Don’t look to college “leaders” to defend free speech and shut down the rioters. It doesn’t work that way. Universities almost always collapse in the face of student protest, even though the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of the institutions. So it was in the sixties, and so it is again today.
Half a century ago, in the sixties, major universities retreated in the face of anti-Vietnam War, anti-ROTC, and anti-“racist” demonstrations on “top” campuses from Yale and Columbia to Wisconsin and Stanford. New politically inspired departments (Black Studies for example) were created, and professors, including some of the country’s most distinguished, were prevented from teaching. At Cornell, the brilliant Walter Berns, quit in disgust
after the faculty, “having jettisoned every vestige of academic freedom,” Professor Berns said, reversed itself and granted amnesty to black students who had seized the student union building. Some denounced dissenting professors as racists and threatened them with violence.
And so it goes. A decade later, students had conquered positions on committees hiring tenured professors. Stephan Thernstrom at Harvard, for example, was blocked from teaching his famous course on the antebellum South on the outrageous grounds that no white man could deal fairly and completely with black history.
It was already obvious in the sixties that the protesters intended to undo the civil rights revolution, well demonstrated by the call for separate dormitories for black students. This was nothing less than the reimposition of segregation within the university. The demand that students choose their own professors was cut from the same detestable ideological cloth. Back then, such demands came from a minority of students, faculty, and administrators. Today, that minority is larger, and their world view far more commonplace. That is why there are so few conservative profs around, and why those that do have jobs pretend to be leftists until they get tenure, when, they tell themselves, they can start teaching and writing what they really believe.
Easier said than done. Survival on campus isn’t just a matter of job security. It’s rather reminiscent, as William Jacobson observes in a thoughtful essay, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when professors were publicly humiliated for violations of Mao’s political correctness.
The early phases of the Cultural Revolution were centered on China’s schools. In the summer of 1966, the Communist Party leadership proclaimed that some of China’s educators were members of the exploiting classes, who were poisoning students with their capitalist ideology. Indeed, the educated classes in general were marked as targets of the revolution.
The leadership gave Communist youth known as Red Guards the green light to remove educators from their jobs and punish them…
There are several similarities between student demonstrators here, and the Chinese Red Guards, of which I think the most important is that neither is/was spontaneous. Both mobs were following orders from their political masters, and many of the Americans appear to have been paid and trained.
The spread of censorship in the United States, along with the imposition of political correctness, is not limited to the universities. It is well-established in high schools as well. Barely more than half of our high-school teachers favor free speech, when it is likely to offend others, or violate the official dogmas.
Nor is censorship just a feature of the educational system, as is easy to see from the monochromatic hues of most all social media sites and “news” publications, whether the dead-tree versions or the digital pages. In this environment, it’s going to be very difficult for scholars, pundits, and teachers to tear off their liberal masks and declare themselves free thinkers. They can be purged, tenure or not. Let’s see what happens to Bret Stephens, now at the New York Times. It’s a significant test case.
So the clashes on campus are just part of a much bigger fight. A very important part, to be sure, and we are already seeing its consequences: with each graduating class, our college grads are more politically homogeneous and less informed. It’s easy to see this in the many uninformed statements from our political class. Obama made some totally uninformed statements in his Cairo speech early in his first term, and many of Trump’s gaffes are equally ignorant. If our leaders do not know the history of allies and enemies, it will be hard for them to design and conduct strategy to prevail in the current global war.
This will last long after the rioters calm down, even if the First Amendment survives.
Michael Ledeen is a freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.