What is the purpose of a Liberal Education?
I don’t know about you but I have always believed that the purpose of a liberal education is to appreciate diverse views, learn how to think for oneself, and gain an appreciation for one’s social responsibility. Recent examples of dis-inviting perceived controversial figures who had been asked to speak on college campuses seems to directly fly in the face of cultivating a line of thought in the name of political correctness.
Civility is a lost American value. I have previously blogged about its decline in society. Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. By putting ethics into practice in our day-to-day encounters, civility is that moral glue without which our society would come apart.”
It is the latter that concerns me in this blog. Last week I read about Jason L. Riley, a black conservative and Manhattan Institute senior fellow who often contributes to the Wall Street Journal, who said his invitation to speak at Virginia Tech was yanked because a professor and department faculty were worried that Riley's writings on race could spark protests. It's encouraging that the University seems to have backed away from that position and may issue a public apology, a prerequisite for Riley to speak.
Riley is not the first and it’s not just Republicans who have been dis-invited. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education posts disinvites. In 2016 alone there have been 18 dis-invitations including Bassem Eid from the University of Chicago for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Cecile Richards from Georgetown University for her views on abortion/conception; Action Bronson from Trinity College for her views on gender; John Brennan from the University of Pennsylvania for his views on civil liberties; and former U.N. representative Madeline Albright twice for her political views and other positions. Perhaps the best known dis-invitation was in 2014 when Rutgers University disinvited former U.N. representative and Secretary of State, Condoleeezza Rice, ostensibly for her role in the Afghan and Iraq wars during the Bush administration.
The Decline of Liberal Education
Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes that “As traditionally conceived, liberal education would temper the all-too-common tendency to demonize those fellow citizens with whom we disagree. In no small measure, the value of a liberal education—to the individual and to the public—stems from the ability it cultivates to explore moral and political questions from a variety of viewpoints. This virtue entails putting oneself in another’s shoes. It promotes toleration, civility, and mutual respect. In ‘On Liberty,’ John Stuart Mill called this the virtue of “many-sidedness.”
The problem is on colleges and universities we have recently witnessed a series of assaults on free speech. Berkowitz contends that the assault on freedom of speech is broad based. To regulate expression and enforce orthodoxy, colleges and universities divide campuses into expansive “safe spaces” and cramped “free speech zones.” They institute “trigger warnings” so students can avoid disturbing facts and ideas. They police “micro-aggressions”—that is, giving offense however unintentional, slight, and subjective. They strong-arm students and faculty who fail to fall in line with what some critics claim is a liberal orthodoxy.
Students Spearheading Political Correctness
The loss of a free and liberal education goes deeper. There appears to be a movement spearheaded by students to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.
In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her.
In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses. Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Lost Art of Civility
These are troubling trends for me. I care less that a liberal voice may be shouting out a more conservative view than students are learning intolerance rather than tolerance of others and divergent points of view.
I care more that students’ minds are closing and a kind of thought police is growing, and it’s not just on college campuses but throughout society. There is no way to have a civil discourse on matters of concern when one group shouts out another or prevents it from exercising its free speech rights.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 10, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.