A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.
Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullied, denounced, demoted, threatened, sued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.
But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.
Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.
So why all the rage?
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”
It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.
I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.
If we let these kids have their way, soon there will not be danger anywhere. They will be able to go to school in the morning and feel confident that they will be able to come home in the evening. This is a radical thing to ask. I remember no such certainty. It is, therefore, undesirable. These children are weak. I do not want my children to live in a better world than the world that I grew up in, or the one we live in now. That would be to admit that things have progressed, and I do not admit that.
That is what conservatism means to me: the ability to pass the dangers and privations of my life on to the generation that will come after. The hope that their lives will be, if not actively worse than mine, then certainly no better. The idea that I suffered not because there were no better choices but because the suffering was inherently good.
If anyone were to think differently, that would be the real tragedy. Children are weak. They are whiners. They deserve my mockery.
.. When I was young, children were seen but not heard. If children suddenly started to be heard, that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.
And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.
.. Extensive survey datashow that Republicans are much more right-leaning than they were twenty years ago, Democrats much more left-leaning, and both sides much more likely to see the other as a mortal threat to the nation’s welfare.
.. Fully 50 percent of Republicans would not want their child to marry a Democrat, and nearly a third of Democrats return the sentiment. Interparty marriage has taken the place of interracial marriage as a family taboo.
.. as Americans increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate “facts,” often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy. In the last election, fully 40 percent of Trump voters named Fox News as their chief source of news.
Thanks a bunch for that one, Australia.
.. Allan Bloom .. published a learned polemic about the state of higher education in the United States. It was called “The Closing of the American Mind.”
.. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.
.. To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.
It’s what used to be called a liberal education.
.. The University of Chicago showed us something else: that every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea.
Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.
.. Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.
In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
.. 51 percent — think it is “acceptable” for a student group to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20 percent also agree that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking.
.. Middlebury is one of the most prestigious liberal-arts colleges in the United States, with an acceptance rate of just 16 percent and tuition fees of nearly $50,000 a year. How does an elite institution become a factory for junior totalitarians, so full of their own certitudes that they could indulge their taste for bullying and violence?
.. I was raised on the old-fashioned view that sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me. But today there’s a belief that since words can cause stress, and stress can have physiological effects, stressful words are tantamount to a form of violence. This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.
.. Then we get to college, where the dominant mode of politics is identity politics, and in which the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial, or sexual standing of the person making it. As a woman of color I think X. As a gay man I think Y. As a person of privilege I apologize for Z. This is the baroque way Americans often speak these days. It is a way of replacing individual thought — with all the effort that actual thinking requires — with social identification
.. But it is a safe space of a uniquely pernicious kind — a safe space from thought, rather than a safe space for thought, to borrow a line I recently heard from Salman Rushdie.
.. it has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short. Any argument that can be cast as insensitive or offensive to a given group of people isn’t treated as being merely wrong. Instead it is seen as immoral, and therefore unworthy of discussion or rebuttal.
.. For fear of causing offense, they forego the opportunity to be persuaded.
.. If you want to make a winning argument for same-sex marriage, particularly against conservative opponents, make it on a conservative foundation: As a matter of individual freedom, and as an avenue toward moral responsibility and social respectability. The No’s will have a hard time arguing with that. But if you call them morons and Neanderthals, all you’ll get in return is their middle finger or their clenched fist.
.. the so-called “alt-right” justifies its white-identity politics in terms that are coyly borrowed from the progressive left. One of the more dismaying features of last year’s election was the extent to which “white working class” became a catchall identity for people whose travails we were supposed to pity but whose habits or beliefs we were not supposed to criticize. The result was to give the Trump base a moral pass it did little to earn.
.. seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen.
.. Yes, we disagree constantly. But what makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground.
.. Fox News and other partisan networks have demonstrated that the quickest route to huge profitability is to serve up a steady diet of high-carb, low-protein populist pap. Reasoned disagreement of the kind that could serve democracy well fails the market test. Those of us who otherwise believe in the virtues of unfettered capitalism should bear that fact in mind.
.. no country can have good government, or a healthy public square, without high-quality journalism — journalism that can distinguish a fact from a belief and again from an opinion
.. that requires proprietors and publishers who understand that their role ought not to be to push a party line, or be a slave to Google hits and Facebook ads, or provide a titillating kind of news entertainment, or help out a president or prime minister who they favor or who’s in trouble.
.. Their role is to clarify the terms of debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting, and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.
.. This is journalism in defense of liberalism, not liberal in the left-wing American or right-wing Australian sense, but liberal in its belief that the individual is more than just an identity, and that free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments. More than ever, they need to be exposed to them, so that we may revive the arts of disagreement that are the best foundation of intelligent democratic life.
the most revealing thing in the interview may be Mr. Trump’s defense of Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual predation and abuse of power: “He’s a good person.” This, I’d argue, tells us more about both the man from Mar-a-Lago and the motivations of his base than his ramblings about infrastructure and trade.
.. How much difference has it made, really, that Donald Trump rather than a conventional Republican sits in the White House?
.. the ignominious collapse of the effort to kill Obamacare — owed almost nothing to executive dysfunction. Repeal-and-replace didn’t face-plant because of poor tactics; it failed because Republicans have been lying about health care for eight years. So when the time came to propose something real, all they could offer were various ways to package mass loss of coverage.
.. Tax reform looks like a bust .. because nobody in the G.O.P. ever put in the hard work of figuring out what should change and how to sell those changes.
.. it’s clear that the administration has no actual infrastructure plan, and probably never will.
.. there are some places where Mr. Trump does seem likely to have a big impact — most notably, in crippling environmental policy. But that’s what any Republican would have done
.. Trumpist governance in practice so far is turning out to be just Republican governance with (much) worse management
.. Trumpism has brought is a new sense of empowerment to the ugliest aspects of American politics.
.. one thing the interviewees often say is that Mr. Trump is honest, that he tells it like is, which may seem odd given how much he lies about almost everything, policy and personal. But what they probably mean is that Mr. Trump gives outright, unapologetic voice to racism, sexism, contempt for “losers” and so on
.. Mr. Trump isn’t an honest man or a stand-up guy, but he is, arguably, less hypocritical about the darker motives underlying his worldview than conventional politicians are.
.. they provide a safe space for people who want an affirmation that their uglier impulses are, in fact, justified and perfectly O.K.
whether unapologetic ugliness is a winning political strategy.