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July 21, 2017

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Incident at Middlebury College should serve as a wake-up call

The moral of the recent melee at Middlebury College, where students shouted down and chased away a controversial social scientist, isn’t just about free speech, though that’s the rubric under which the ugly incident has been tucked. It’s about emotional coddling. It’s about intellectual impoverishment.

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Physical safety? Absolutely. A smooth, validating passage across the ocean of ideas? No. If anything, colleges owe students turbulence, because it’s from a contest of perspectives and an assault on presumptions that truth emerges — and, with it, true confidence.

What happened at Middlebury was this: A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it. Although his latest writings about class divisions in America have been perceptive, even prescient, his 1994 book “The Bell Curve” trafficked in race-based theories of intelligence and was broadly (and, in my opinion, correctly) denounced. The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled him a white nationalist.

He arrived on campus wearing that tag, to encounter hundreds of protesters intent on registering their disgust. Many jammed the auditorium where he was supposed to be interviewed — by, mind you, a liberal professor — and stood with their backs to him. That much was fine, even commendable, but the protest didn’t stop there.

Chanting that Murray was “racist, sexist, anti-gay,” the students wouldn’t let him talk. And when he and the professor moved their planned interchange to a private room where it could be recorded on camera, protesters disrupted that, too, by pulling fire alarms and banging on windows. A subsequent confrontation between some of them and Murray grew physical enough that the professor with him sought medical treatment for a wrenched neck.

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

It put me in mind of important remarks that commentator Van Jones, a prominent Democrat, made just six days beforehand at the University of Chicago, where he upbraided students for insisting on being swaddled in Bubble Wrap.

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

The liberalism that Jones was bemoaning is really illiberalism, inasmuch as it issues repressive rules about what people should be able to say and hear. It’s part of what some angry voters in 2016 were reacting to and rebelling against. And colleges promote it by failing to summon a rich spectrum of voices.

“Certain things are not to be discussed,” said John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor who teaches linguistics and philosophy, speaking of a rigid political correctness that transcends college campuses but that he is especially disturbed to see there. Campuses are supposed to be realms of bold inquiry and fearless debate.

Reflecting on Middlebury, he told me, “Anybody whose approach to ideas that they don’t like is just to scream bloody murder has been failed in their education.” It hasn’t taught them that history is messy, society complicated and truth elusive.

Protests aren’t the problem, not in and of themselves. They’re vital, and so is work to end racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry. But much of the policing of imperfect language, silencing of dissent and shaming of dissenters runs counter to that goal, alienating the very onlookers who need illumination.

It’s an approach less practical than passionate, less strategic than cathartic, and partly for that reason, both McWhorter and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have likened it to a religion.

“When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”

He added that what he saw in footage of the confrontation at Middlebury “was a modern-day auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.”

The protesters didn’t use Murray’s presence as an occasion to hone the most eloquent, irrefutable retort to him. They swarmed and swore.

McWhorter recalled that back when “The Bell Curve” was published, there was disagreement about whether journalists should give it currency by paying it heed. But he said that it was because they engaged the material in detail, rather than just branding it sacrilegious, that he learned enough to conclude on his own that its assertions were wrong — and why.

Both he and Haidt belong to Heterodox Academy, a group of hundreds of professors who, in joining, have pledged to support a diversity of viewpoints at colleges and universities. It was founded in 2015. It’s distressing that there was — and is — even a need for it.

But according to an essay in Bloomberg View last week by Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale, the impulse to squelch upsetting words with “odious behavior” is so common “that it’s tempting to greet it with a shrug.”

“The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably,” Carter wrote, “and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.”

I wouldn’t go that far. But I worry that in too many instances, the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than at preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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