Tools for School

April 18, 2006

It’s hardly worth asking anymore whether political indoctrination is a problem in higher education. The problem has been demonstrated and re-demonstrated ad nauseam over the last couple of decades, so serious observers are left with two main lines of inquiry: First, how can we reliably differentiate pernicious indoctrination from legitimate academic discourse? And second, what can we do to combat the indoctrination?

The first of these questions is taken up in a short new book published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based civil-liberties group. In FIRE’s Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus, attorneys Harvey A. Silverglate and Jordan Lorence make a case for “the indispensable right to private conscience,” defined as “the right to arrive at one’s private beliefs, without being coerced into an artificial unity by those who wield power over us.” They deliver a brisk, intellectually invigorating treatment of a controversial subject that has long been clouded by a lack of clear thinking.

Making a solid case against thought reform in academia can be a tricky thing to do. After all, a good liberal-arts education is supposed to expose students to radical new ideas, to challenge their preconceptions, and to make them re-examine their most deeply held beliefs. This is how horizons are broadened and minds are expanded. In a very important sense, your thoughts should be reformed after you complete a program of rigorous academic studies. So when conservatives complain about “indoctrination” at the hands of campus radicals, they can easily create the impression that they are just a bunch of crybabies whose fragile worldviews can’t handle a collision with their critics.

And sometimes they are crybabies: A callow propensity has developed among some college conservatives to play the victim card at the first whiff of passionate political opposition. These students forget that leftist professors and administrators have their own rights to expound their views, and that no student has a right to be insulated from ideas that he finds distasteful or offensive. Even worse, crybaby tactics provide ammunition to academic apologists, who seek to dissolve all criticisms leveled against the ivory tower.

But Silverglate and Lorence skillfully avoid the obvious pitfalls of their subject. To pin down a type of indoctrination that is both common on campus and heartily condemnable, they focus on the key element of coercion. This feature presents itself, they argue, when professors and administrators go beyond mere advocacy and use their academic or administrative power to force their views on students by threatening punishment for ideological nonconformity.

Keeping the “coercive” criterion in focus, the authors sharply define the common types of campus thought reform. First there are the mandatory orientation programs and “diversity training sessions,” which students are required to attend on pain of disciplinary action. These sessions typically preach one-sided views about social justice, ethnicity, sexuality, and various other controversial topics.

Then there are “ideologically tilted speech codes,” which ostensibly aim to uphold standards of respect and civility, but which are actually employed to crack down on viewpoints that stray from the campus orthodoxy. Going hand-in-hand with such selective speech codes, “mandatory psychological counseling” is a perpetual administrative favorite, often imposed upon students whose views are deemed “offensive” or “insensitive.” Such counseling is an especially egregious form of indoctrination, manifesting as it does an intensive, concentrated effort to alter the core values and beliefs of its subjects.

These are the distinctive hallmarks of campus thought reform, the unique progeny of the unholy marriage between authoritarianism and ideology. As Silverglate and Lorence write, “Identifying students who hold the ‘wrong’ beliefs and then subjecting them to techniques to purge them of their ideological errors suggest a gross violation of a student’s right to believe.”

But why do colleges commit such gross violations? And why are they often so unapologetic about it? As an example of how blatant universities can be, Silverglate and Lorence quote the policy book of Shippensburg University, a public school that FIRE successfully sued in 2003. At the time of the lawsuit, the school’s official policy read: “Shippensburg University’s commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity and social justice will require every member of this community to ensure that the principles of these ideals be mirrored in their attitudes and behaviors.” (Emphasis Silverglate and Lorence’s.)

Silverglate and Lorence do not consider at length the motivation that drives campus thought reformers, but a large part of it is probably quite simple. Campus radicals are in a position of staggering dominance over academia, and they correctly see in this dominion a key to the future. As the leaders of tomorrow stream through colleges, academics are imbued with an enormous power for potential social transformation. If only the radicals could slip their truth serums into the campus water supplies, their ilk would surely inherit the earth.

Although the authors do not attempt to provide a comprehensive program geared toward fighting the problem they identify, the Guide itself is an important part of that program. Silverglate and Lorence paint a clear and convincing portrait of the types of coercive indoctrination that are currently flourishing in our institutions of higher learning. In so doing, they arm students with an array of moral and legal arguments to fight back against those who seek to convert the academy into a tool for political conversion. It’s an uphill battle to restore the integrity of liberal-arts education, and critics of the academy are beset on all sides by defenders of the status quo. The best we can do is to follow the old saw that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness; and remember that FIRE is there to help keep it burning.

Schools: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania