America has become a land of leave-takings. Some silent, others with considerable bravura. Americans are sundering their ties with things long close to their hearts: a sport, a product, a profession. Sometimes this is involuntary, as when the cancel culture smites the sender of an incautious tweet. Sometimes it’s via a burst of indignation: the fans who won’t brook athletes kneeling to the anthem. Sometimes it’s both, when demands are robustly defied. “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Each widens an already yawning cultural fissure. On one side are those who see America as basically a land of freedom and justice; on the other, those who see it as one of profound inequity. The latter are now overwhelmingly dominant in academe.
A small but notable act in this drama is playing out on the campus of Converse College, a 130-year-old women’s institution in Spartanburg, S.C. There, Jeff Poelvoorde, an associate professor of political science, decided last week that he’s had enough with the new knownothingism. Refusing to be a party to Converse’s indictment of America as systemically racist, he dared it to do him its worst.
What’s interesting about his case is not its occasioning, nor its yet-undecided result, but its uncompromising assertion of the supremacy of the conscience — which places Poelvoorde in a long and storied tradition in the history of our civilization.
Not long after the death of George Floyd, Krista L. Newkirk, Converse’s president since 2016, issued a statement attributing the event to systemic American racism. She further asserted that systemic racism haunted Converse’s campus. A number of initiatives were accordingly announced to exorcise the local demon, including mandatory “anti-bias training.” Only one voice rose publicly against it: that of Professor Poelvoorde.
He complained of the condescending implication of the mandate. He had assumed that the faculty of a self-respecting college was a community of intellectual equals, not one subject to thought reform by institutional bureaucrats. He didn’t object to their having their own convictions on these matters, but did request that they not try to impose them on him.
A seasoned academic, and a scholar of politics, Poelvoorde knew that the proposed training would be — could not but be — ideologically inflected. He was particularly appalled by the coercion of conscience the training involved. To complete some of its modules, faculty members would be required to agree to politically correct answers to statements about purported bias. Portions of the training couldn’t be concluded without this coercion of conscience occurring.
Poelvoorde wouldn’t submit, and hired Samantha Harris, a distinguished civil-liberties attorney, to represent him. Then came the temptation that has faced the conscience of many throughout history: If Poelvoorde agreed to take the training program, Converse would spare him from having to answer the questions. Instead, a college staffer would randomly enter answers for him for which he would have no responsibility. His training could therefore proceed to its finish with his conscience uncorrupted. But this exception would be for Poelvoorde and Poelvoorde alone.
An easy out? Some hesitation ensued. Thirty-four years at Converse were on the line. But finally there came a firmly delivered “no.” Personal exemption wasn’t enough; the training was polluting the intellectual life of a liberal-arts college Poelvoorde had grown to love. He couldn’t be an accomplice to its violation, even when shielded behind a personal cordon sanitaire. Let the heavens fall, he would not be moved.
This is but one episode in a much bigger drama. But it does have a larger significance. If our nation continues along its divisive path, individuals and institutions required to bow to false, often perverse, gods, the first victims — the earliest collateral damage — will inevitably be America’s best, most principled and morally upright: the Jeffrey Poelvoordes of the world. They’re the proverbial canaries in our collective coal mine, men and women whose unwillingness to bend either knee or conscience bears witness to how high the intellectual and moral stakes of our cultural warfare have become.
Martyrdom usually seems foolhardy to the commonsensical. But those with the soul (and guts) for it can gain a consequence beyond prudence’s reach. Way back when, the Christian martyrs achieved this, as did many later who resisted repression and its totalizing creeds. To be sure, Professor Poelvoorde isn’t faced with loss of life. Nor is he Christian, for that matter, but as a lay leader in three synagogues, he surely knows his own faith’s history of martyrdom. Instead, he simply faces the loss of a life he loves. Yet in our unheroic age, and in a very unheroic academy, his predicament is worth notice, regret — and alarm.