IN OLDEN DAYS, "before the oppression began," there existed at the University of Pennsylvania an institution called Van Pelt College house. This was a residence in which diversity flourished -- real diversity, not the sour quasi-apartheid common at American universities today. Van Pelt House brought together instructors and students of every stripe: "evangelicals and gay activists, Catholic Newman Center members and radical feminists, conservatives and revolutionaries, blacks and whites of all persuasions, including the first few presidents of the militant Black Student League and blacks majoring in finance at the Wharton School."
What the residents of Van Pelt experienced, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate write in a blistering new book, The Shadow University, was the authentic "discovery of difference" that once made the best colleges incubators of tolerance and broadmindedness. "Its members moved each year from distance to conversation, and from mutual suspicions to various degrees of understanding, and, usually, to touchingly kind relationships. People offended each other all the time, but they learned to talk to each other and to understand each other."
Try to find a Van Pelt House at Penn, or anywhere else, in the 1990s. Rarely are students today encouraged to view each other as individuals. They are pushed instead to divide themselves by race, sex, and ethnicity. Higher education once offered undergraduates the time and tools they needed to shape their own identities; now undergraduates get their identities handed to them as they arrive on campus.
At Smith College, freshmen in 1990 were provided with handbooks from the Office of Student Affairs. These began with a definition of "ethnic identity," and went on to supply a glossary for the many faces of "oppression": Ableism, Ageism, Antisemitism, Classism, Ethnocentrism, Heterosexism, Lookism, Racism, Religious Discrimination, Sexism. These terms would prove valuable, the new students were told, "as groups of people begin the process of realizing that they are oppressed."
It isn't only at Smith that administrators are engaged so tendentiously in bringing students to political enlightenment. Incoming Columbia freshmen a few years ago were lectured on "the archetypes and stereotypes in American society that support racism and prejudice"; they then gathered to hear three students -- one gay, one Asian, one black -- discuss their encounters with bigotry and discrimination. Dartmouth's mandatory orientation dealt with what the assistant dean of freshmen termed "the various forms of 'isms': sexism, racism, classism." For newcomers at Bowdoin, there was a program with the snappy name of "Defining Diversity: Your Role in Racial-Consciousness Raising and Cross-Cultural Social Enhancers."
Kors, a professor of history, is on most issues a conservative; Silverglate, a noted attorney, is a liberal. What they share is a commitment to freedom, especially freedom of speech and conscience. The two men, who were undergraduates at Princeton in the 1960s, have watched with alarm the transformation of US campuses from places of robust expression to grim zones of censorship and repression. When they were students, the Free Speech movement was germinating. Today free speech is out, and speech codes are in.
No longer do universities prize the uninhibited clash of ideas and opinions. On campuses from sea to shining sea, political correctness is the ruling orthodoxy and The Right Not To Be Offended trumps every consideration. The authors describe case after case of professors and students silenced, punished, or exiled for daring to say things somebody deemed offensive. Some of the episodes are notorious -- a chapter is devoted to the shocking "water buffalo" inquisition at the University of Pennsylvania. Others are little known. Consider the fate of Don Staples, a professor of film at the University of North Texas:
"At a university forum on ways to improve the experience of minority students, a black undergraduate complained that courses contained inadequate materials by minorities. Staples replied that his own course incorporated a large number of contributions by black filmmakers, but that minority students in his class still had poor attendance. For that remark, the university suspended Staples for one week. Chancellor Alfred F. Hurley [explained] that while free speech would be protected, 'racism will not be tolerated.'"
How bad is it? In 1993, a motion was introduced at a meeting of the faculty of Hampshire College, a liberal-arts school in Amherst, Mass. It affirmed "the right of all members of the college community to the free expression of views in speech or in art, and the right of all members of the community to hear the expression of any views" and condemned "the censorship or prohibition of non-criminal speech." The motion was defeated, 26-21. That bad.
"A nation that does not educate in freedom," Kors and Silverglate warn, "will not survive in freedom, and will not even know when it has lost it."
All tyrannies eventually crumble; so will the tyranny of thought in American higher education. But between now and eventually, how many free minds and spirits will be crushed? The Shadow University sends up an unignorable flare, but it may be a long time before help arrives.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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