Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Ailing University

A fascinating article reviewing Donald Alexander Downs' book
Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.
The review looks at why our universities have abandoned their dedication to Truth and Knowledge and now pursue a a specific moral and political agenda:

What forces have driven universities to clamp down on the free play of ideas and to collaborate in the vilification of moral and political opinions that depart from campus orthodoxies? One factor involves a transformation in the idea of the university. The last 25 years have witnessed the return of what Downs calls the “proprietary university,” which sees its central mission not as the transmission of knowledge and the pursuit of truth but rather as the inculcation of a specific — in this case ostensibly progressive — moral and political agenda. Another involves a transformation in the progressive sensibility itself. As late as the mid-1960s, the dominant opinion on the left was that free speech and due process were essential to the creation of a more inclusive and just society. But belief in the progressive character of liberal principles has been under intense attack by influential scholars since the glory days of Martin Luther King Jr. Radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon argue that the oppression of women is itself a product of liberal commitments to fair process (notwithstanding that never in history have women enjoyed the freedom and equality achieved in contemporary liberal democracies). Critical legal theorists maintain the same about the oppression of the poor, and critical race theorists press the claim concerning the oppression of minorities (notwithstanding the reduction in the number and poverty of the poor and the unprecedented inclusion of minorities in public life in liberal democracies). At the same time, many campus theorists drew inspiration from Algerian social critic Frantz Fanon, whose The Wretched of the Earth argued that sympathy with those who suffer is a higher priority than respect for individual rights (even though respect for individual rights has proven over time the most successful means for alleviating suffering). Meanwhile, postmodern critics, believing themselves to be following Nietzsche, argued that individual rights were fictions invented by the strong to control the weak (never mind that Nietzsche decried modern liberalism as an invention of the weak to tyrannize the strong). Taken together, these opinions encouraged the idea of “progressive censorship,” the policing of speech to ensure that it conformed to standards deemed necessary to lift up and liberate the oppressed.

This is a brilliant book that is carefully written and documented. I highly recommend it if you want to understand what is ailing our institutions of higher learning.

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