The Federalist’s Bre Peyton recently shared this video of Yale University students shrieking at a professor over an email in which his wife questioned Yale’s policy of banning “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. If there were any doubt over how out of control things have gotten in our major institutions of learning, this small sample of a much larger trend should end it.
While conservatives have in the past year or so found common cause with mainstream liberals such as Jonathan Haidt and Jonathan Chait in combating this new status quo, the bar of success should not be set so low as to consider not being silenced as a victory. Conservatives must move beyond seeking to coexist with this insanity to challenging the current higher education system as it currently exists if they truly want to suppress the damage these institutions are causing our society.
The Intellectual Climate of the University
An average college student at most state and leading private universities will witness displays targeting Israel for war crimes, warnings of an ominous “rape culture,” and complaints of “white privilege.” Such demonstrations express an ideology that has been growing in the academy but has only recently entered the cultural mainstream.
The terms “New New Left” or “Academic Left” might be appropriate aliases for this ideology. It evolved from the New Left of the 1960s, adding third-wave feminism, the LGBT movement, the consolidation of post-colonialism, and “privilege theory,” which surfaced in the 1990s. Its greatest claims should be familiar to most of us by now: gender is socially constructed rather than based in biology; the West is uniquely despicable for its history of imperialism; racial identity rather than individual action determines guilt and responsibility; and capitalism has increased rather than decreased poverty and exploitation.
The pillars of this “New New Left” naturally merge because each divides the world into oppressors and oppressed: whites versus “persons of color,” Occident versus Orient, men versus women, “cisgender” versus queer, etc. To a large degree, it is a Marxist divide, but with race and gender in the place of class. The oppressor versus oppressed dichotomy leads social justice warriors either to believe they themselves are oppressed, and thus to assume a victim status, or to act as “allies” of their victimized comrades by checking their privilege.
Because of this sense of victimhood, students feel justified in attempting to shut down the free exchange of ideas or retreating to safe spaces, as certain ideas could not only further harm the oppressed, but may potentially strip them of their victim status. Their unfamiliarity with operating in an environment of intellectual disagreement also makes these “social justice warriors” perceive contrary opinions as assaults on their intellectual security. The traditional rules of public discourse therefore do not apply to them. Their cause is too morally important. To allow dissenting opinion is to allow oppression itself.
The Conservative Retreat
Conservative’s gradual abandonment of the university has meant many fields of study are not merely tilted to the Left in faculty make-up but inherently leftist in their core ideas: gender studies, ethnic studies, LGBT studies, sociology, and anthropology, just to name a few.
To make the matter more difficult, leftist academics envelop these subjects in an impenetrable Newspeak that allows their disciples to dismiss any criticism as the ignorant musings of the privileged, who simply do not understand the complexities of “institutional racism,” “white cis-male hetero-patriarchy,” “the social construction of facts,” or whatever postmodern theory to which students may adhere.
Conservative critics of the present campus climate have ridiculed the protests, privilege-checking, and overall fanatical antics of the social-justice Left, but have thus far not sufficiently engaged with the intellectual foundations of this behavior. Instead, conservatives have seemed content to target the censorious antics of overzealous undergrads, mocking the useful idiots who parrot the theories of Foucault, Said, and Butler while ignoring the thinkers themselves. Conservatives have not sufficiently appreciated the link between belief and action—between an ideology of victimhood and the subsequent fanaticism that it breeds.
Why ‘Academic Freedom’ Isn’t a Real Answer
Instead, conservatives have found a common rallying cry in “academic freedom” and “free speech,” the crusade of alt-right champions like Milo Yiannopoulos and Lauren Southern. The fundamental problem with “academic freedom” is that it is contentless. It is simply a means of challenging whatever the dominant discourse is in an academic institution. It’s a tool for those on the outside looking in. But as Patrick Deneen has pointed out, it was “academic freedom” that allowed for the cultural Marxists of the 1960s to demolish the traditions of the Western university and begin their institutional dominance.
