By Jan Blits
(This is the text of a speech delivered July 16 to the Campus Freedom Network conference at Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa.)
Not many years ago, just about every college student loved liberty. Except for some die-hard Marxists (who opposed not only liberty of speech, but liberty as such), it was hard to find any students (or faculty) who would defend the suppression of speech on campus. Freedom was the clear rule; suppression the rare exception. Today, unfortunately, as I'm sure all of you know, the reverse seems true. Having been raised at least since kindergarten (or perhaps from birth) on the moral imperative of political correctness, many--I fear, most--college students, without a moment's thought, accept--and even demand--censorship, including, perhaps most of all, self-censorship. A closed mind is a good mind, in their view.
Over the past twenty-five years, I've witnessed one threat after another to freedom at my university. Some threats tried to curtail politically unpopular research. Others tried to restrict what students could say. The aim was always the same--to advance the censors' political agenda by stifling their critics. The goal was to turn the university into a one-party institution.
In recent years, that changed. Censorship still remains a real threat, but it’s no longer the only threat. Some colleges and universities have begun what could fairly be called “brain-washing”—not just restricting what you may say, but forcing you to think what the administrators want you to think. Going beyond mere silencing (bad as that is), some schools now attempt to coerce not only obedience to, but, more alarming yet, inward acceptance of particular political views.
You may know what happened at my university. Has anyone seen FIRE’s YouTube video, “Think What We Think…or Else”? The title is perfect. It really captures what happened. (When I checked last week, the video had had over 100-thousand hits.)
The Delaware story is really lurid. At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I am no friend of PC, and if they (or others they know) have a problem, let me know and I’ll do what I can to help. I said that to my classes in the fall of 2007. And right away, students came up to tell me stories about Delaware’s new Residence Life program that I initially thought were wildly exaggerated. What they said seemed too extraordinary to be true. No one would do what they said the Residence Life officials were doing.
So I went to the Director of Residence Life, Kathleen Kerr, and asked her about UD’s program. She not only confirmed that the students described it accurately. She proudly handed me a thick loose-leaf notebook with hundreds of pages of damning documents. I’m sure that Kerr is now sorry that she gave me the material. But at the time she seemed to think that no right-minded person could possibly object to the program. If only I knew more about it, she seemed to think, I’d strongly approve.
The documents, which you can find on the FIRE web-site, outlined a mandatory education, or re-education, program for all seven-thousand students living in the university’s dorms. The program combined intimidation and humiliation, coercion and indoctrination, to inculcate a hard-left, anti-America stance favored by the ResLife officials. The program looked as if it had been designed by the North Korean Minister of Propaganda.
The program had two basic parts. One part consisted of one-on-one sessions in which RA’s would interview freshmen who had arrived just that week. The RA’s had them fill out questionnaires about their personal thoughts and lives. “When did you discover your sexual identity?” one question asked. “When was a time you felt oppressed?” The RA’s also reported their “best” and “worst” one-on-one sessions to their superiors, who, in turn, reported them in their annual review. When one student, asked about her sexual identity, replied, “That is none of your damn business,” she not only became listed as the RA’s “worst.” She received an “incident report,” which, as you probably know, is what a student gets for serious rowdy or dangerous behavior. The same RA’s “best” one-on-one session involved a student who complained that she “grew up with a racist and opinionated father,” who wanted her to be a Republican.
The program’s second part consisted of group sessions. In these sessions, students were required to take public stands on hot-button social and political issues like gay marriage, immigrant rights, the cause of eating disorders, the use of fossil fuels, consumerism, and so on. Students were not allowed either to explain themselves or to abstain. If students approved of gay marriage, for example, they had to stand on one side of the room; if they disapproved, on the other. No one was allowed to stay in the middle, because, the students were told, the real world is polarized like this. We’ll come back to the suppression of real discussion.
Throughout the program, at every opportunity students were told that their identity, first and foremost, is not “human,” but this or that ethnic, racial, religious or sexual group: “Native American,” “Hispanic,” “black,” “Asian,” “white,” “male,” “female,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” “gay,” straight,” and so on. Whites and males were singled out and publicly shamed for their “privilege.” This way of identifying people, which is quite common these days, is more important than you might think.
