The signs of the institutional terminal illness of the American university are increasingly plentiful.
The stories out of Missouri and Yale and a half-dozen other places in recent months might be easily dismissed as the grumblings of an entitled generation—and they are that—but something far more insidious is entangled with this “movement.”
We got two instructive glimpses of it this week, courtesy of a pair of illuminating commentaries. First, Duke graduate student Bennett Carpenter delivered an oblivious self-parody entitled “Free speech, Black lives, and white fragility” in the Duke Chronicle.
Several laughable misstatements of First Amendment jurisprudence aside, Carpenter also presents a novel and quite bizarre vision of the relationship between language and action:
Key to this new interpretation [of free speech] is a firm separation between speech and action . . . The problem—as anyone who has been the victim of hate speech can tell you—is that this simply isn’t true. Words hurt as much as actions; indeed, words are actions. [A]ny distinction between a defaced poster, a racist pamphlet and legal or extralegal murder can be only of degree.
Pause for a moment to consider what Carpenter is arguing here. It is impossible to distinguish between the type of harm done by, e.g., a defaced poster on the one hand, and the harm done by a murder on the other.
“Words are actions.”
This is not only a paean to the criminalization of “bad” ideas. It is also the natural endpoint of what has been called (somewhat sloppily) the American strain of “political correctness.” That is, Carpenter’s commentary is an acknowledgment that these folks wish to regulate speech because they believe word to be as “dangerous” as deed.
In short, demonstrable physical injury is a no more serious form of harm than injury to feelings.
He goes on to say that, while hate-speech bans would be good in theory, they wouldn’t go far enough in the effort to destroy “white supremacy.” That, he argues, is why we need “safe spaces” where objectionable speech is shouted down and banned at every turn.
This is not progress.
“Wait a minute,” you may be saying at this point. “This is just some leftist grad student. Why should we get too agitated over this?”
Here’s why: Because the self-defeating mentality of victimhood that directly begets this philosophy is one that has not only been the orthodoxy on college campuses for a generation, but one which also now openly informs even those who operate at the highest levels of respected institutions.
That brings me to the second piece, “I’m Northwestern’s president. Here’s why safe spaces for students are important” in the Washington Post.
As you likely guessed, it’s written by Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro. Schapiro discusses an incident involving two white students who attempted to sit in some empty seats at a lunchroom table at which several black students were already sitting. The black students rebuffed the white students and told them to go to another, empty table. Schapiro defends the self-segregationists thusly:
We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.
The major problems here are too numerous to mention, but, to pick a few:
1. White students sitting with black students is definitionally “unsafe.”
2. White students sitting with black students is “uncomfortable learning.”
3. White students “don’t have the right” to sit at a public lunch table if black students tell them not to.
4. There are plenty of times to engage in “uncomfortable learning,” Schapiro tells us, but asking students of one race to be fine with sitting next to students of another in a public gathering area is way too tall an order.
The writings of Carpenter and Schapiro evidence the absurd—but more importantly, unchallenged—philosophy that exudes from every pore of modern academia.
Ideas like “self-segregation is healthy!” and “speech I don’t like should be banned!” can only flourish in an environment with no critical scrutiny. Indeed, they can only blossom in those dark corners of the world in which critical scrutiny itself is subject to social sanction.
People are starting to understand the uselessness of such places. Shifts like the practicality of online learning options, skyrocketing tuition rates coupled with massive student debt, and the increased value of specialization and practical skills in the modern job market have people rethinking the wisdom of sending their children to traditional, four-year institutions simply to collect a liberal arts degree as a grievance-studies major.
The bubble is bursting. The mask is off. The end is nigh.
In a couple of decades, we may look back on commentaries like the ones we saw this week as the opening notes of the funeral march for an educational model that has outlived its usefulness—one that poisoned itself through monolithic thought, a lack of intellectual curiosity, and unjustified greed.
Some schools will survive, of course. Particularly ones with enormous endowments, ones with top-level graduate programs, or ones with robust scientific and medical research components. They will carry on, in the same way that there is still a place for the Wall Street Journal, even as the print media business crumbles to dust around it. Community colleges and technical schools will also be of increasing relevance and usefulness as people begin to place a premium on practical learning and job training.
There will always be a place for instruction and intellectual inquiry. Academic curiosity will—thankfully—survive the death of the traditional university model. I just don’t believe that, in 20 years’ time, the prevailing view will be that the best way to acquire knowledge will be to go to a brick-and-mortar building, perhaps with a touch of ivy crawling up its walls, only to sit in a room with 50 or 100 or 200 other people in order to listen to a possibly overpaid, hopelessly tenured, probably ideologically-motivated professor serve as the gatekeeper for said knowledge.
The momentum to send one’s child to a traditional four-year institution as the default educational option will fade.
Not tomorrow. Not next year. But probably faster than most in higher education imagine.
Such places will be buried in a shallow grave, alongside other previously “indispensable” cultural artifacts like payphones and video stores.
And I will be first in line to dump a shovelful of dirt on the coffin.