The Unraveling of Academia

Have we entered the era of the anti-Enlightenment?
April 27, 2023
Jorm Sangsorn/Getty Images

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” 

It’s the question now famously asked by Stanford Law School DEI associate dean Tirien Steinbach on March 9, in response to an ugly, shout-down protest against federal Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan. “Is it worth the pain that this causes, the division that this causes? Do you have something so incredibly important to say about Twitter and guns and COVID that that is worth this impact on the division of these people?”

Her stunning questions — from an administrator at one of the country’s top law schools — quickly went viral. As did the behavior of student protestors holding signs that read: “We hope your daughters get raped.” The picture is one of a law school administrator who evidently misunderstands the First Amendment and law students acting with the maturity of kindergarteners. 

It was a rock bottom moment, and Stanford Law Dean Jenny S. Martinez recognized it as such. On March 22, Martinez released a ten-page memo that rebuked the activists and put the DEI associate dean on leave.

At first, it seemed to mark a turning point. At Harvard, Professor Steven Pinker announced the creation of a new Council on Academic Freedom. Cornell President Martha E. Pollack announced that the 2023-24 academic year would be devoted to exploring the theme of free expression.

“By putting it in the open, and rounding up a posse of defenders, we hope to break the ‘spiral of silence’ at Harvard, and, we hope, other institutions will be inspired by our model.”  – Prof. Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker
(Rose Lincoln/Harvard University)

“I do think there are grounds for optimism,” Pinker told me. “So many faculty and students have been privately fed up with the intellectual reign of terror on American campuses, but have been reluctant to speak out because, who needs the trouble? By putting it in the open, and rounding up a posse of defenders, we hope to break the ‘spiral of silence’ at Harvard, and, we hope, other institutions will be inspired by our model.”

But just as quickly, other incidents emerged: San Francisco State University began investigating an Iranian-born professor for showing an image of Muhammad in class; also at SFSU, the administration praised the “tremendous bravery” of “trans” activists who mobbed and attacked champion swimmer Riley Gaines after she spoke on campus about women’s right to same-sex sports; at Whitworth University, a Christian institution in Washington state, the student government denied a student group’s request to host Chinese dissident Xi Van Fleet, citing her tweets comparing “woke culture” to Mao’s China. 

“I’m more pessimistic now than ever,” said Professor Alan Charles Kors, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1968 to 2017, and is co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). 

Kors was my professor at Penn, teaching the intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries. We learned much about the Enlightenment, and the religious persecution of heretics that preceded it. Both Kors and Pinker agree that today we have the political persecution of heretics and the repression of reason, facts and truth. “Universities are repressing differences of opinion, like the inquisitions and purges of centuries past. It has been stoked by viral videos of professors being mobbed, cursed, heckled into silence, and sometimes assaulted,” Pinker wrote in announcing Harvard’s council.

Have we entered the era of the anti-Enlightenment?

What Happened

In a speech entitled “The Enlightenment and Academic Freedom” at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in 2016, Kors juxtaposed universities in the ‘60s with universities today. There were, of course, both professors and students who leaned heavily into Marxism and socialism in the ‘60s. But there was a key difference: Those professors understood that while they could add a book or two on Marx to reading lists, their job was to present Marxist ideology — along with other ideologies — as something for students to analyze, criticize, debate. No matter how radical their own political views, professors in the ‘60s did not even try to indoctrinate their students: It simply wasn’t done. 

Some of those students went on to become professors who began to slowly change the ethos, the role, of a university. Convinced of the certainty of their own neo-Marxist politics, they began to dispose of precisely what makes a university function: analysis, debate, reason. Many even refused to acknowledge a difference between education and activism. So when critical race and gender theories began seeping into every subject in the 1990s, the classroom stage had already been set: A professor’s role was no longer to teach students how to think; it was to tell students precisely what to think — and silence anyone who had the gall to dissent. 

Not coincidentally, Students for Justice in Palestine, the epitome of violent, lie-infested activism, was founded in 1993. Everything academic began to collapse around that time.

Westend61/Getty Images

Politicized Curriculum

As a student at Penn in the 1980s, I had to take numerous political science courses to fulfill my International Relations major. Not once did I know the personal politics of the professors. I remember this distinctly because sometimes I was curious about what they thought, especially Professor Kors. But to express blatantly political views was considered so unethical that I thought it certainly must be emblazoned in university charters. But that was not the case.

