“Although I disagree with every word you say, I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” This stirring proclamation by Voltaire could have been said by Thomas Jefferson — or any of his associates — since free speech, a mainstay of 18th-century Enlightenment, fueled the American Revolution and is incorporated in our Constitution. In the first half of the previous century, a common phrase was “It’s a free country; I can say what I want.” That phrase is not so common today, but free speech is still an American ideal, or so most of us think.
In his new book, “Unlearning Liberty,” Greg Lukianoff shows that free speech is widely restricted on American college campuses. Tuition costs are no guarantee of protection because even the most expensive and most highly respected colleges fall ill to this disease.
The assaults on free speech take many forms, but perhaps the most common are the widely prevalent and usually awkwardly constructed speech codes. For example, Drexel University told us in 2006 that harassment (which, of course, was banned) includes inconsiderate jokes and inappropriately directed laughter. What is a considerate joke and what would make it inconsiderate?
In 2007, Florida Gulf Coast University banned expressions deemed inappropriate. In 2011, Mansfield University stated that freedom from discrimination prohibits any behavior that would diminish another’s self-esteem or their striving for competence, and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater prohibited “obnoxious jerk harassment,” including sexual suggestiveness, jokes, catcalls, whistles, remarks, etc. The author’s organization, Fire (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), offered awards for the most obnoxious speech code of the month and never had trouble finding candidates.
One of the more tragic examples of university administrative overreach is the case of Charles Plinton. The University of Akron paid an ex-felon $50 for every name given in purported drug transactions. Mr. Plinton was named and went to trial in a criminal court. The case was thrown out after 40 minutes and Mr. Plinton was cleared. However, the university persisted in its own deliberations and expelled Mr. Plinton. Because no other college would take him, he stayed at home musing and torturing himself for a year and then committed suicide.
One should note that in today’s universities it is not student bodies or faculty committees that enforce speech codes; it is officers of the administration. It also should be noted that administrative staff is now beginning to outnumber faculty on many campuses, giving a different cast to university life and raising student costs outrageously. It now costs more than $60,000 for a year’s tuition at Sarah Lawrence College.
If one reduces the size of today’s mammoth university bureaucracy and the number of administrators required to operate it, and lowers the extraordinary compensation given to its top administrators and their presidents (in 2008, a dozen received annual payments of more than $1 million), costs will recede dramatically and student life unrestrained by politically correct dogma can become more intellectually exciting.
The cultural revolution of the 1960s was pervasive. It was also anarchistic and anti-intellectual. The old paragons of intellectuality, such as T.S. Eliot and Henry James, were set aside. James’ sentences were far too elaborate to read comfortably, and Eliot quoted Sanskrit. Instead, we were favored with pieces not necessarily more red-blooded but certainly more vulgar and louder, such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Scholarship also suffered as college curricula became infested with “studies” of little worth.
The study of history diminished and the civic virtues that were once paramount in our thoughts, such as free speech, lost their importance to politically correct thinking. The idiomatic phrase “I reckon,” meaning I reason or think, was replaced by “I feel” or “it feels.” Finally, it was felt that the Garden of Eden could be restored on Earth by passing a few feel-good laws.
The author highlights an enormous number of cases restricting freedom of speech. He states that many have been resolved by publicity, telling the story in the newspapers and letting the public know what is happening, but he warns that the trend is in favor of more restrictions.
Mr. Lukianoff is of the opinion that the education bubble, like the recent housing bubble and dot.com bubble of the past, eventually will burst. College costs, which continue to rise faster than inflation, are too high for a normal family to bear. Because of the slackness of the material being taught, a college degree no longer guarantees a decent job upon graduation. The future of education, like the futures of so many other elements of our civilization, seems vulnerable to great change. We live in interesting times.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.