Last year, in the fall of 2018, I tried to stand up for campus free speech.
A small group of faculty at Williams College in Massachusetts, where I teach philosophy, had circulated a petition to have our institution sign a national pledge of allegiance to principles of free expression that originated at the University of Chicago. Over 50 colleges and universities, including Princeton and the Citadel, had already adopted the mainstream liberal principles, protecting both speakers and protesters.
I was cautiously optimistic. Like many liberal arts colleges, Williams had gone through a free-speech crisis — and survived. In 2016, our then-president canceled a talk from a conservative writer (the first presidential cancellation since 1865, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barred from speaking on campus); he also ordered that a mural of the school’s founder be temporarily boarded over because of objections to its depiction of Native Americans.
In response to these actions and the uproar that followed, I decided, as an old-fashioned liberal, to teach a course called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” It proved to be a good decision. When the semester began, most of the students were willing to censor almost anything they didn’t like. By the end of the semester, the consensus was eminently reasonable: Of course we shouldn’t censor or cancel anyone; we just have to work to maximize the educational mission of all our events.
What caused the change? A semester’s worth of readings, from John Stuart Mill to selected Facebook posts, as well as speakers representing a multitude of perspectives, and serious and civil class discussion. My students came to see that free speech protects everyone, especially the oppressed, and includes those who share their leftist views.
So it was with all this in mind that I went into a faculty meeting to present the free-expression “pledge” with the idea that we would have a productive discussion. Then reality hit.
As I stepped up to the lectern in one of the college’s elegant Federal-style halls, students marched into the room, bearing a letter naming me an “Enemy of the People.”
In the spirit of liberal openness, I read their letter aloud. This is what it said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” The letter reserved special scorn for liberalism: “Liberal ideology asserts that morality is logical — that dehumanizing ideas can be fixed with logic and therefore need to be debated.” But, it added, “dehumanization cannot be discussed away.”
The letter finished, I started to reply. But a group of younger faculty in the front row demanded that I be quiet and let the students speak. And the students did. They had almost nothing to say about free speech; instead, they testified to the indignities they suffered at Williams. The dean of the college, who was in attendance, praised the students for their passion.
And so began Williams College’s annus horribilis, a year marked by protests, marches, threats and demands — everything but rational argument. A significant number of faculty not only supported this, but also instigated it. And the administration? Its response was to appoint a committee consisting of faculty, staff and students. Since “free speech” was now a dirty phrase, it was called “the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion.”
The year pretty much went downhill from there.
When student activists got around to making demands of the Board of Trustees at the end of the spring semester, the first item on the list was this:
Commit to a complete process of reparation and reconciliation to Indigenous peoples including the increased hiring and admittance of Indigenous faculty, staff, and students as well as the reallocation of property back to Nations impacted by the College’s ongoing settler occupation.
Somewhere in between — maybe it was when a play by a prominent African American playwright was canceled because the actors claimed the imagery triggered uncomfortable feelings, maybe it was when students put up posters threatening a faculty member and the administration failed to respond — I came to realize that the small liberal arts college where I began teaching in 1992 had become something altogether different.
At Williams College’s bicentennial in 1993, Frederick Rudolph, a beloved and esteemed professor of history at the school, gave a speech in which he defined the three eras of his and other elite colleges: the Christian college, the gentlemen’s college and the consumer’s college. Rudolph predicted that the consumer Williams “will be moving on, making way for the as yet undefined next era in the college’s history.”
Elite private education in America is on the cusp of this new era. The controversies over free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like are symptoms of this shift. They are currently considered controversies because the colleges are in transition, and many do not realize that the old standards no longer hold. Once the transition is complete, the “correct” side of the controversies will become central to a school’s identity — just as faith was to the Christian college, self-confidence was to the gentlemen’s college, and alumni devotion and achievement were to the consumer’s college.
Some have suggested naming this new college “the therapeutic university” or “the woke college.” I prefer “the comfort college,” because it combines the emotional component of the first with the political elements of the second. Our students are comfortable in their opinions but uncomfortable with their lives, finding their world and the Williams campus a threatening place. Once Williams’ transition to comfort college is complete, the students will expect to find their college truly comfortable in all respects.
The Christian college, Rudolph wrote, was “defined by a transcendent Christian purpose.” The gentlemen’s college was characterized “by an almost obsessive cultivation of gentlemanly values.” The consumer’s college was shaped “by a zealous attention to the academic market and the student as consumer.”
What characterizes the comfort college? The slogan of the comfort college is “diversity and inclusion.” And just to be clear: The presence of previously underrepresented groups is vital, necessary and welcome. What’s more, insensitivity toward people’s identities should be self-censored, and social pressure to do so is a helpful tool.
