Phi Beta Cons

What are American College Students Learning?

Quite a large number seem to learn little of any lasting value, according to Arum and Roksa in Academically Adrift. That’s bad enough, but some students appear to be absorbing some truly cancerous ideas on campus. They’re learning how to use raucous protest and administrative procedures to harass and silence anyone who dares to disagree with their preconceived ideas. What they seem to expect college to do is to reinforce their beliefs rather than challenge them.

That is the argument FIRE president Greg Lukianoff makes in his chapter in a splendid new book The State of the American Mind, edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I write about this growing problem.

While they’re a fairly small percentage of the student population, young Americans who have been imbued with the “social justice warrior” mentality enter college with the notion that it’s their role to combat everyone they see as an enemy. What they find on campus is encouragement from some faculty and administrators, quiet complicity from most others. They are emboldened to pressure schools to disinvite speakers they’re certain will say things that are “wrong” and if they can’t manage that, to shout the speakers down. And woe betide a professor who dares to challenge any of the cherished beliefs of these activist know-it-all students. The new campus environment is far from the ideal of open, civilized discussion; it’s getting more like the Stalinist era when people had to fear they would be accused of deviationism.

Lukianoff suggests that colleges should devote some of freshman (oops — “freshperson”) orientation to explaining to students how intellectual freedom works and that they will be expected to abide by the rules of free speech and academic discourse. I think that would be far more beneficial than any other use of that time.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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