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Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
Professor John Alexander Smith spoke those words to the class of students entering Oxford University in 1914. At the time, and for centuries before and decades after, that was the overriding goal of higher education: to be able to recognize when someone was talking rot.
To teach this skill, professors exposed students to master works of literature, art, and philosophy. If the students could understand great ideas and events of history, then poor ideas, repetitions, rehashes, and disguises would be easy to spot.
No matter one’s profession, the skill is invaluable. It can help us choose everything from the jobs we take to the people we marry the to politicians we elect. Which one is the likely liar? Which idea is just a restatement of something that has been tried and failed? Does that quick fix come with regretful consequences? Just who is talking rot?
But this skill is not the outcome of higher education today. It hasn’t been for decades. This isn’t news.
We got a clear snapshot of the extent of the decay in the past few weeks. Even academics who are supposed to be teaching students how to spot rot cannot spot it themselves. Using aliases, a made-up institution, 20 dubious sources, and intentionally unintelligible jargon, two scholars managed to publish a peer-reviewed paper called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” which made no clear claim beyond implying that maleness was bad and the penis was the root cause.
This type of academic setup is not new. It is called a Sokal hoax, named after New York University professor Alan Sokal, who published a fake paper on gravity in 1996 called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Sokal was exposing the habit of postmodern humanities journals to publish anything they merely agreed with, regardless of intellectual merit. The most devastating aspect of Sokal’s hoax was not that he managed to get a paper accepted that displayed bad reasoning, but that he managed to get a paper accepted that displayed no reasoning — he slid a semantically empty entry past the journal’s academic gatekeepers. Adding a flourish of irony to the latest hoax, Sokal inspired the PoMo Generator, a website that generates an academic-sounding paper each time it loads and from which five of the 20 sources in “The Conceptual Penis” came.
I just did, and the result I got was tantalizingly titled “Neocapitalist Construction and Constructivism,” with the first point being “Tarantino and Neocapitalist Construction.” The pulp fiction of academia, laid bare by an algorithm.
So what has happened to higher education that this level of fakery can flourish?
The answer is part and parcel of another academic malady that most observers of news today have become all too familiar with: censorship.
I don’t mean that censorship is causally responsible for humanities departments reconstituting themselves as bastions of inscrutable postmodernism. But both have the same illiberal source.
Here is the narrative: The set of master works, the Western canon, is worse than wrong; it is an instrument of power. What these works do, when enshrined within curricula and taught in our lecture halls, is perpetuate the marginalization of groups not recognized or represented by them. This is a story of harm.
And when a campus speaker is blocked from speaking, the justification springs from the same illiberal fount.
This is a therapeutic reading of the university’s mandate. But the point, actually, is truth. And the vehicle that gets us to truth the best is academic freedom, and the free flow of ideas.
When this is denied, our society’s ability to recognize rot, well, rots.
Around the middle of the previous century, postmodernism (which is tangled up in other names and terms perhaps more familiar, such as Nietzsche, Foucault, critical theory, deconstructionism, and, generally, relativism) argued not just that there was value in other perspectives beyond what had traditionally been taught (which is a valuable insight, if indeed those other works warrant, from the perspective of merit, inclusion within curricular choices), but also that there was really no value in the Western canon.
The Western canon is a term coined and a book written by Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University. He is one of the last and best defenders of liberal education. Recognizing that the postmodernistists won, at least for a time, Bloom compiled a list of essential works of literature with extensive commentary. Regardless of what happens to universities, liberal education need not fail.
In university practice, the postmodernists did not think it sufficient to add factional, marginalized, or individual perspectives to current studies, which they dismissed as the collective works of dead, privileged white men. The factional, marginalized, and individualized were to be the study.
It took a few decades, but by the late 1970s, “-isms” of every kind had sprouted on university grounds. The postmodernists were helped along by the feminist second wave sending women to university and the G.I. Bill expansion to federal education loans for the general public. There were students to teach and government underwriting the bill. That is, there was big money in higher education. Universities grasped for professors without much care for vetting or previous academic rigor. Get professors in the new “-isms” chairs and charge government-subsidized tuition to a growing student body. (This is outside the scope of this article, but this laid the foundation for the soaring higher education costs we know today.)
Old-school educators formed the last and insufficient obstacle to a complete postmodern transformation of higher education. They objected to the lack of intellectual rigor of the postmodernists arriving on campus, and they knew how such movements ended. The French Revolution devolving into the Terror is a typical example in these discussions. Here is Camille Paglia giving her talk “Free Speech and the Modern Campus” at Drexel university in April 2016:
As a veteran of more than four decades of college teaching, almost entirely at art schools, my primary disappointment is with American faculty, the overwhelming majority of whom failed from the start to acknowledge the seriousness of political correctness as an academic issue and who passively permitted a swollen campus bureaucracy, empowered by intrusive federal regulation, to usurp the faculty’s historic responsibility and prerogative to shape the educational mission and to protect the free flow of ideas. The end result, I believe, is a violation of the free speech rights of students as well as faculty.
What is political correctness? As I see it, it is a predictable feature of the life cycle of modern revolutions, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, which was inspired by the American Revolution of the prior decade but turned far more violent. A first generation of daring rebels overthrows a fossilized establishment and leaves the landscape littered with ruins. In the post-revolutionary era, the rebels begin to fight among themselves, which may lead to persecutions and assassinations. The victorious survivor then rules like the tyrants who were toppled in the first place. This is the phase of political correctness — when the vitality of the founding revolution is gone and when revolutionary principles have become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.
