On a faculty petition at Williams College.
It's time for another trip to Williams College. Regular readers will recall some of our earlier trips to that quaint, protected menagerie tucked away in the Berkshires where, for a mere $69,950 per annum, you can — supposing you got the right grades in high school or check the right boxes — while away four years claiming to be oppressed and, if you enjoy pretending that you do not know whether you are male or female, try on a bizarre list of made-up personal pronouns announcing your indeterminacy. Wot larks!
Regular readers will also recall our words of praise for the so-called "Chicago Statement" a few years back. What made that document so unusual in the fetid atmosphere of timorous totalitarian conformity that is the rule at most academic institutions these days was its rousing defense of free speech. Everywhere from Yale to Berkeley, coddled students clamor to be protected from "offensive" ideas — that is, from ideas that challenge their taken-for-granted pieties about the world. It used to be that higher education was about expanding one's horizons and learning new things. More and more these days, it is about donning the ideological blinders so that no idea not certified to reinforce one's prejudices slips through to unsettle one's complacency. Into that humid atmosphere came a major university saying, Balderdash! If you want a "safe space" into which scary ideas will not intrude, the statement said, in effect, you should not come to the University of Chicago. The essence of the statement is captured in these few lines:
In a word, the University's fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.
The good news is that some fifty-three universities, including such distinguished institutions as Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Purdue, and Michigan State, have adopted the principles enunciated by the Chicago Statement. The bad news is that the adoption is often nominal and that fifty-three out of some 5,300 is a pretty small number.
Nevertheless, the Chicago Statement is a welcome beacon of sanity and principled tolerance in a landscape disfigured by febrile sloganeering and hectoring intolerance. It was with happy surprise, therefore, that we greeted the news this past autumn that some enterprising faculty at Williams had begun circulating a petition to adopt the Chicago principles of free speech and open debate. The key part of the document notes that "While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with." Once upon a time, and not so long ago, such a statement would have been unexceptionable, almost a cliché. Likewise this declaration:
We believe that Williams College, as an institution of higher learning, must maintain a strong commitment to academic freedom. We further believe that Williams should protect and promote the free expression of ideas. We should be encouraged to use reasoned argument and civil discourse to criticize and contest views we dispute, not to suppress these views and risk falling down the slippery slope of choosing what can and what cannot be discussed.
Some 125 people, about half the voting faculty, signed the document. Support cut across disciplines and ideological affiliation, which was heartening (especially since the ideological complexion of the Williams faculty, with only a tiny handful of exceptions, ranges from Left to far-far Left). The old liberal idea that the best way to counter ideas you don't like is through reasoned debate still found its partisans among the Williams faculty.
The Chicago Statement is a welcome beacon of sanity and principled tolerance in a landscape disfigured by febrile sloganeering and hectoring intolerance.
Not so heartening was the intervention by students to scuttle the petition. In the face of student hectoring ("Free Speech Harms," declared one set of posters), several brave souls (irony alert) among the faculty withdrew their names from the petition. It was originally intended to be sent to the Williams administration to be considered for adoption, but the contretemps forced, or at least led to, its withdrawal.
In one sense, this is just business as usual in a contemporary American college. A proposal for some laudable reform is drafted, circulated, and subjected to seemingly endless discussion by the faculty, which gives everyone an opportunity to posture and preen. Students claim that they are not being sufficiently consulted and then pout. We were surprised that classes were not canceled and the president's office was not occupied by minatory students. But what makes this episode in the bucolic hills of Williamstown noteworthy is the counter-petition written by "an amorphous group of students activists [sic] who came together to hex all fascists" and signed (when last we checked) by 363 students, about 18 percent of the student body. Addressed to "The Williams Community," this curious document is notable partly for its illiteracies but mostly for its splenetic attack on the very idea of free speech.
The authors of this counter-petition were exercised that students were not brought into discussion about the original pro–free speech petition earlier. Was that not "completely antithetical to a free speech premise"? The answer, of course, is No, because the faculty and the administration enjoy prerogatives that students, being students, do not.
But the objection that students weren't part of the process was just a little preliminary throat-clearing. The ire of the student petition was directed chiefly at the idea that free speech and open debate are worthy ideals to pursue in an academic setting. Moreover, they assert, the idea of free speech articulated by the Chicago Statement is just a blind for supporting inequitable power relations. Consequently, they "take grave issue with the premises of [the Williams faculty petition supporting the Chicago Statement] and the potential harm it may inflict upon our community."
