Friday, April 2, 2021
Things have changed since I was a young teacher at Columbia in the early 1980s. Then, self-understanding was the whole point of its famous core curriculum. Its centerpiece, the comically misnamed “Contemporary Civilization,” took you on a tour of the great thinkers from Plato to the present day—“Plato to NATO,” as student wits called it. It was assumed that the purpose of the course was to help you form your own ideas and build intellectual muscle. Students in those days were expected to have a “philosophical position” they would refine while arguing with friends in cafés and bars and during late-night bull sessions. By graduation, most Columbia students had some idea of where they stood on the great questions they cared about and were able to defend their positions with facts and arguments. Even if they couldn’t, they had developed the ability to recognize trustworthy facts and valid arguments. They were educated, in the now old-fashioned sense of the word.
That type of education is mostly gone at universities today, and it’s obvious why. Universities have become so politicized that many students dare not speak their minds to their teachers or fellow students for fear of social stigma, punitive grading, or the emotional trauma of a hostile tweet-storm. As the “campus expression surveys” of the Heterodox Academy and many other studies confirm, students across a wide range of political perspectives now engage in self-censorship and hold divisive stereotypes about their fellow students, particularly conservative or religious students. Substantial minorities don’t want to engage socially with students who don’t share their opinions and think it’s okay to silence views they believe are wrong. University administrators show an alarming authoritarianism, a readiness to discipline students who challenge progressive pieties. All this contributes to a propensity among students to keep their mouths, and their minds, firmly shut.