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Permission to Speak Freely

A new crusade aims to protect conservative students from left-wing professors. But the real victim is robust debate?on campus, and beyond.

NOT SATISFIED TO CONTROL the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the rest of the federal courts, most governorships and state legislatures, not to mention the most powerful amalgamation of capital and military force in the history of the world, not to mention Fox News, Clear Channel, etc., some of the right’s culture warriors are in an uproar about those redoubts of left-wing authority…the colleges.

Welcome back to the political-correctness wars. This time around, the prime charge seems to be that left-wing faculty corral, conscript, and bludgeon their captive audiences of unwilling and innocent students. Conservative students claim to have been ridiculed, graded down, subjected to rigged reading lists, and dragooned into their professors’ pet causes. A letter to the Indiana Legislature by Sara Dogan, director of a group called Students for Academic Freedom, cites the case of a Ball State University senior named Brett Mock, who claimed that, to get full credit in a peace studies course he had taken, “You have to devote a semester to PeaceWorkers events; you must meditate at the Peace Studies center…or you must attend Interfaith Fellowship meetings during the semester.” Ball State’s provost investigated and disagreed with Dogan’s account, but never mind. Left-wing professors, according to Dogan, are involved in an “indoctrination effort…to recruit students to their radical agendas, which include sympathy for the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11.”

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Such is the tenor of a campaign launched by ex-leftist David Horowitz, himself more than 40 years out of school but the founder of Students for Academic Freedom, to convince state legislatures to protect “academic diversity” by passing an “academic bill of rights” that sounds noble (“Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should [provide] students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate”), but in fact would put the government in the business of enforcing pluralism. There’s an echo here of Ronald Reagan’s accusations that University of California professors instigated the student uprisings of the 1960s. Crying, “Emergency! Police the professors!” Horowitz has adopted a distinctly retro, vindictive approach to an actual problem: the muffling of serious argument on campus.

Is there a left-liberal-multicultural atmosphere at elite institutions? Undoubtedly, though the surveys on which conservatives rely probably misconstrue its pervasiveness. Academics do flock together and sometimes abuse their power. The even more intractable problem is that conformity, both the faculty’s and the students’, is self-fulfilling, lending itself to the enshrinement of the smug, the snug, and the narrow. Much of the muffling, as always, is the product of peer pressure, which is as real at liberal arts colleges as at military academies. When fundamentals go unquestioned and dissenters are intimidated, those who prevail get lazier and dumber.

How deep is the silence? Hard to know. Much cited in conservative columns is a 2002 survey by the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, according to which a full 32 percent of the students felt “uncomfortable speaking their opinion” on the famously liberal campus.

Whatever that means exactly, the pop-psych language is telling. Since when is higher education supposed to make you feel comfortable, anyway? In a largely unexamined triumph of marketplace values, college has come to be seen as a consumable product. Parents invest through the nose hoping for practical payoff. What follows is grade inflation, epidemic cheating, scorn for a common curriculum, and an all-around supermarket attitude. Consumer choice—embrace whatever turns you on, avoid what- ever turns you off—is elevated to a matter of high principle. But weren’t conservatives supposed to be fixing our minds on higher values?

Here’s the contradiction inherent in this right-wing crusade. In their sudden sensitivity to the comfort of minorities—ideological ones, in this case—the advocates of legislative intervention on campus speech discard one of the virtues that conservatives have long embraced: the insistence on standing strong. They tend to cast students as frail, helpless victims of “abuse” who need institutional muscle to defend them against forces of evil they dare not confront on their own.

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