Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic about how student totalitarianism is destroying campuses and higher education in the West. The idea is so obvious that it barely needs mentioning. The Western higher education system has been in a death spiral for at least a decade now, and it is only recently that non-conservative academic elites seem to have noticed.
What apparently broke the camel’s back was some activists’ attempt to replace University of the Arts professor Camille Paglia, a well-known genderqueer feminist, with a queer professor who is non-Caucasian. Nichols writes, “this is the kind of demand that sounds like it could have come out of China during the Cultural Revolution—if Maoists had been as obsessed with race and sexuality as they were with class.”
He blames it on student mobs, and writes that this “is not activism so much as it is preening would-be totalitarianism. If college is to become something more than a collection of trade schools on one end and a group of overpriced coffeehouses on the other, Americans have to think about how we got here and how to restore some sanity to the crucial enterprise of higher education.”
His suggestion to solve this is for faculty and administrators to “recognize a shameless dereliction of duty” and to “pull students back from the precipice of moral purity and work with them to acquire the skills and values that not only imbue tolerance, but provide for the rational discussion of opposing, and even hateful, views.”
I hesitate to accuse Nichols of being half right. I also teach at a university and therefore observe the rot from within. It is increasingly a fashion to harrumph against the students for everything. It gives older academics and public intellectuals a moral glow without them having to face the real and uncomfortable beast.
It is not the students who are the cause. It is a certain section of professors, academics, and departments that act as Soviet political commissars within campuses. Put simply, this all is an intra-academic war, where students are simply pawns in a greater power play.
Let’s test a simple hypothesis, shall we, as the “Death of Expertise” professor would surely agree to: How many of the recent publicized illiberal campus incidents were instigated organically by the students, and how many were instigated by academics? Consider the recent evidence.
The “decolonize” movements in Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale are led by ideologues posing as professors. Another group of university professors came together to cancel a play that was critical of intersectionality, identity politics, and Black Lives Matter, arguing that it was done for the emotional well-being of their students.
Likewise, an essay in Heritage by a Boise State University professor questioning gender studies was shut down by the university officials after an outcry that the article “represented the root of genocide.” In Cambridge, a decolonize movement was started by a group of activist students inspired by “support” from the Marxist, post-colonial academic Priyamvada Gopal, who was also the mastermind behind the plot to stop the colonial legacy project at Oxford.
The violent protests against Charles Murray at Middlebury College was fueled by academics who wrote open letters against inviting him. Most of these academics are of course, needless to mention, not from Murray’s field of studies, and therefore not qualified to judge his work.
In Berkeley, a section of academics wrote an open letter against Milo Yiannopoulis calling for no-platforming him. Twelve out of 13 academics who signed the original letter were from critical theory, gender studies, and post-modernist/Marxist backgrounds. At Yale University, a movement against teaching Shakespeare in English courses was spearheaded by postmodernist academics. Everyone of course remembers Melissa Click.
All this took me just an hour to Google. If someone pays me a grant to investigate, I am fairly certain I can find, behind every single case of student activism, the hands of activist professors.
The latest and ongoing travesty is the mobbing and firing of Dr. Noah Carl from Cambridge University, once again after an open letter by, well, academics. As Claire Lehmann, the editor of Quillette, wrote in an editorial about the incident, “To judge the quality of Dr Noah Carl’s work authoritatively, one would have to be an expert in at least one of the following fields: psychology, intelligence research (a sub-field of psychology), and/or economics. The campaign against him began with an ‘open letter’ that was signed by hundreds of academics, but they did not have expertise in these areas. (For the most part, they had qualifications in fields like anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies).”
She added, “The administrators at St Edmund’s College who determined that Dr Noah Carl should be fired did not have qualifications in these areas, either. The Master of St. Edmunds is a former banker, and the administrator who led the investigation that decided Dr Carl is guilty of ‘poor scholarship’ is a veterinary scientist.”
There’s a certain complacency among a section of intellectuals who still mentally live in the heady days of the early ‘90s. They appear to think that the biggest threat to the Western way of life is a couple of privileged middle-class brats wearing balaclavas and pretending to be Trotsky.
They are not. They are exactly what it looks like: middle-class brats who are so privileged that they seek cheap thrills and a purpose in life, while breaking glass windows of closed apparel shops and waving a rainbow flag with Che Guevara’s face on it, the irony completely lost on them.
They have never seen an actual street fight. Most of them have never even faced any actual physical hardship in any way comparable to what their forefathers faced, and are live-action role players of the worst kind, because they have also never faced a concerted kick back, from either their parents, or university faculties, or increasingly impotent law enforcement officials. At the first sign of real violent backlash, these kids will simply flock back to their parents’ basements.
No, the real threat is activist and academic departments, the children of the 1960s revolution who are now in charge, who have realized since the 1990s that the hope for an actual social revolution within the West lies through the long march through the Institutions. Churning out activist students to act as pawns and flooding media and academia with them is a much smarter way to change society from within.
But to accept this would require addressing the bigger, uncomfortable question: What to do with these activist departments that are openly trying to take over academia, and be the arbiters of morality and intellectual debates? It would require brutal policy answers, instead of empty harrumphing. These are answers that I suspect Nichols and his kind might not like to ponder. It’s much easier to blame a bunch of gullible students and feel mighty happy about it.