Students were also forced to behave like bigots and spew forth stereotypes about members of other ethnic, racial, religious or sexual groups. When students objected that they were being forced to say things they didn’t mean, the RA’s told them that they were saying what, deep down, they really thought. The obvious purpose of this exercise was to shame whites, in general, and white males, in particular. But, in fact, minority students especially hated the exercise, because it was in their name that other students were being unfairly shamed and abused.
So, where the one-on-one sessions intruded upon the private, even intimate, lives of the students, the group sessions publicly pressured them to adopt specific views. The former violated the students’ moral autonomy; the latter compelled them to profess views not their own.
Publicly, the administrators claimed that the program was teaching only “democracy,” “civility” and “citizenship”—the usual reassuring buzz-words. But in their internal documents, one administrator proudly stated that the program was meant to leave “a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness.” Another said that its aim was to “turn” students, to convert them into “allies” and “change agents” of a long list of hard-left causes. And yet another described the program as “a treatment” through which “specific attitudinal or behavioral changes will occur” in the students.
The Residence Life officials had trained nearly 200 RA’s to carry out their program. The RA’s training manuals instructed them to teach students that all white people are racists, no matter what they think, feel or do. Let me quote: “The term [racist] applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality.” And just as all whites are racists, only whites can be racists. Again, from the training manuals: “[P]eople of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities or acts of discrimination….” So, to be white means to be a racist, and reverse racism is just a white myth—a myth, the manuals explain, of whites “in denial” about their own racism.
In one of the dorms, the freshman-year program rested on the explicit premise that the U.S. is an oppressive country. Starting from this premise, students were told to figure out how we can get rid of the oppression. I’m very pleased to say that a few bright, brave students answered loudly, “By getting rid of programs like this.”
Thanks to some wonderful students, of whom I’m extremely proud, and thanks to the absolutely indispensable help of FIRE (especially of Adam Kissel and Samantha Harris), whom I can’t thank enough, a colleague (Linda Gottfredson) and I were able to force the University to end the program. Despite some attempts by Residence Life to bring it back under various disguises, the program is now gone—dead and buried. We’ll of course keep checking to make sure it doesn’t return from the grave. But, if Delaware is a disquieting example of what appalling things can happen, it should also be an encouraging example of what liberty-loving people can do to fight back and win. You can beat the bastards!
I wish I could say that the end of Delaware’s program meant the end of such programs at other schools. For a while, I thought (or hoped) that Delaware’s scandal would deter other colleges and universities from trying to establish such oppressive programs. No college president wants the embarrassment of such a scandal—or so I thought. I was therefore surprised, and dismayed, to read on a recent FIRE posting that one of FIRE’s interns, Rachel Cheeseman, told of a similar program at her school, DePauw University.
From what I read, the DePauw program is Delaware’s identical twin. It looks as if DePauw officials simply lifted its program from the thick loose-leaf binder that the UD Director of Residence Life handed me. The similarity is no mere coincidence. The two programs—and perhaps many more like them around the country—have a common origin. They come from the same mold.
Let me briefly explain. This will serve as a warning to those of you who don’t yet have such programs on your campus. You’ll see why the threat to all schools is real.
Until very recently, those who ran college dorms were interested in student housing, dining, safety, study breaks, health, home—sickness and other such matters. However, many of those running dorms, today, have a new, grandiose mission, which they’ve appropriated for themselves. These Residence Life administrators regard themselves as educators—in fact, as their institution’s real educators. While faculty, in their view, do nothing more than fill students with facts, the Residence Life administrators shape the whole human being, they say. Faculty may shape careers, but Residence Life shapes souls. In their view, the college or university has no higher mission than soul-craft, and Residence Life is best prepared to fulfill it.