“Such a restriction would itself be an infringement of academic freedom,” Pinker told me. “I don’t think it’s bad for professors to divulge their opinions, as long as they separate them from uncontested fact, present opportunities for students to learn about other perspectives, and make it clear that students are free to disagree.”

But that’s not what’s been happening. In fact, the personal opinions proviso is just one of the ways activist-professors have been able to open the door to indoctrination of their personal politics.

Simultaneously, postmodern theory enabled a hostile takeover of the classical liberal foundation of education: Concepts like truth, facts and morality all became questionable, “subjective.” And if the three are malleable, why shouldn’t activist-professors replace age-old curriculum with their own notions of reality? 

Biological differences between the sexes? A myth formulated by the (white, colonial) patriarchy to oppress women and then decades later biological males who decide to be women. Racism? Anyone with less melanin than Malcolm X is inherently racist and privileged, with ancestors who owned slaves.

Marx reduced everything to class struggle. Using “critical theory” as their excuse, these activist-professors reduce everything to gender and race struggles. And if those struggles don’t actually exist, they are more than happy to fabricate them. After all, who’s checking?

So-called anti-racism philosophies have resulted in the consummate weaponization of education for illiberal activism — and just a short step to political litmus tests for faculty and speech codes.

In the past few years, working to eliminate racism wasn’t enough. One had to be actively “anti-racist,” which came to mean everything that would have been abhorred by Martin Luther King Jr.: segregation, “affinity” groups, lowering standards for high-melanin students. So-called anti-racism philosophies have resulted in the consummate weaponization of education for illiberal activism — and just a short step to political litmus tests for faculty and speech codes. 

Free Speech

Stanford Law’s DEI dean is far from alone in misunderstanding the concept of free speech and how it’s a foundational principle of liberal education, not to mention democracy. Five other prestigious law schools have recently shown an inability to tolerate opinions that transgress campus orthodoxies on race and gender. At a Federalist Society event at Yale University in March 2022, Kristen Waggoner was barely able to conduct a panel discussion on civil liberties because of the stomping and shouting of students. That same month, at the University of California College of the Law–San Francisco, Ilya Shapiro’s event was completely silenced by the protesters. In January 2022, Georgetown University had placed Shapiro on leave because of one tweet suggesting that President Joe Biden’s focus on appointing a black woman to the Supreme Court was myopic. In March 2021, Georgetown Law’s dean, William Treanor, fired adjunct professor Sandra Sellers for the “abhorrent” act of raising concern that her black students were not doing well. A student group at Berkeley Law banned Zionist speakers. 

Roland Fryer (The Aspen Institute)

And then there’s the case of Roland G. Fryer, a tenured professor of economics at Harvard, widely published and the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work on the black “achievement gap” in grade school. Fryer found that the academic achievement gap accelerates between kindergarten and eighth grade. He also found that, controlling for a few variables, the initial disparity disappeared.

“Black kindergartners and white kindergartners with similar socioeconomic backgrounds” achieved at similar levels. “Adjusting the data for the effects of socioeconomic status reduces the estimated racial gaps in test scores by more than 40% in math and more than 66% in reading.” The number of books in a child’s household, for instance, eliminates the gap in reading. This was good news to anyone interested in bridging the disparity. But it was inconvenient news to activists who are invested in the idea that “systemic racism” explains everything.

When it came to police shootings, Fryer could find “no racial differences.” This didn’t fit the acceptable party line. The point was clear: It’s not a good idea to go against the woke narrative, even if you’re Black and have more than sufficient data to prove your points.

Fryer also looked at the data about police stops and shootings. He confirmed that Black people were more than 50% more likely than white people “to experience some form of force in interactions with police.” But when it came to shootings, he could find “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.”

This didn’t fit the acceptable party line, despite the fact that Fryer himself is Black. Thus, by some dubious coincidence, in 2018 Fryer was accused of engaging in “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” toward four women who worked in the Harvard-affiliated research lab he created. What was that conduct? Harvard found that he had flirted with a graduate student years ago, and that a woman he had fired found some of his language to be not inappropriate but simply annoying. In other words, it was conduct that in any other context would never even be mentioned. 

Harvard suspended Fryer for two years, during which he was barred from teaching or using university resources. The point was clear: It’s not a good idea to go against the woke narrative, even if you’re Black and have more than sufficient data to prove your points.

