Let Them Eat Ivory: Vol. II
Duke University theology professor Paul Griffiths was forced to resign his post not long ago after issuing a response to an e-mail urging professors to attend “voluntary diversity training.” Condemned as a “racist, sexist, and bigot” (naturally), Griffiths, who merely pointed out the exercise would be “intellectually flaccid…[with] bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty,” has become the latest victim in the ideological war being waged on American college campuses (though it is spreading across the West like a California wild fire). Those who do not toe the party line and support the notion that enforced equity and racial parity is for the greater good, will be tarred, feathered, and made to walk the plank. The growing ranks of unemployed collegiate dissidents is growing at an alarming rate, replaced by ideologues and administrators. Contrast Griffiths’s words with those of Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher’s: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” Ciccariello-Maher still has a job, because his comments evidently fell under the umbrella of “protected speech,” while Griffiths and many like him, such as Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale and Ms. Susan Quade at Concordia University, have been forced out of their positions for what range from legitimate critiques to simply figures of speech, as in Quade’s case, but what campus higher-ups (and their Cultural Marxist students and professors) decry as “hate speech.”
In the United States, most universities are patterned on the liberal arts education model, which has its roots in the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and classical antiquity. By adhering to the Leftist paradigm, it is clear the DEMs (Dead European Males) taught in English classes, for example, are merely stand-ins for the ubiquitous Patriarchy, not considering these texts are taught in introductory courses and beyond to provide exposure to the foundational works and ideas of Western culture, of which the United States is absolutely a part. This reductive analysis also fails to take into account many of the voices in the canon are not even men. The American experiment is unlike any other; founded on Age of Enlightenment principles, stemming from a re-discovery of and commitment to humanism in Europe during the Renaissance, our very bedrock is the freedom of thought and inquiry made possible by an intellectual tradition spanning millennia, from the ancient Greeks to John Locke to John Stuart Mill. Shakespeare is not studied because of who he was, or even necessarily what he represents, but because of the seismic impact he had on theater, poetry, and even the English language itself—not to mention that his works would stand on their own merit even if they did not have this tremendous cultural weight.
Critical theory has largely supplanted the Socratic method of inquiry not only on North American campuses, but in the United Kingdom and across much of the rest of the West. While critical theory and Cultural Marxism’s roots are distinctly European, it is through the hybrid model espoused in the American university system’s wild success that this catch-all of victim-cultivation has been allowed to flower nearly unencumbered and, regrettably, be emulated by departments globally. Identity, as Leftist ideologues would have it, is wholly the result of social engineering and patriarchal, hetero-normative power structures, and yet ironically they must develop and enforce a “re-engineered” social contract on artificial and largely unprovable premises to combat an existing set of supposed social constructs, which in many cases are simply reflective of biological predilections and impulses. This is not to say that there isn’t a social component involved in our conception of race, sexuality, and the like, layered on top of biology, but to pretend that sex and gender, for example, vary independently is ridiculous, as is the notion that the fundamental differences between races are the result of some nefarious white super-structure. Sickle cell is not a social construct.
In Leftist ideology, everything is based on group affiliation, of reducing everyone to the lowest, most superficial common denominator, valuing intersectionality’s attendant parts above self-actualization. The modern Left certainly does not defend the values of classical liberalism, hence I will refrain from referring to them as liberals. They are Marxists in new clothes, an ideology that has the blood of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, on its hands. Leftists have come to value the collective over the individual, unless of course the individual espousing this rhetoric stands to gain power over someone else. It is an attempt to weaponize human emotion at the expense of reason and with the express purpose of gaining and maintaining power.
Make no mistake, for the doctrinaires it is not about improving society, but about turning differences into chasms, of employing a strategy of divide and conquer. True liberals, many of whom have been unwittingly co-opted by the Left, view differences as something to be acknowledged, maybe even celebrated, but these are ultimately superficialities that don’t define an individual’s character or person. What unites liberals and Leftists is compassion—potentially an excess of it for liberals—but for Leftists this is window dressing to amass an army of Lenin’s “Useful Idiots.” In fact, Leftist policies typically have the converse effect of harming those they purport to help. Case in point: the black nuclear family has been, well, nuked since the Great Society programs of 1964-65, and some 75% of black children are born out of wedlock. Children from single-parent homes are far more likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, and remain in poverty, thus perpetuating a cycle of dependency on social welfare programs that burden the state. The Leftist-controlled inner cities are vote factories for the pawn Democrats in America, identity politics marketed to supersede self-interest. Black immigrants to America are statistically more likely to join the middle class than their American-born counterparts, the vast majority of whom vote Democrat.
Progress in the “progressive” sense is actually antithetical to the way we have always defined it. Nations that have most readily embraced the free market and free enterprise have flourished and naturally expanded individual rights. Post-independence Africa by-and-large stuck to a model of African socialism, and as a result, among other, more intractable factors, the continent-wide standard of living is lower than it was in the mid-1960s. Three-quarters of global poverty is clustered in Africa. Inequality, by any measure, will never be stamped out; it is a fundamental condition of human existence and must be acknowledged. We are all born with different strengths and weaknesses, and we must embrace these to develop and mature into healthy, productive adults who contribute to society and build strong families and communities. It is through the actualization of the self, the development of the individual, that, ironically and contrary to Leftist insistence, collective bonds grow and strengthen. Success is a remarkable salve—this is probably why political correctness was so short-lived between America’s two economic booms in the 1980s and 1990s (plus the fact that the demographic issue was less pronounced then, and academia and the Democrat Party were not yet the Marxist grotesqueries they are today, to say nothing of the failed science experiment that is the Millennial generation).
