Colleges: Illiberal Enclaves of Groupthink?


Hank Reichman, on this blog the other day, quoted Donald Moynihan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin: “More people now believe that students oppose free speech, based on a flawed survey and resulting headlines. No correction will fix that.” He was referring to a “survey” conducted by a Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, John Villasenor that has received a great deal of notice. As Reichman makes clear, the “survey” is junk science yet, as Moynihan points out, countering it is now neigh on impossible.

Just consider this, from a column today by Frank Bruni for The New York Times:

There’s no dispute that many campuses are illiberal enclaves of bluntly enforced groupthink, and there’s no doubt that many students deserve the stern words that Sessions aimed at them.

Bruni, normally a fairly careful journalist, has taken the bait and swallowed it, along with the hook, line and sinker. Aside from this, his column (as most of his do) makes a clear and accurate point–and one I agree with, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be lecturing Donald Trump on Freedom of Speech, not Georgetown University students.

According to The Washington Post, Sessions lectured the students:

“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions said. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Not only does Sessions misunderstand the meaning of “academic freedom” (it has little to do with providing venues for debate) but, like Bruni, he has bought into the myth, highlighted by Villasenor’s “survey,” that colleges have become little more than protection for snowflakes.

Part of the problem is that many people think that college is as college was, but our institutions of higher learning have changed. The “ivory tower” has all but disappeared.

According to the Department of Education, almost half (47%) of  students at American public institutions of higher education are enrolled in community colleges. Of the total students, according to U.S. News & World Report, only 16% attend private, nonprofit colleges and universities. The institutions the vast majority of students attend tend to be well-grounded in their communities, easily accessible to non-residential students. Urban universities like the huge system where I teach, the City University of New York, live cheek by jowl with the extraordinary variety of American urban environments, both for the good and the bad.

The people promoting the image of the campus as a place like that described by Bruni and Sessions are taking advantage of the fact that few Americans really know what the contemporary college looks like. Even if they have attended college themselves, they see their experience as having been unique, that the standard is something quite different, closer to an image that was mythological even in the past.

Even on the most liberal and most cut-off private campus, students are exposed to a wide range of ideas and arguments. There is little lockstep on even the most isolated–not even religious schools like Liberty University manage to hold their students to a narrow range of belief.

The result of education is usually that way.

Brainwashing, it is not.

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