But guess what? Students are now enthusiastically attending his class. Evidently, censorship can only go so far. Students still have the freedom to vote with their feet.

They will need to use that freedom, because according to FIRE, between 2014 and 2022 there were 877 attempts to punish scholars for expression that is protected by the First Amendment. Sixty percent resulted in actual sanctions, including 114 incidents of censorship and 156 firings (44 of them tenured professors). “More than during the McCarthy era,” wrote Pinker. “Worse, for every scholar who is punished, many more self-censor, knowing they could be next. It’s no better for the students, a majority of whom say that the campus climate prevents them from saying things they believe.”

I asked Pinker why a declaration of free speech isn’t part of every university charter, rather than simply sometimes mentioned in faculty handbooks. “This varies from university to university,” he said. “These statements of principle are generally not regulations, so they aren’t straightforwardly enforceable — it often takes a lawsuit by FIRE or some other organization to accuse a university of breach of promise for advertising a commitment to prospective students or funders and failing to deliver it. Even with state universities, which are bound by the First Amendment, the frenzy by some to condemn and censor is not matched by an equally dedicated group that will work to safeguard whatever commitment there is to freedom of speech and inquiry.”

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of universities now have the opposite: “speech codes.” FIRE defines a speech code as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy — such as a harassment policy, a protest and demonstration policy, or an IT acceptable-use policy — can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression.

Activist-professors have taught students that they have the right to not be offended. But not all students of course. Speech codes, trigger warnings, microaggression, safe spaces all apply only to Priority Victim Status (PVS) students. Students of Jewish ethnicity, one of the most persecuted minority groups for thousands of years, don’t make the cut. In fact, according to some facets of critical race theory, Jewish students are white, privileged, oppressor-colonialists, and are a big part of the problem. 

Offending Jewish students and Jewish professors — calling them names and rewriting our history — is seen as part of the solution. Words are “violence” unless they’re directed at non-PVS students. 

Not surprisingly, nearly three-quarters of Jewish students now say that they actively hide their Jewish identity on campus today. More than half say they’ve been subjected to campus antisemitism, and 72% say that college administrators don’t take this threat seriously.

But why should they? Why risk their careers for a non-PVS minority?

Pinker calls the repression of academic freedom “systemic.” “The activists command an expanding arsenal of asymmetric warfare, including the ability to disrupt events, the power to muster physical or electronic mobs on social media, and a willingness to smear their targets with crippling accusations of racism, sexism, or transphobia in a society that rightly abhors them.” 

Cancellation, sanctions, harassment, public shaming and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions of course has had an effect. More than half of students now say they are uncomfortable expressing views on controversial issues in class.

The classical liberal/First Amendment answer to speech you don’t like is more speech: reasoned exception, intellectual pluralism, heterodoxy, tolerance. But tolerance requires a maturity that is in short supply on campuses, both among activist-professors and students. Has social media made all of this far worse? No doubt. But the change from ethical, fact- and reason-based institutions to the anti-intellectual free-for-all that defines most campuses started long before social media. 

The Council on Academic Freedom created by Pinker and more than 50 colleagues is devoted to free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse. “We are diverse in politics, demographics, disciplines, and opinions but united in our concern that academic freedom needs a defense team.” Their touchstone is the “Free Speech Guidelines” adopted by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1990: “Free speech is uniquely important to the University because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning.”

“When activists are shouting into an administrator’s ear, we will speak calmly but vigorously into the other one, which will require them to take the reasoned rather than the easy way out.” 

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” writes Pinker, “and if we don’t defend academic freedom, we should not be surprised when politicians try to do it for us or a disgusted citizenry writes us off.” 

Critical Thinking 

Activists don’t tend to care much about facts, analysis or helping others think through a problem. They just want people to repeat their personal theories, which are often so thinly sourced they can easily be mistaken for propaganda. 

The same goes for activist-professors, especially since critical thinking skills, debate and reason have come to be considered “white” and thus inherently evil. Activist-professors essentially tell students to turn their brains off as part of the “social justice” fight. It’s also quite convenient for indoctrination. 

Another convenient aspect of the new anti-education curriculum is the emphasis on feelings — “emotional reasoning.” But this does not apply to the feelings of all students, of course; it applies only to those with Priority Victim Status. Students with PVS have been empowered to prioritize their own feelings over everything and everyone. They have been taught to be easily triggered, offended, and in need of extra protection, which often manifest in “safe spaces.”