In some respects there is truth to the progressive narrative. As time has gone on, access to property, commerce, and ultimately voting rights and equal standing under the law have allowed more voices to be heard in Western discourse. My issue with the sustained attack on the canon that first came to national attention in the 1987-88 Western Culture course protests at Stanford University, where the inimitable Reverend Jesse Jackson led five hundred students chanting, “Hey hey ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!” is that this push for “inclusiveness” wants to amend the canon, erase the canon, not add to the canon with new voices that, like Shakespeare, have made a great impact on the culture and stand on their own merits. For one, there is no law stating that other traditions cannot be studied and their texts analyzed, nor should anyone advocate for such a thing. There are scores of courses in the humanities that explore myriad works across time periods, cultures, and other multitudinous sub-categories. The canon taught on American campuses is central to our unique sense of cultural identity. There are indispensable works prominent in all Western thought and others that may have more cultural specificity in, say, Germany or Ireland, so this is certainly not an appeal for homogeneity. That said, I wouldn’t expect demands to amend course requirements in canonical texts at the University of Nairobi to be taken any more seriously than I would at Stanford. Instead of demolishing a Western Culture course requirement, perhaps the students display a modicum of patience and take an elective more to their tastes the next semester. Nothing precludes students at the University of Nairobi from studying Dylan Thomas, but a Welsh immigrant to Kenya has no more right to demand their new environs cater to their culture than a Kenyan immigrant has to demand Cardiff University change its course materials to include Grace Ogot.
The academy has a duty to teach students critical thinking, which will enable them, ideally, to be intellectually honest and consistent in their worldview, and to think their positions through. As educators, the professoriate should strive to provide differing viewpoints and remove their biases from the assessment process as best they can. The professor should try to be more of an intermediary and strive for impartiality, though where relevant, the professor’s bias actually should be revealed, not couched in neutrality, and the students may take this position with the proverbial grain of salt. The purpose of an education is not indoctrination, but preparedness for a chosen career and a critical mind that is able to make considered judgements on multi-factorial issues. Given the current situation and the paucity of viewpoint diversity, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, we have our work cut out for us, but we would do well to adhere to the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, where professors are:
1. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge;
2. To provide general instruction to the students; and
3. To develop experts for various branches of the public service.
Nowhere is there an imperative to produce “professional activists” or advocate for that most nebulous of terms: social justice. Public service in this context is to contribute to society in a productive and meaningful way, be it as an engineer, a rocket scientist, or a teacher. Western commitment to individual autonomy, free markets, and minimal constraints on inquiry, speech, and thought, has produced the most prosperous and most open societies in human history, and has long since secured fundamental guarantees of human rights. Whether the West remains committed to these ideals is looking increasingly dubious, hence the very palpable signs of decline.
Identities are complex confluences of myriad factors, so unique that they are, indeed, individual. Reducing someone to a set of physical characteristics and sexual preferences, or making claims on universality for or on behalf of these groups, is by its very definition bigoted, but this reductive exercise serves the function of the Left seeking to “privilege” and “dis-privilege” certain groups based solely on their appearance and sexuality. This is hypocrisy of the highest order. Once again, a little critical thinking goes a long way in exposing these inherent contradictions—and on the Left, they are legion.
In many respects colleges are doing an incredible job fostering an environment ripe for personal and intellectual growth—there are few places where someone is physically safer than a college campus, there are scores of activities and clubs students may become involved in, and there are great resources for inquiry as well as personal support provided by the institutions. These are vital and should be supported. Where universities have gone wrong, however, is the expansion of the idea of safety beyond real, imminent threat, and into that which may produce discomfort. A number of psychologists have raised concerns about safe spaces and trigger warnings actually reinforcing negative or destructive tendencies through avoidance. The effect is that mental illnesses may become further ingrained, often to the point of pathology, and the numbers of afflicted will actually grow.
Colleges and universities really have to start asking themselves the hard questions: what kind of environment do we want to cultivate? Professor Jonathan Haidt has said the university needs to decide what its primary mission will be: Truth or Social Justice. The University of Chicago initially seemed to be going with Truth, telling the incoming Class of 2021 not to expect trigger warnings and safe spaces, and to prepare to be intellectually challenged. The faculty, naturally, signed a petition protesting this letter to the incoming freshmen, and several student advocacy groups came out of the woodwork with the all-too-familiar “campus reform demands.” It remains to be seen how the situation will resolve itself, but the on-campus response has been discouraging.
The confluence of an ever-expanding rank of Cultural Marxists and critical theorists in the professoriate, an increasingly meddlesome and ideology-driven administration, at turns infantilized and/or indoctrinated students, and the proliferation of identity politics-perpetuating disciplines has made the academy eminently hostile toward differing viewpoints. This is of course not a universal condition, but the university system at large finds itself at a crossroads. It must begin to reform itself or risk becoming an anachronism, or worse, a series of Cultural Marxist and relativist re-education camps.