Quieting the Opposition
Even with their numbers rising in university faculties, the postmodernists needed to quiet the opposition if they wanted to keep their newly acquired academic chairs. It is much easier to persuade pupils about a brilliant “new” idea if the pupils don’t know much about history beyond living memory. Or, more cynically, it is difficult to inflate weak ideas if someone has taught your audience to look for the helium tank.
The postmodernists needed to control the ideas that circulated on campus.
Alas, the American tradition of free speech is (was?) strong. Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition are the rights listed first in the Bill of Rights, reminding us that it is our right to act in accordance with our beliefs.
That we have such an explicit and effective reminder of the right to speak or act as we think can take much of the credit for America’s outstanding relative prosperity, security, innovation, and attractiveness. Past and present, many other parts of the world have populations familiar with keeping quiet for fear someone in authority is listening. But not here. We are taught to use these expressive rights as part of American education. As the American Civil Liberties Union puts it:
But the right to free speech is not just about the law; it’s also a vital part of our civic education. As Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1943 about the role of schools in our society: “That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Remarkably, Justice Jackson was referring to grade school students. Inculcating constitutional values — in particular, the value of free expression — should be nothing less than a core mission of any college or university.
Up against our deep tradition in free speech, building a case for campus censorship has taken time.
Postmodernists found a potential vehicle for silencing speech in President Nixon’s education amendments. Passed in the early 1970s, Title IX and VII were written as contracts between universities and the government. If a university discriminated based on sex, race, or creed, then the government would not give that university money available though various federal programs.
Through legal challenges in the 1980s and ’90s, first came a private cause of action for a Title IX violation. Students could sue the university for violations, which significantly opened up a university’s financial exposure. Then, the legal definition of discrimination broadened to include harassment, which then broadened to include the notion of a hostile environment. Some of the definitional expansion occurred not by court cases, but by regulatory decisions from the regulatory agencies charged with administering Title IX and VII. The American Association of University Professors has a full history of the progression.
While Title IX expanded, new, related regulations came into effect with definitions tied to Title IX interpretations. Now Title IX is “an ice cube beside the iceberg of campus-related regulations.” Until the 2011 Dear Colleague letter from the Department of Education, however, the many creeping changes dealt with behavior, not speech. The 2011 letter finally mingled conduct and speech as harassment and left out precautionary language to protect free speech.
The censorial environment we now know — the graduation season of keynote speaker disinvitations, PR protests of speakers, violent protests of speakers, and pseudonymous letters by professors living in fear of their students objecting to something they might say — stems from that 2011 guidance, such that it is. Universities changed their policies for speakers, professors, student groups, etc., in response to their new and uncertain financial and legal exposure after the 2011 letter.
From the 2015 professor letter linked above (and note that the other professor he references was writing about her Title IX tribunal):
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.
I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
As a practical matter, universities today are unsure what kind of speech by whom can get their funding pulled and expose them to a lawsuit, or many, by the offended persons. Therefore, their legal and financial incentive is to shut down all potentially offensive speech — which of course raises the question: How do universities determine what speech is offensive?
More ominously, who decides what speech is offensive?
Even the typical answer that the courts will make that determination leaves open the question of which courts. It isn’t like the federal circuits agree on outcomes or rationales.
If the courts do not preserve the First Amendment — that is, if they do allow restrictions on our speech — then they will look to how people are offended to determine what limitations seem appropriate. So whether the courts or the universities try to figure out what is offensive speech, both will look to the offended to decide, which will not actually provide clarity.
Not offending others is the new Catch-22; no one gets it right. Even among the commonly offended groups, competitions arise for the title of most aggrieved, almost like they are at the mercy of the capitalist competition forces they typically decry. Or they ironically try to fit people into the most reductive category while calling themselves intersectionalists, a phenomenon easy to see with intersectional feminism.
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Erring on the side of caution, the universities might seek, as the pseudonymous professor and his colleagues did, to limit all speech that might ever offend anyone. But then, what would be left to teach? Worse, after one cycle of limited education, who would be able to teach?
Within a generation, teaching would hardly matter. A bold and charismatic personality can easily lead a populace that cannot tell when someone is talking rot or not. Some would say we are obviously already there. Others would say that we’ve been there for a while.
Think back to the Ben Rhodes affair, when a White House deputy national security adviser shocked and offended journalists with the declaration that it was easy to spin a story because of the “sea change” in journalists’ knowledge base. “They literally know nothing.” Lacking knowledge among the degreed is not a new problem. Assume for the moment that Rhodes was talking rot — according to Rhodes himself, they wouldn’t have been able to detect it; nothing in the journalists’ preparation could help them see it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We still have have another option while some still remember it. The courts might find that the limitations on campus speech anchored by the 2011 Dear Colleague letter violate the First Amendment, among others. Faculty of Harvard Law published an open letter outlining an assortment of legal objections when Harvard designed its new sexual harassment response program to comply with the 2011 letter.
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It will be difficult to untangle the current censorious regime, but the status quo is intolerable, and the trajectory looks worse. The assortment of initiatives to fix journalism and the weekly nonsense news trends testify to a media and public both easily led by the loud, the dramatic, the salacious. It seems Professor John Alexander Smith was right: It is a useful skill, knowing who is talking rot.