By Osita Nwanevu. Nwanevu is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and the editor of the South Side Weekly.
Last fall, not long after students at Yale began demanding the resignation of faculty members Erika and Nicholas Christakis over an email Erika had written, a video began making the rounds of conservative media. It showed a Yale student telling Nicholas that he was “disgusting” and “should not sleep at night.” A week later, Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program — an organization for conservative students — held its fifth annual conference and gala, whose theme was “The Future of Free Speech: Threats in Higher Education and Beyond.” During a conference panel called “The State of Free Expression and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education,” Greg Lukianoff, the head of a free-speech-advocacy group, joked that students had responded to Erika Christakis’s email as though “she had actually wiped out an Indian village.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a student activist named Edward Columbia began shouting. He kept it up until he was physically removed from the building and put into a police car. Within two hours, protesters had assembled outside the panel with signs reading genocide is not a joke. The whole episode seemed to confirm everything the Buckley Program was saying about liberal intolerance.
For decades, writers on the right have kept a careful record of the Orwellianism of liberal university faculty and the intolerance of left-wing and minority students. The latest wave of political correctness — marked, it is said, by its interest in identity politics and “safe spaces” where students can avoid exposure to unpleasant ideas — represents for many in the conservative press the logical progression of liberals’ fifty-year hegemony over campus culture. The push to censor dissenting views, along with the creation of actual physical spaces that would insulate students from all that could threaten their dearly held beliefs, is, on this view, merely a natural extension of decades of unchallenged leftist indoctrination.
It would not surprise these writers to learn that one particularly pompous and intolerant Yale undergraduate wrote a book with the subtitle The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.” “I believe it to be an indisputable fact,” writes the author, who was twenty-five years old and a year and a half out of Yale at the time of publication, “that most colleges and universities, and certainly Yale, the protests and pretensions of their educators and theorists notwithstanding, do not practice, cannot practice, and cannot even believe what they say about education and academic freedom.” What might surprise today’s conservative media is that this book, published in 1951, was God and Man at Yale, which launched the career of its author, William F. Buckley Jr.
Buckley’s case against academic freedom is simple. Bias and intellectual prejudice, he argues, are largely inextricable from universities. Value judgments that exclude the work of some scholars while promoting the work of others are made constantly. “Would Yale hire, or, if hired, would Yale retain, a man who openly scorned democracy as a weary, unintelligent, untenable, pernicious political system?” Buckley asks. “And yet there have been scores of distinguished scholars, dating back to the time Alcibiades said of democracy, ‘Why discuss such acknowledged madness?’, who have regarded the principles of our form of government with unleavened contempt.”
It is, of course, quite imaginable that the Yale of today would hire a political-science professor who was deeply critical of democracy. But it is also clear why such a decision would have seemed unlikely in the era of European totalitarianism. That things have changed between then and now is precisely Buckley’s point: the freedom of scholars and the openness of universities are functionally constrained by the mores and concerns of their time, though universities often pretend otherwise.
Academic institutions are also constrained by the other commitments they claim to make. Buckley quotes Yale’s president, Charles Seymour: “A major obligation [of the educator] is to train our youth in the understanding and practice of American democracy whether in the classroom or in our campus life.” Pronouncements of this kind, which are still made by those who lead universities today, necessarily lend authoritative weight to certain ideas — in this case, that the American system of democracy is worth practicing — at the expense of others. This wasn’t a problem for Buckley, whose chief concern was that the Yale of his day had done too little to indoctrinate its students with the values that had been espoused by its administrators and founders. Those values — as determined by the university’s alumni, trustees, and administrators — were derived from Christianity and a belief in the superiority of free-market capitalism. Or at least they should have been, according to Buckley; he spends many pages detailing the extent to which leftist thought and atheism had infiltrated the university. His remedies to this infiltration were simple: unduly liberal textbooks were to be removed and left-wing professors were to be reprimanded or fired, with the aim of making Yale uniformly conservative.
If total conversion was not possible, Buckley argued, administrators should at least have taken pains to protect the sensibilities of Yale’s Christian and conservative students from professors like the popular but eccentric world historian Ralph E. Turner, a “professional debunker” who was known for his mockery of religion.
Many Yale students laugh off the influence of Mr. Turner and ultimately classify him as a gifted and colorful fanatic. Others, more impressionable, and hence those over whom there is cause to be concerned, are deeply disturbed by Mr. Turner’s bigoted atheism and finish the year they spend with him full of suspicions and doubts about religion that they may retain for a lifetime.
Buckley clearly envisioned turning all of Yale into a safe space, one that would protect students emotionally and intellectually from the influence of unfamiliar and “disturbing” ideas. He opposed not the indoctrination of students but the wrong kind of indoctrination, and argued that Yale professors should allow radical ideas into the classroom only to prove “the shortcomings and fallacies of such value judgments.” Buckley’s ideal professor was a confirmer and inculcator of existing biases, not an impartial mediator of reasoned debates and discussions.
Buckley’s book offers a prescient view of what may well be the endgame of the current safe-space controversies — and, given the listlessness of the American university today, that outcome could be positive. If colleges such as Yale acquiesce to demands made on the basis of leftist identity politics, they will take on, as part of their missions, the elimination of white supremacy, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, and assorted other biases and prejudices from their campuses. If this shift happens, it could be seen not as the forced adoption of new ideological commitments, but as the forced fulfillment of an old aspiration. For decades, the American university has been committed to a liberal near truth — the equality of all people — that not only undermines academic freedom as conceived by Buckley but also, to today’s activists, outweighs the closely related liberal ideals that are being fought over in the wake of the new political correctness: freedom of speech and open discourse. In a sense, liberalism, as such, is at war with itself over itself. By expanding access to minorities, expelling bigots, committing to the study of fields that are relevant to the marginalized, and, during the first wave of political correctness, two decades ago, choosing to undermine free speech to better protect minorities through the enactment of speech codes, the American university has definitively chosen its side.
It is highly unlikely that the majority of institutions will meet all the demands of the identity-politics left. But concessions are being made here and there, and some institutions will eventually come to be seen as more hospitable to the ideologies of political correctness than others. This development, in turn, will open safe spaces to the judgment of what Buckley would have deemed a true marketplace of ideas. Students who embrace left identity politics will be able to self-sort into friendly institutions, while students who are hostile to or ambivalent about those values will avoid them.
There is no reason that this result need be dismaying: students have elected to pursue educations framed by particular viewpoints for ages, by attending religious universities. What’s more, students have long been encouraged to choose colleges on the basis of career prospects, athletics, amenities, and the colors of the foliage on admissions brochures; the advent of institutions that can claim to offer an education that accords with deeply held beliefs should be seen as a positive development. If such an education is inferior to the idealized liberal-arts education, it is at least more respectable than those that are offered by universities uninterested in helping students to engage seriously with ideas. Better a safe space than a black hole.