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The Decline of Higher Education


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City Journal

In the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties, academic-freedom disputes routinely took a particular shape. In a small town, somewhere in the heartland, there would be a college campus on which a young academic loudly voiced his opinions on controversial matters—mostly political, but sometimes also on sexual morality, or even on legalizing drugs. This would offend the sensitivities of some local townspeople.

Someone like the local mayor would lean on the college president (probably a personal friend), the president would then lean on the department chair, and the young professor was soon gone. The American Association of University Professors would then intervene, and the individual would be reinstated, because the AAUP would in effect threaten blacklisting. Reports of cases like this were reasonably common.

The AAUP would always insist that college campuses must be the one place with unfettered freedom to discuss and analyze issues of all kinds, no matter who might be offended. The analytical function of academia must never be shut down by a shallow local moralism. This was then the consensus of academic life.

If we fast forward to the present, one feature of what’s happening on the campuses looks similar: that crucial analytical function is still getting stifled whenever it offends an equally shallow local moralism. But there’s a startling difference: the actors have changed places. It’s now the professors who do what the small-minded small-town worthies used to do, shutting down analysis whenever it offends them, which is often.

In fact, they do it on a vastly larger scale. Those old AAUP cases were aberrations affecting a tiny minority of campuses, and the infractions were soon corrected. But today, the suppression of debate and analysis happens almost everywhere, and the perpetrators—both professors and administrators—represent a controlling majority of the campuses.

The scope of what now gets quashed is also far more extensive. In the sixties, all that was persecuted was some occasional countercultural flamboyance. But at present, virtually any serious discussion of social and political matters risks being silenced, because to be serious it would have to include left-of-center and right-of center-opinion, and the campuses don’t want that. So, we’ve gone from the campus as the only place where discussion must have no limits, to the campus as the only place where free discussion isn’t possible.:snip:

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