But another agenda, an agenda that runs counter to true diversity and inclusion, has (often silently) accompanied these positive changes. At some point along the way, this laudable attention to the language of inclusion turned from a psychologically realistic sensitivity into a harsh and confrontational tribal marker. Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.
The lack of cognitive significance in tribal language is a symptom of the deeper disease: the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge. Students are now absolutists. Students, administrators and some faculty know what is right (and who is wrong). Any challenge to their views cannot be in pursuit of knowledge or even clarification. It can only come from the desire to crush and oppress.
If this quest for power is what one believes motivates others, then there is little need to investigate one’s own motivations. As Harvard professor of African and African American studies Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it: “We Liberal Reformists say: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and — hope for the best. The Left says: Let’s do unto you what you did unto Others; and then see how you like that.”
And it is knowledge, the holy grail of philosophers, that the comfort college devalues. It does not completely disregard it; the issue is subtler. Most societies and cultures at different times have much the same list of virtues. It’s how they rank these virtues that sets them apart. The U.S. has always expressed a value for both justice and equality. Deciding which takes precedence has been a source of deep legal controversy and political conflict. Most people value both individual happiness and community cohesion; whole cultures are divided on which one comes first. The Christian college, the gentlemen’s college and the consumer’s college held knowledge as paramount. They differed on what was true and on the source of knowledge, but all laid claim to knowledge as a primary goal. If you ask current students, and many administrators and faculty, what the goals of their colleges are, you will have to wait some time before hearing “knowledge.”
In the first decade of this century, the Williams College mission statement was old-fashioned enough to speak of virtues:
Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character. Academic virtues include the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively. Civic virtues include commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life, and the skills to do so effectively. These virtues, in turn, have associated traits of character. For example, free inquiry requires open-mindedness, and commitment to community draws on concern for others.
When the pursuit of knowledge slips down the hierarchy of virtues, so do the accompanying virtues that nurture its discovery. Knowledge, since Plato, has usually been defined as justified true belief, and when knowledge is devalued, the routes to justification — argument and evidence (and, of course, the free speech that makes their determination possible) — fall away. And that is just what is happening.
Williams College’s long year of troubles intensified on the first day of the spring semester. An assistant professor of English sent an email to her students saying she would not be teaching; she had gone on medical leave, citing “a refusal to continue business as usual” in the face of “the College’s violent practices.” In response, students sent a letter to the trustees declaring that “We hold the truth of discursive and institutional violence to be self-evident.”
Self-evident. Refusing to consider evidence goes against the tenor of all three previous colleges. (Even the Christian college studied arguments for the existence of God.) We might at first dismiss this as (literal) sophomoric bravado. However, in a meeting for faculty of color called by the dean of the faculty, one professor asked for evidence of “violent practices.” Another professor responded that “to ask for evidence of violent practices is itself a violent practice.”
So dies the old college.
Essayist William Deresiewicz gets it right when he says
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. … They possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. … Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation — if necessary, by censorship.
In contrast, the gentlemen college’s mission statement proclaimed that
The ideal product of this type of college, the so-called “liberally educated man,” is difficult to define because he does not conform to any fixed pattern. Indeed a respect for individuality is the starting point of any “liberal” education. It is hoped that a student who has graduated from Williams will be aware of uniqueness — the value inherent in convictions, tastes, and opinions which are the result of disciplined but independent investigation. 1
I am not sorry to have seen the gentlemen’s college go; it certainly would not have welcomed a Jew like me, much less my daughters, and many, many others. It ignored whole continents of knowledge and fell far short of its ideals. But we need to know what to throw out, what to keep and what to modify. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum usefully distinguishes between two kinds of multiculturalism:
The world-citizen view insists on the need for all citizens to understand differences. … It is connected with a conception of democratic debate as deliberation about the common good. The identity-politics view, by contrast, depicts the citizen body as a marketplace of identity-based interest groups jockeying for power, and views difference as something to be affirmed rather than understood. 2
The consumer’s college, however imperfectly, celebrated the world-citizen version of multiculturalism, and the curriculum blossomed to the benefit of all our students. The comfort college takes another view.
- Williams College Bulletin, April 1958, page 22.
- Writing in 1997, Nussbaum was unfortunately overly optimistic: “Some faculty pursue the diversification of the curriculum in a way that ultimately subverts the aims of citizenship, focusing on interest-group identity politics rather than on the need of all citizens for knowledge and understanding. Some, too, have become unjustly skeptical of rational argument, thinking of its abuses as if they were part of the essence of rationality itself. These errors and excesses, however, are neither ubiquitous nor uncontroverted.”
To contact the author of this story:
Steven B. Gerrard at firstname.lastname@example.org