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.
It is clear that something must be done about this lamentable state of affairs. In his recent book The War of Ideas, Walid Phares speaks of the pressing need to clean up “the diseducating process that [has] blurred the intellectual vision of a whole generation.” Dennis Prager concurs, writing in an online article: “Our universities are run by fools who are breeding a generation of fools.” The exceptions, he continues, “have little impact on the deconstruction of civilization and the breeding of anti-intellectuals taking place at our universities.”
Edward Bernard Glick, author of Soldiers, Scholars, and Society: The Social Impact of the American Military, trains his sights on the American university in particular. “American universities,” he writes, “have been transformed into the most Marxist, postmodernist, know-nothing, anti-American, anti-military, and anti-capitalist institution in our society. It is now a bastion of situational ethics and moral relativism. … American academia is now a very intolerant place.”
Former Muslim and founder of the Arabs for Israel website Nonie Darwish would surely agree: sorting through the hate mail she receives, she finds that “the worst comes from university professors.” No longer disseminators of truth and centers of impartial scholarly research, American universities — and Canadian and European universities as well — have become strongholds of a left-wing cultural anthropology.
Despite the damage they can do, contemporary academics and intellectuals (or anti-intellectuals), by and large, strike me as the Mr. Beans of the vaudeville clerisy, epitomes of conceptual ineptitude and an almost farcical soft-mindedness. They seem no less retarded than some of their more celebrated precursors, reprocessing in their mental posture and congenial temperament the ineffable Bertrand Russell. In The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information, Jean-François Revel cites a 1937 speech in which Russell declared that “Britain should disarm, and if Hitler marched his troops into this country when we were undefended, they should be welcomed like tourists and greeted in a friendly way.”
Revel comments on Russell’s incredible foray into the domain of public policy: “Bertrand Russell may have been an eminent philosopher in his specialty — symbolic logic — but he was nonetheless an imbecile on the subject dealt with in those sentences.” Revel deplores those intellectuals who “have employed their talents to justify falsehood … even foolishness.” Plus ça change! And let us not forget that our current crop of errant and pontificating intellectuals is bred in those very universities which claim the privilege of extraterritoriality, responsible only to themselves.
It is distressing to note the degree to which such attitudes, as Robert Conquest points out in The Dragons of Expectation, have “permeate[d] the media and lower-middle academe.” But in the four years since his book appeared, it has become increasingly evident that the contagion has spread through the general public as well, an illustration of the efficacy of trickle-down, voodoo politics.
One could continue to exceterize. No doubt many professors, in order to protect their perks and salvage their working environment, feel impelled to go along for the ride, Julius Kelps and Sherman Klumps transformed into contemporary effigies of Buddy Love. (Pace Jerry Lewis and Eddie Murphy.) But this is only a case of an aggregation of nutty professors succumbing to the political designs of their more sinister cohorts and thereby endorsing the ideological conformity that reigns in the academy.
Alternatively, what we are seeing is the corporate expression of that familiar disposition which Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind, drawing from the Arabic, characterized as ketman, the wimpish position taken by those who desire to be “at one with others, in order not to be alone.” One way or another, everyone keeps step. And as time goes on, it becomes evident that the choreographers of this macabre dance have no intention of relenting. So much for diversity of opinion, intellectual propriety, and freedom of expression!
Indeed, the epidemic of ignorance, false knowledge, and partisan didactics is well advanced — a black plague of the mind. The harm it can wreak is incalculable.
As a former professor and guest speaker on the education circuit, I have seen its ravages at first hand. If this mental infection is not checked, we may well find ourselves in an analogous position to that described by Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That. Graves records the carnage unleashed upon a nation by the misguided conduct and sentiments of Britain’s elite schools. In Graves’ day, the dilemma was a collective outbreak of national chauvinism; in our day, it is just the opposite, the betrayal of our own nation and culture.
Education, to put it bluntly, is neither jingoism nor treason. Scholarship must be disinterested, differing points of view should be presented and debated, strict research methods must be inculcated, and the mind needs to be trained to learn, judge, and think independently. Pedagogical influence is meant to be cognitive, not political. Bias, obviously, is humanly inevitable, but the work of the moral conscience in the act of teaching, which monitors our prejudices and proclivities and keeps them under relative control, is by no means to be scanted.
The situation today, however, has deteriorated markedly. Far too many professors and their nominal superiors have forgotten or have simply overridden the proper business of the university. It is surely time to initiate a public campaign of watchdog legislation and purse-string vigilance to address the monumental aberration embodied in the modern academy. For if we do not get our act together sooner rather than later, we will have been complicit in subsidizing not universities but animal farms feeding the multitudes with tainted provender.
“Goodbye to all that” has become “Hello to all this.” Which is why, in the absence of a stringent auditing program applied to university curricula, hiring parameters, and administrative policies, the current intellectual devastation will likely prove no less socially destructive than it did in Graves’ long-ago England.