Robert Boyers, an English professor at Skidmore College, wrote a wonderful article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education on the necessity of intellectual diversity for a thriving campus environment and the great dangers of intellectual conformity.
Boyers begins by pointing out that, while most faculty will promptly agree with the sentiments expressed in Mill’s On Liberty regarding free thought and expression, they often also believe the exact opposite. As he writes,
And yet a good many liberal academics are not actually invested in the posture to which their avowals ostensibly commit them. Mill noted among his own contemporaries, more than 150 years ago, what is very much in evidence in our own culture: that certain opinions have come to seem so important “to society” that their usefulness cannot be legitimately challenged. Thus a great many contemporary liberals subscribe to the belief — however loath they may be to acknowledge it — that certain ideas are “heretical” or “divisive” and that those who dare to articulate them must be, in one way or another, cast out. The burning desire to paint a scarlet letter on the breast of those who fail to observe the officially sanctioned view of things has taken possession of many ostensibly liberal people in academe, which has tended more and more in recent years to resemble what the Yale English professor David Bromwich calls “a church held together by the hunt for heresies.”
This “hunt for heresies” has led to the enforcement a “total cultural environment” on campuses, designed to ensure that one way of thinking and one set of beliefs is regnant. As he puts it,
What does such a total cultural environment look like? In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is “on board.” Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise “awareness” about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer-reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by “human resources” specialists trained to facilitate “dialogues” leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms — “privilege,” “power,” “hostile,” “unsafe” — no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential.
Though much of the regime instituted along these lines can seem kind and gentle in its pursuit of what many of us take to be a well-intentioned indoctrination, the impression that control and coercion are the name of the game is really hard to miss.
Boyers gives examples of this at work. He relates the experience of one of his colleagues, who made the terrible mistake of using a turn of phrase to which others objected. He writes,
At my own college, when a senior colleague at a public meeting last fall uttered an expression (“in their native habitat”) felt by some to be “offensive” — though clearly not intended to be so, and followed by a clear apology when a complaint was voiced — there were calls for her to resign from the faculty. And though she is, and will remain, with us, the incident prompted a volley of abusive and self-righteous rhetoric, drove more than one faculty member to advise students away from courses taught by “that woman,” and stirred a renewed emphasis on “re-education” and “rehabilitation.”
Astonishing, of course, that those very terms — “re-education” and “rehabilitation” — do not scare the hell out of academics who use them and hear them.
Boyers provides many other illustrations of his arguments, and his article should be read in its entirety by anyone interested in free speech and intellectual diversity on campus.