This is the latest political gambit in the debate over free speech: assert that what goes under the mantle of free speech is really no such thing. It works like this:
"Free Speech," as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism. The creation of this petition at Williams cannot be separated from those dehumanizing associations.
Where does one begin? The authors of this little bijou are full of histrionics — they speak darkly of the dissemination of views that "reject us, and our very right to speak/breathe," for example. But who or what is imposing these horrors? The Williams College faculty and administration? Is there a spot on earth more hospitable to racial and ethnic minorities and sexual exotics than a modern liberal arts college? Williams occupies a coveted place near the top of that food chain, with its charming campus, its $2.8 billion endowment, its talented students and (mostly) distinguished faculty. Is there on this side of Alpha Centauri a more coddled, protected, privileged, attentive environment for students than a college like Williams? Is there a less racist, xenophobic, sexist, etc., place on earth? Is there a more fatuous one?
"Diversity" is the great academic shibboleth of the day. The authors of this counter-petition make a big show of demanding greater diversity at Williams. But, as has long been obvious to anyone familiar with contemporary academic culture, calls for diversity are in the end calls for strict intellectual and moral conformity on any contentious issue. By this standard, a campus is more "diverse" the fewer traditional voices it tolerates. It is also worth noting that a commitment to "diversity" seems to be an impediment rather than a goad to intellectual curiosity, a habit that one might have thought was at the center of a liberal arts education.
A campus is more "diverse" the fewer traditional voices it tolerates.
A few years ago, the commentator John Derbyshire, an occasional contributor to our pages, was invited to Williams as part of its "Uncomfortable Learning" initiative. He was invited, but then promptly uninvited by then-President Adam Falk. What made Derbyshire "uncomfortable" to some were opinions he had expressed about race. Falk, bowing to student outcry, couldn't bear the thought that someone with a different perspective about such matters should be allowed to pollute the sylvan purlieus of Williamstown. As a result, the students there were deprived of an opportunity to conjure with opinions that they might accept or reject but upon which they would surely hone the rigor of their own views.
The authors of the manifesto against free speech are aghast that anyone should have even considered inviting John Derbyshire to campus. Just think, if the principles of the Chicago Statement were to be adopted, then the evil Derbyshire would have been allowed to speak at Williams! Horrors. "John Derbyshire," declared one student, "literally said that Black people are not humans." Our January challenge to readers: provide evidence that John Derbyshire "literally said that Black people are not humans." We don't advise spending a lot of time on the project.
Here's an interesting thought experiment: is it permissible on a contemporary college campus to ask whether traits such as intelligence are heritable? Is it permissible to ask whether there are cognitive differences that can be observed between the sexes? Is it permissible to ask why Hungarians or Indians or some other group might seem to be more clever at math than others? Those are among the questions we can imagine John Derbyshire might ask. To answer our first question: no, it is not permissible to ask such questions on most contemporary college campuses. But why? Because we don't like the facts that the answers may compel us to acknowledge?
As we say, the Williams bulletin is just business as usual in Academia Inc. these days. In part, it is just the sort of angry playacting that students since the 1960s have indulged in to convince themselves that they are not wholly irrelevant. There is something faintly comical about the exercise, especially at a pampered institution like Williams. But what caught our attention about this latest example of radical playacting was its casual rejection of the very thing that makes education, as distinct from indoctrination, possible: free speech and open debate. In rejecting the principles of the Chicago Statement, Williams's advocates for "diversity" embrace what is essentially a Leninist view of culture. Power, not persuasion, is the coin of that realm. It is as if they took Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a how-to manual. Night is day, peace is war, and free expression is an insidious form of slavery.
The political philosopher James Burnham once noted that civilizations more frequently perish from suicide than from invasion. So it is in the contemporary academy. It took centuries to evolve a system where the pursuit of truth and culture could be conducted under the aegis of discussion instead of the aegis of coercion. The babies at Williams seem willing, nay, eager to jettison that for their favored prescriptive regime. Meanwhile, Maud S. Mandel, the new president of Williams, has convened a committee to study the problem. That's more or less like convening a committee to discuss whether or not the college should commit suicide, but that's how things are in the expensive redoubts of Williamstown circa 2018.
Roger Kimball. "If Orwell were alive today . . ." The New Criterion (January, 2019).
Reprinted with permission of Roger Kimball for The New Criterion.
Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball is the author of many books, including Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age, Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse.Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion
back to top