The underlying argument behind academic freedom is that if we let ideas compete, the best ones will win out. The “marketplace of ideas” is based on blind faith in democratic processes and in misapplying consumer choice. Latte versus Americano, Playstation versus Xbox, Apple versus Android—these are fair choices for consumers to make in a marketplace because they are mere preferences. But the university is supposed to strive toward truth, which is not determined by majority rule or individual preference. The “marketplace of ideas” provides no higher standard for judging ideas.
Equally useless is “diversity of ideas,” or “viewpoint diversity,” as a counter to the Left warping diversity into preferential race and gender policies. There is no inherent value in diversity of opinion; nor is there anything inherently wrong with intellectual homogeneity. What matters is content of the opinions in question, and how the spectrum of allowable opinion is defined.
Everyone will draw lines somewhere about what ideas are simply beyond the pale. What is crucial to understand here is that the campus Left is not wrong because it has a monopoly; it is wrong because its monopoly perpetuates falsehoods and nonsense. “Diversity of thought” and “academic freedom” are simply lack of standards by other names.
Besides, it is doubtful if conservatives actually believe in “academic freedom.” Should the evangelical Liberty University be expected to tolerate speakers from the Church of Satan? If Mormons at Brigham Young University protested an event that sought to delegitimize their faith, would we react with the same indignation as we do towards the blue-haired Jacobins of Oberlin and Brown?
We should not expect the Church of Leftism to tolerate heretics any more than we would any other church. The Left won. They took over the academy and created departments of ethnic and gender studies while conservatives left Harvey Mansfield to his lonesome and have considered it a victory that he hasn’t been defenestrated. Conservatives are paying the price for neglecting academia for the past 50 years and now are realizing that it sucks to be powerless.
They are baffled by the sudden advance of transgender bathroom laws, the concept of “institutional racism” that Black Lives Matter rails against, and the general self-loathing of Western youth, because they fail to locate the source of these movements. Crying for “academic freedom” is like a nerd calling for the teacher as he gets his lunch stolen by a fat kid. It doesn’t mean that the bully isn’t a bully, and it doesn’t excuse his behavior. But it does mean the kid crying for his teacher is a pussy.
Towards a More Rigorous Response
Pluralism on campus is both impossible as well as undesirable. It is a tacit commitment to relativism. Even if other views are fairly represented, the ideas of the social justice Left will still hold considerable sway based solely on the victimhood and power they bestow upon students. The Right must instead aim to delegitimize the current higher education system and to seize the current means of ideological production while simultaneously constructing alternatives.
On the demand side, this means instigating a cultural shift in how we view universities as conveyors of prestige and career capital. Private-sector leaders in sought-after professions should encourage incoming students to avoid the so-called liberal arts and instead spend their undergraduate education building marketable skills, while private industry could begin to create their own educational programs that are better tailored towards the type of knowledge they require. (Yes, a liberal arts education is important, of course, but it cannot be entrusted to institutions in which English majors are required to read post-colonial theory and not Shakespeare. Philosophers and welders, and all that. I get it.)
On the supply side, this shift means cutting federal funds for institutions that entice students and parents to incur massive debt with impressive dorms and facilities while offering very little education. As part of the broader need for radical federalism, this would require state control of education policy, following the lead of former Gov. Rick Perry in Texas.
In general, conservatives ought to be as suspicious of centralized institutions that produce knowledge as they are of centralized institutions of government. Once those institutions become corrupted, they are very difficult to contain and restructure. As majors of study increasingly lose academic rigor and the market value of a mere liberal arts education continues to decrease, the stage is set for a challenge to the whole modern higher education system.
Ideas Have Consequences
Taking back higher education from the Left will require conservatives to reconsider (i.e, abandon) their commitment to classical liberal slogans like “freedom of expression” and their misapplication of market principles, and to rediscover real conservative principles of objective aesthetic and moral truth, as well as that long-forgotten pillar of conservatism American individualism has left behind: authority.
Since the 1960s (possibly earlier; certainly since the ‘90s) the university has undermined Western civilization from within. Until conservatives understand the function of the university as a producer of ideas that matriculate into the broader culture and political realm, and are prepared to contest its influence, they will continue to lose the battle over society’s larger institutions and cede further ground both to the Left and to competitors on the Right.