If you look at the publications of their professional organization (the American College Personnel Association), you’ll see that they proclaim “a shift in thinking.” They say that the traditional distinction between “academic affairs” and “student affairs”is misguided. Residence Life officials must unite the two. They must “create living-learning environments that fully engage students at meeting desired learning outcomes.” The key phrase is “learning outcomes.” It means the administrators’ desired political results. ResLife administrators are to create so-called “education” programs that change students’ opinions, beliefs and actions so they agree with the administrators’ own political views. The aim is to “turn” students, as I quoted, earlier. Success in a traditional Residence Life program used to be measured by the number of students attending an event and how much they liked it. Success in a new “educational” program is measured by how much the (captive) students’ opinions, beliefs and (most of all) actions have changed to meet the desired political outcomes.
Now, some people defended the program by arguing that administrators have the same academic freedom as faculty. ResLife administrators should therefore be as free as faculty to educate students. This argument may sound plausible, especially to those who support academic freedom (as I do), but it overlooks something crucial. No faculty member (at least at my institution) may do what Residence Life attempted. Academic freedom does not mean that anything goes, that I may do whatever I like with my students. Academic freedom permits me to teach, but not to indoctrinate. This fall, one of my classes will be reading Oedipus Rex. Academic freedom allows me to gauge how well the students understand Zeus, but not whether they now believe more (or less) in Zeus—let alone, whether they will act now on their new belief. Similarly, I may discuss politics in class, if it is relevant, but I may not grade students according to whether or not they agree with me. Academic freedom permits requiring students to understand given material, but not to adopt certain opinions or to take certain actions on which reasonable people may disagree. The latter is not a proper “learning outcome.” I may require students to know, say, the arguments for (or against) separation of powers, but not to adopt the view that Barack Obama is (or is not) an imperial president. Academic freedom is freedom to learn and to teach. It is not license to indoctrinate or to insist on desired opinions, beliefs and actions. It does not permit me to “turn” students, to stamp “a mental footprint on their consciousness.” (That’s really a totalitarian metaphor. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but think of the Fascists in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s.)
The Delaware program required RA’s to do other things that I would (properly) be fired for doing. Academic freedom does not permit faculty to intrude into the intimate lives, including the sexual lives, of students or to publicly ridicule and humiliate them and their families, as the Delaware program did.
I’d like to say something about political correctness. Political correctness comes in many forms and has many effects. In a way it’s too bad that not all the forms are as flagrant and hence as easy to spot as the Delaware program. Political correctness has now reached middle age. It’s been around since before you were born. Unfortunately, as a result, some of its forms readily blend in, today, with what passes for normalcy.
I mentioned earlier that Delaware students were constantly instructed that everyone’s fundamental identity is not “human,” but some ethnic, racial, religious or sexual group. We are first and foremost not humans, but Native Americans, women, whites, gays, or whatever. You hear this all the time on campuses. Does anyone see what’s at stake in this change? It’s certainly not politically neutral.
The change silently tosses away the founding principles of our nation. It reverts to the pre-modern world where birth (not nature or ability) was destiny. Our central founding principle, as I hope everyone here knows, is that as human beings we are entitled to basic individual natural rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights come not from government, not from our culture, but from our nature as humans. And it is the central purpose of government to protect them. Governments can (and often do) violate these basic natural rights, but they can neither grant nor repeal them. The rights precede government and culture, and flow from our common nature as humans. Because we are human, we are entitled to them.
I hope you can see the problem. If our group identity—our racial, religious, ethnic or sexual identity—rather than our common human identity is most fundamental, there’s no solid or permanent basis for these rights. The rights become mere social or cultural constructs—easily and justly replaceable by any other chosen set of values. Advocates of group identity often say that it is simply a matter of civility to identify people by their specific groups. Doing so treats them with proper individual dignity and respect, they say. But, in fact, the currently fashionable emphasis on group identity amounts to a political revolution—or counter-revolution—in the guise of civility or good manners. It denies what has made America truly wonderful. In particular, it denies liberty as a first principle. Like so much of political correctness, it’s anti-America at heart.
I think the constant call for civility does a great deal of harm. At the same time, it seems hard to oppose. It’s a perfect cover. Who can be against civility? The word silences opposition. If you say you oppose civility, you condemn yourself—and your cause. You seem to grant the moral ground to PC. But if you let the PC advocates define “civility,” you’ll have very little left of real liberty or of real education. You could think of it as the soft underbelly of liberty and learning, today.
