The Corner

Education

America’s Pre-Revolutionary Universities

In the months before the 1905 Revolution in Russia, students had walked out at all of the empire’s universities. As they debated whether to resume classes in the autumn, an article in one of the leading socialist journals exhorted them to return to the lecture halls, but not for study. As quoted by the historian Richard Pipes, in his magisterial The Russian Revoution, the Social-Democratic journal Iskra (Spark) urged the students to “[transform] universities and institutions of higher learning into places of popular gatherings and political meetings.” In other words, to radicalize the university and make it a focal point for social revolution. After the universities reopened, Pipes notes, “Academic work became impossible as institutions of higher learning turned into ‘political clubs’: non-conforming professors and students were subjected to intimidation and harassment” (p. 36). Plus ca change.

America is not in a pre-revolutionary moment, but its colleges and universities are depressingly, if not unsurprisingly aping their Russian forebears. The world’s richest and most comfortable institutions of higher learning have declared themselves all but committed to the eradication of non-politicized education, the abolishment of free speech, and rule by mob. Craven administrators and ideologically sympathetic professors have abdicated all responsibility for enforcing norms, order, and the pursuit of knowledge. Our universities are, for all intents and purposes, in a pre-revolutionary state. What is worse, as Heather Mac Donald shows in her recent Wall Street Journal article, “Don’t Even Think about Being Evil,” the aggressive radicalism of the educational campus is now flooding past ivy walls and iron gates, and washing over the corporate campus. Google’s firing of James Damore is just the latest proof of the “conveyer belt of left-wing conformity,” as Mac Donald labels it, that enforces right thinking, right speaking, and right action — all defined by today’s increasingly intolerant progressive Left.

Unlike in 1905 Russia, the students are not allied to the workers; if anything, American workers today are ideologically opposed to the immature, selfish victim-posing of university students. Nor is American government, as corrupt and inefficient as it is, comparable to Tsarist autocracy. Yet in the unholy alliance of radical students with radical corporate leaders, an ill-wind is blowing in America. Not only will economic innovation and risk taking suffer as the punishment for thinking outside the accepted boundaries increases, but one day our smarter and morally stronger workers will figure out that there are other, greener fields in which to ply their trade. The constant nanny-stating and harassment by private corporations of their workers may slowly lead to an exodus to more business-friendly climes. The same might even one day happen in the universities, as Jillian Melchior revealed in the case of the University of Missouri. That, of course, will leave the inmates in charge of dwindling asylums, on both types of campuses, but like all revolutions in which individuals are abstract and utopian fantasies regnant, the carnage they leave in their wake will long litter the American landscape.

Update: I received a great number of e-mails from acquaintances after this post went up, many of them in the academy. Many acknowledged the problems and issues on campus, such as speech codes, lack of due process, small groups of radicalized students, and the like, but they also let me know they thought I was over the top, and challenged a number of my statements, particularly the claim that all universities are committed to ending free speech, free inquiry, and are run by mobs. Such is clearly not the case, and such a sweeping statement on my part is simply wrong. More encouragingly, a number of my interlocutors argued that they are seeing more interest in having a balanced discussion on the part of many undergraduates, and not just conservative ones. This I know to be correct, and I should have noted it, since I have spoken to many of these groups (comprised of both liberal and conservative students) myself in recent years; I want to encourage them, not make them feel even more beleaguered. Getting swept away by a vignette (of 1905 Russia) isn’t an excuse for indulging in unbalanced claims and a damaging tenor.

As a former professor, I was and am gravely concerned about the polarization on campus and in society, and I have no interest in becoming part of the problem myself. Drawing attention to worrisome issues that should be addressed is one thing, but indulging in hyperbole and unsubstantiated assertions is not acceptable. In honesty, if I could retract this piece, I would, so as to approach the question more seriously. 

Publishing in public is a privilege, and there is a responsibility authors have to maintaining civility and upholding reasoned, constructive discourse. In this case, I failed on both counts, and failed to live up to standards I set for myself. I care if my words are inaccurate, or if I unfairly cast aspersions. There was an entirely different way to write this piece, one that would have been constructive and fair, and I chose not to do so. I regret that deeply, because I care about the universities deeply.

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