Liberty also entails a respect for privacy and for the rights of conscience. Increasingly in today’s American universities, however, Offices of Student Life have moved from service providers to intrusive, partisan social workers. Hundreds of universities have ideological litmus tests for student-life positions; and hundreds have transformed their freshmen orientations and residential programming into a combination of intrusive therapy and political boot camps. Swarthmore lined up its first-year students by skin color, lightest to darkest, and asked them randomly how they “felt” about their place in that spectrum. Welcome to the first day of college. Scores of colleges each year use the film or program “Skin Deep,” the triumphant moment of which is when a student denounces his or her own family’s racism. Chilling. Scores use “Blue Eyed,” in which a sadistic white lady teaches blacks that nothing they do can change their fate in life, so deep is American racism. These programs-indoctrination into one view of oppression, race, and the evils of American and capitalism-are Orwellian intrusions of Big Brother and Big Sister into the private space of conscience, dignity, and decency.

The law, of course, demands truth in advertising and punishes fraudulent inducement. Let colleges and universities have the courage, if they truly believe what they say privately to themselves and to me, to put it on page one of their catalogs, fundraising letters, and appeals to the State assembly: “This University believes that your sons and daughters are the racist, sexist, homophobic, Eurocentric progeny or victims of an oppressive capitalist society from which most of them receive unjust privilege. In return for tuition and massive taxpayer subsidy, we shall assign rights on a compensatory basis and undertake by coercion their moral and political enlightenment.” Let them have the guts to advertise themselves honestly and then let’s see who pays the bills!

Just as classical liberals set out, two generations ago, to reclaim their rightful place in Western intellectual debate, so must we now set out to reclaim a place in the institutions to which our nations send the brightest of their young. The principles of that effort are compelling and winning principles, and they are precisely the views and values that higher education has not only abandoned, but assaulted, for decades now: that all individuals are free to define themselves by their own lights; that every free man and woman possesses individual rights and bears individual responsibility; that legal equality is a foundational right; and that liberty of opinion, speech, and expression is indispensable to a free and, in the deepest sense, decent and dynamic society. If these truths remain ignored and betrayed on our campuses, they will not long survive in the hearts of our students, our children, or our societies. A nation that educates in contempt for liberty will not long preserve it, and will not even know when it has lost it. Let us change the public debate. Let us end the scandal of closed-shop political fiefdoms on the public or philanthropic dime.

The power of universities comes from their monopoly of credentials. They are the only institutions allowed to separate young individuals by IQ and by the ability to complete complex tasks. They do not add value to that, except in technical fields. Recruiters do not pay premiums because of what the Ivy League or the flagship state universities teach in English, history, political science, or sociology. They hire there despite, not because of that. Recruiters do not pay premiums because our children have been sent to multicultural centers for sensitivity training. Recruiters pay premiums for the value already there, which universities merely identify. So long as recruiters pay premiums, however, it is rational for parents who wish to gain the most options for their children to send them to the university with the most prestigious degree. That will not change in the current scheme. In the seventeenth century, when the new, experimental, mathematical sciences were barred from most universities, they found refuge in the early-modem equivalent of think-tanks: academies of science, royal and other learned societies, and influential salons. Our think-tanks, not our academic departments of sociology, political science, and history, serve the same function for thought about privatization and individual liberty. That keeps research alive. Given the passage of our young through the universities that provide them with credentials and professional options, however, such think-tanks today do not keep adequate numbers of bright, young minds in touch with the most rigorous of thought.

The task for the twenty-first century, thus, is difficult, long, complex, politically fraught with peril, and immeasurably worth the effort. We must expose the fraud, end the subsidies, and offer counter-examples and choice. We must make administrators pay a price for the politicized hiring, curriculum, and student life offices they administer. Among the politically correct, sexuality trumps merit; race trumps sexuality; gender trumps race; but-and this is our point of entry and influence-careerism trumps everything. It is time to expose, shame, ridicule, and end respect for institutions that practice not only coercive tyranny, but politically selective coercive tyranny at that. It is time to make it in the economic or careerist interest of one or two administrators at leading universities to offer a different product, to differentiate their major institutions from the dreary uniformity of the political seminaries that now pass for flagship campuses, since no real incentive for niches-including the niche of high quality education, equal treatment, liberty, merit, and teaching human affairs from a genuine diversity of perspectives-now exists.

American conservative philanthropists, eager to maintain some counterweight somewhere on a campus, give fortunes to create centers of the study of the Western tradition, providing universities with the protective coloration of ghettoized programs that should be at the heart of a campus but that get shown off to conservative donors despite not having degrees, faculty lines, graduate students, or courses cross-listed by the normal protocols. If they invested in their business lives as foolishly as they invest in liberty philanthropically, they would be broke.

Among the serious institutions of our society, our campuses are the worst offenders against those values essential to a society of individual rights and choice, and of voluntary association, that is, of personal and economic liberty. Where we stand in need of critical education of the mind and sensibility prior to specialization, they have substituted dreary and uniform political orthodoxies that deaden mind and spirit. The struggle for liberty and dignity on college campuses is one of the defining struggles of the age in which we find ourselves. One smiles about the tragedy of universities at one’s peril, and there truly are no sidelines. Classical liberals already have done what seemed impossible not so many decades ago: you have ended fatalism, the critical variable; you have changed the intellectual debate in important circles; and you have given hope to those who love voluntary choice and liberty over coerced uniformity and paternalism or tyranny. Your willingness to engage the question of higher education warms my heart. You may not abandon colleges and universities to their current fate. You belong there, and you are the obvious agents of change in creating competition and choice among a diversity of models. I can speak to students. You can speak to power. We are all in this together. Thank you.