On many campuses (Delaware was one), RA’s are trained to intervene if they hear students discuss politics or religion (or a number of other subjects), because someone is apt to find something said offensive. The RA’s don’t simply shut the students up (that would be obvious censorship, which they want to avoid). Instead, they give each student the chance to state his or her view, and then tell them to disperse. What the RA’s don’t allow are questions and answers, the back and forth of serious discussion. There’s no exchange, no probing, no explanations. This is neither free speech nor serious discussion, both of which it pretends to be. Even if you can spout off all you like (which is probably not allowed, in any case), no one is held accountable, or holds another accountable, for anything one thinks or says. In my view, civility means taking speakers seriously, listening carefully to what they say, and asking them good questions to try to grasp their thought. However, on many campuses, in the name of civility, accountability is eliminated and serious discussion suppressed. What’s called dialogue is nothing but dual monologues. I often see the effect of this in class. Students tend to be poor at listening to, or questioning, one another. More than once, students have told me that they think it’s impolite to question another. Civility calls for self-censorship.
Let me answer the “civility” crowd by putting in a good word for offensive speech. I’m not thinking of taunts, insults and rude name-calling. I’m thinking of serious-minded discussions of serious matters by people who fundamentally disagree. Such discussions often cannot avoid giving offense. Think of a discussion between a serious Christian and a serious Muslim on the nature of God. The Christian says God is three (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost); the Muslin says, no, God is one (the central tenant of Islam). The Christian says that Jesus is the son of God; the Muslin says, no, Jesus is a prophet, just like Moses and Mohammed. To their great credit, each takes offense at the other’s words. Each finds the other’s argument offensive because both are serious about God, but have different understandings. There’s nothing personal about the offense. Quite the contrary, that each takes offense at the other is a measure of both speakers’ seriousness about the nature of God.
I could easily give similar examples from just about every important aspect of life. On what serious questions don’t serious people fundamentally disagree? The list of safe subjects would probably be very short.
PC shows itself not only in what you may not say (and should not think) on campus, but in what you must, and what you need not, study. If your school is anything like mine (and it probably is), no student is required to learn anything of the history or the principles of the Western world. If the Western world comes up, it’s often only to debunk or accuse it. History is not required; multiculturalism is. So, while you can graduate without knowing the first thing about Athens, Rome, the Middle Ages or the modern Enlightenment (to say nothing of the founding of this country), you can satisfy the multicultural requirement by studying any number of non-Western courses. Multiculturalism, as the word is common used today, is essentially anti-Western. The West is neglected or derided.
I teach bright (Honors) students. It’s rare to find any who know more than mere snippets of Western political history—isolated facts (accurate or inaccurate) about which they seldom can explain the significance. Our founders knew better. They knew that you can understand the present world, and plan properly for the future, only if you know the past. The world is not created afresh every day—or every generation. If you want to protect liberty, you must know the subtle and disguised dangers to it as well as the obvious ones, and you can learn them only from studying chiefly Western political history.
The 19th century abolitionist Wendell Phillips once famously said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That is certainly true of freedom on campus. Liberty requires constant vigilance, because liberty does not protect itself. Laws and rules are important, but not enough. We must all be liberty’s watchful, devoted defenders. The most insidious threats to freedom are not tyrannical institutions and wicked officials, but complacency and acquiescence on our part. We must not take for granted that we’ll enjoy liberty tomorrow just because we enjoy it today. On the contrary, complacency invites suppression, and acquiescence accepts it. Citizens, both on and off the campus, must be alert to encroachments, strong in resisting them, confident in their love of liberty, and resolute in stepping forward to protect it. We must not fear challenging “political correctness,” in all its many forms, especially when it claims the moral high-ground, which it always does but which it most certainly does not enjoy. One of liberty’s great glories is that it frees each of us. But our individual freedom obligates each of us to defend it. As students at my university learned, liberty can easily slip away, but we need not—and we must not—let that happen.
Jan Blits is a full Professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware.
An earlier version of this essay contained a number of errors and omissions--it has since been corrected.