For the second straight year, DePauw University in Indiana ranked last in the Free Speech College Rankings. Among admittedly stiff competition, DePauw’s students distinguished themselves in their belief that “disagreeable speech” should be suppressed. They also had the largest portion of students feeling unable to express their views on a subject.
Along with this lack of free speech is the obvious lack of ideological diversity. Students and professors agree on most points, and thus see little point in an open forum. As one student puts it, “I have rarely felt [any fear of expressing my opinion] … because many of my professors and students surrounding me share my political views.”
Although representing the extreme, DePauw is not an outlier. The University of Chicago, named last year as the country’s number one free-speech campus, is now thought-policing its students.
It has become common knowledge that most campuses exhibit the same antipathy towards intellectual freedom and uninhibited public discourse. Their faculties are ideologically uniform, their students vigorously protest any heterodox thinkers, and their partisan professors proudly teach their students what to think rather than how to think.
Young Progressives Conform, Act Out
There are two main takeaways from this situation. The first and more immediate one is the hypocrisy among young progressives who fancy themselves reactionaries and countercultural for combatting supposed “hate speech” and “social injustice.” In reality, they are simply parroting the elite’s narratives and acting out against the less powerful (usually conservatives and Christians). There is no truly courageous, independent thought among any of them. Colleges have gone to great lengths to help them feel safe and supported while doing the opposite with conservatives.
The larger and more lasting takeaway is that American culture is becoming a conformist culture. After all, these students will graduate and eventually assume positions of influence and authority. Naturally, many will use whatever power they have to recreate the norms and expectations they experienced at college.
This means they will police speech, marginalize dissenting views, and elevate those with more credentials. Having been conditioned to view disagreement as counterproductive and dangerous, they will support any policy or person who can enforce conformity.
This is what largely happened in the past decade where all spaces, both physical and virtual, are subject to suppression of speech and thought. Where can one go to express an unapproved and unpopular argument? Not at work or school, or even online. This leaves church and home, but the spirit of ideological conformity has largely invaded these spaces as well.
Unfortunately, although the loss of such freedoms may perturb conservatives who find themselves endangered, progressives insist that purging certain views doesn’t really put society in jeopardy. Rather, they say, society will benefit from the guidance of trained experts and the leadership of competent, sensitive authorities who can carry out their work without waiting for the uninformed approval of the uneducated masses. In their view, conformity equals efficiency, prosperity, and harmony.
Conformity Creates Decline
Except that it doesn’t work this way. As the past two years of lockdowns, mandates, and social crises have shown, a society where the elites and masses alike are trained to conform is a society that experiences decline.
This is because leaders who never meet resistance or disagreement inevitably grow incompetent and ignorant. They never have to articulate their vision or solve actual problems, thus much of what they do is incoherent and counterproductive. Their followers, in turn, must suffer without any recourse because they’ve given up thinking and acting for themselves.
While places like China, or now Australia, represent the extremes of conformist culture, like DePauw University, they are not outliers. The people of most countries around the world, including the United States, are opting for conformity over freedom. Yesterday’s radicals are today’s “normies.” Most of them just want to be told what to do by their politicians, employers, and media — even if it makes them poorer, unhealthier, and altogether miserable.
Besides the economic and political problems it brings, such a conformist culture also stunts the maturity and independence of whole generations. Because millennials and iGen are conditioned not to act or think for themselves, they are struggling mightily with initiating anything on their own, whether it be starting a business, getting married, or having children. This would force them into a leadership role, which many find scary and intolerable.
So what is the solution to this conformist culture? Clearly, institutions and individuals need a renewed commitment to freedom, specifically the freedom of speech and thought. Moreover, it is not enough to merely permit this freedom; people must be actively taught and encouraged to use it. They must learn to eventually trust themselves over other people. As the great apostle of self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously declared, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
More than anything else, teaching young people to think and speak for themselves should be the very mission of any school or university that hopes to empower its graduates. Otherwise, they’re just creating more sheep to be exploited. For the time being, the majority of universities are following the leftist mandate empowering the state and large corporations to move society forward rather than following their original (conservative) mission of preserving and cultivating what’s best in civilization (like freedom) to empower the individual.
Even though concern for academic freedom may seem abstract and even trivial, it is utterly practical. It determines whether we live in a conformist society or a free one. While it’s tempting for conservatives to leave higher and lower education to progressive ideologues, this condemns so many young people to mediocrity and lifelong servility.
They must be liberated from the indoctrination, both for their own sakes and the sake of the country. In the end, freedom is not simply a thing to be given and taken, it is learned and applied.