A Huge Serving of Academia Nuts

As we survey the intellectual scene today, what appears perhaps most disconcerting is the spectacle of the modern Western university. There is nothing sacrosanct per se about the university which, like any human institution, can profane its founding principles and grow corrupt and oppressive. The German universities of the 1930s, for example, despite their long tradition of rigorous scholarship, were by no means citadels of informed thought and genuine research, but outright propaganda factories, preparing students' minds for the absurd theories of National Socialism, the restriction of free expression, and the absorption of sundry false doctrines.

The university may as easily become an engine of indoctrination as a generator of intellectual vitality or a transmitter of knowledge. Here we must remain skeptical of slogans and professed ideals, for the principle of "academic freedom" can be misused as a cover for illiberal thought and slavish conformity to a ruling ideology.

In a 1965 essay entitled "Repressive Tolerance," Herbert Marcuse inspired a generation of teachers and students to embrace this principle of epistemic subversion. "The restoration of freedom of thought," he argued, "may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior." Translation: in the name of "freedom of thought" and under the rubric of "academic freedom," independent judgment is closed off and critical reflection emasculated, making the university safe for ideologues and spin doctors. By "restrictions," of course, Marcuse was thinking selectively -- he meant imposing a moratorium on conservative thought and teaching. Leftist and socialist doctrines were given carte blanche.

While avoiding the diabolical extreme of the German paradigm, this is more or less what is happening today in many of our erstwhile seats of learning. "The defenders of what now passes for academic freedom," writes Manfred Gerstenfeld, "should largely be seen as an elitist interest group that tries to protect acquired privileges ... enabl[ing] universities to present the current, ostensible academic freedom as a moral value, whereas actually it is an expression of extreme corporatism." The pedagogical bias which it fosters "includes elements such as political correctness, the promotion of ideology, the distortion of knowledge, and the protection of the hate promoters and falsifiers of knowledge as well as other malfunctions of campus administrations."

The fact is that the university, as we now know it, has become a major contributor to the dissolution of the foundational values upon which the life of the West has been erected. Under the mantle of diversity of opinion, free expression, and the unfettered exchange of ideas, it has even given the dais to homicidal despots and enemies of the state -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being welcomed at Columbia is only the most publicized such mummery -- while protesting against and even prohibiting conservative thinkers and patriots from speaking freely and engaging students in discussion.

This administrative/pedagogical disease has now penetrated to the very minutiae of everyday existence on college campuses. In an article for Pajamas Media, Adam Savit reports that during the University of Maryland's Palestinian Solidarity Week held in March 2009, it was not the inflammatory words of speaker Mauri Saalakhan, who conflated Israel with apartheid and disputed its right to exist, that created a backlash, but legal dissenting fliers posted by a group of Jewish students. Savid comments, justly: "our colleges have become a preserve of reactionary liberal orthodoxy, with facile phrases like 'diversity' belying an oppressive ideological conformity."

David Horowitz, writing in the Wall Street Journal, ruefully points out that he and other conservative speakers are now accompanied by bodyguards when they address campus audiences. Physical assaults against conservative spokespeople have become common practice, whereas, he continues, "I don't know of a single leftist speaker among the thousands who visit campuses every term who has been obstructed or attacked by conservative students, who are too decent and tolerant to do that." In his 2007 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, Horowitz estimates that 10% of the American professoriate, or 60,000 academics across the country, preach ideology rather than teach scholarship.

Horowitz may have underestimated. In its 2009 report on campus speech codes, "The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses," the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recorded that 77% of public universities and 67% of private universities were in violation of the First Amendment of the American Constitution, restricting the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Cui bono? Certainly not genuine liberal institutions and true intellectual scholarship.