Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Dying of Academic Freedom

Someone once said that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. Professor Ed Schlosser is not a conservative but he certainly sounds like a disillusioned liberal in an article at Vox. He admits to being very scared of his liberal students, not for his physical safety but rather for the safety of his career. Liberal students, he claims, have a much different view than earlier generations of what should and should not be said in the classroom by the professor. Here are a few excerpts of what is a fairly long piece:
I'm a professor at a midsize state school. I have been teaching college classes for nine years now. I have won (minor) teaching awards, studied pedagogy extensively, and almost always score highly on my student evaluations. I am not a world-class teacher by any means, but I am conscientious; I attempt to put teaching ahead of research, and I take a healthy emotional stake in the well-being and growth of my students.

Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that ... a student [might accuse] me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate.

Commentators on the left and right have recently criticized the sensitivity and paranoia of today's college students. They worry about the stifling of free speech, the implementation of unenforceable conduct codes, and a general hostility against opinions and viewpoints that could cause students so much as a hint of discomfort. It's not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period.

Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times, these refusals can shut down discussion in genuinely contentious areas, such as when Oxford canceled an abortion debate. More often, they affect surprisingly minor matters, as when Hampshire College disinvited an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it.

This sort of perspective ... was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory, and its manifestations on social media have severe real-world implications. In another instance, two female professors of library science publicly outed and shamed a male colleague they accused of being creepy at conferences, going so far as to openly celebrate the prospect of ruining his career. I don't doubt that some men are creepy at conferences — they are. And for all I know, this guy might be an A-level creep. But part of the female professors' shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that's all the proof they need.

This is terrifying. No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat.
I believe there are several reasons for the mind-set Professor Schlosser laments. One is that the left has given up on argument because they know, even if only subliminally, that most of their arguments are terribly unconvincing and that if they're forced to defend their views rationally they'll only be embarrassed. Better to resort to name-calling and insult or to simply shut down any expression of opposing views altogether so that they don't have to defend their own.

Another reason is that so many generations of students have absorbed a kind of epistemological relativism that says that all views have merit. Thus one's own view should be accepted for no weightier reason than that it's one's own view.

A third reason is that in the contemporary post-modern world truth is whatever you or your group believes fervently. Objective facts don't matter. Therefore, to have someone challenge what is true for you is at best impertinent and at worst insulting. It's offensive to have someone who knows nothing of the experience of someone of your gender, your race, your sexual orientation tell you that what you know to be true is perhaps not true. It's a kind of violence to your person, an assault, to be questioned in this way.

A final reason is that a lot of students are young narcissists who feel entitled to hold their opinions free of any challenge. People who've been told all their lives that they're special sometimes get angry at an authority figure like a professor who doesn't treat them with the deference they believe to be their due.

All these, ironically enough, are the fruit of the very liberalism Schlosser embraces. He's a man who has contributed to the creation of a species of academic viciousness and is stunned that it might be turned against him. Another irony is that, as he suggests in the article, he's placing his ultimate hope in a successful conservative push-back against the campus fascists and narcissists. He recognizes, evidently, that liberals, having created the monster, are poorly equipped to kill it.