Is it any wonder that in the video clips of noncancelled events the students, even law students, act as though they’re in nursery school? It’s not uncommon to see activist-students wildly stomping their feet, making faces, shouting vitriol, and often physically assaulting anyone who gets in their way.

Infantilization of Students

When you treat college students as children, in constant need of safe spaces and trigger warnings, they begin to act like children. Some have called this “in loco parentis” (Latin for “in the place of a parent”), but that would imply that the activist-professors are acting like adults. Perhaps in an effort to better “communicate” with their students, we see the activist-profs infantilize themselves in a way that would no doubt leave Freud speechless. Tantrums are common.

Another fallout is a self-involvement that could be called learned narcissism. In stark contrast to students of the ‘60s, who wanted to make the world a better place, students today seem to care more about their own feelings (and primping for selfies of course). Many have wondered why narcissism is a key trait of the millennial generation. I’ve blamed much of it on the fact that so many of them have been raised by nannies. When you watch these heckling videos, you see that they’re being taught to put themselves before anyone else.

Tolerance, pluralism, requires responsibility and respect, both of which are in short supply on campuses today.

Students are also being taught that they should exist in a state of desperate need of their “affinity groups” to survive. Knowing one’s identity and history is important, but not when it supersedes individuality, and the responsibility that that implies. “Individuality lies at the heart of human dignity,” said Kors.

Meanwhile, colleges are basing their admissions criteria on Priority Victim Status rather than merit. As a result, the number of Jews on Ivy League campuses has been cut by more than half over the past decade. How close are the Ivy Leagues to returning to the quotas on Jewish students that existed from the 1920s to the 1960s?


So how fair is it to compare universities today to pre-Enlightenment Europe?

Political persecution has replaced religious persecution. Heretics may not be burned (yet), but if they’re not cancelled or fired, they’re spat at, threatened with violence or destroyed on social media. Coercion in the form of speech codes has one goal: conformity. The Enlightenment introduced toleration, pluralism and reason — the foundations of liberty. But how do we get back to that if students today don’t even know what the Enlightenment is? Or if they do know, they’ve been taught that it’s “white,” colonial, and thus evil?

Reclaiming Academia

This country has quite a number of problems right now, many the result of the woke culture war. Objective journalism is dying; most young reporters don’t even know what it was. Nonprofits dissemble and virtue signal as a matter of course to keep their executives in luxury. Many politicians don’t seem to understand the difference between a fact and an opinion. 

But at the heart of our troubles is an education system that no longer educates.

What needs to be done? 

Harvard’s new Council is a good starting point, if it will be replicated at other universities. But there must be real world consequences for administrators who fear being called racist more than they fear that their once noble institutions are nearly dead. A growing list of judges are dismissing applications for clerkships from law schools that don’t understand the First Amendment. This is also a wonderful first step, but the bigger issue is that donors are still giving to these activist-led universities. That needs to end so that administrators finally begin to do, or lose, their jobs.

We need a New Enlightenment — a reteaching of the principles of reason, tolerance, equality and liberty. As Kors has put it: “Freedom is the ultimate safe space.” 

At the same time, we need a New Enlightenment — a reteaching of the principles of reason, tolerance, equality and liberty. As Kors has put it: “Freedom is the ultimate safe space.” 

It could begin by reteaching the essential classical liberal philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.: Judge people by the content of their characters, not by the color of their skin; privilege equality of opportunity — the idea that we should all begin at the same point — rather than “equity,” which brings everyone down to the lowest level and insists that we should all end up at the same point.

I was recently at an intense basketball program in Harlem with my son. I tried to imagine what the coach, who gives new meaning to “tough,” would say if he was told that he needed to lighten up, or if the kids were told that they shouldn’t work so hard because working hard is “white.” 

The coach and kids would rightly be offended because DEI is the ultimate bigotry of low expectations. And perhaps that is how we begin to turn the tide. We teach our kids to stand up to activist-professors and activist-students and say: It seems you think people with PVS are incapable of learning facts, incapable of hard work, incapable of being the very best they can be. How do you think MLK would respond to your bigotry? 

It’s well past time to teach our kids, especially kids who have Priority Victim Status, to play offense in this game of fools that is diminishing our country.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine.

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