Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's Not Free -- It's Expensive

Rick Santorum got himself some attention the other day when he accused President Obama of being a snob for thinking everybody should get a college education; like my mother said, some people will do anything to get attention. Oh, Santorum got raked over the coals for that! (According to the smart folks at RawStory, though, he got a "round of applauds [sic]" from his Tea Party audience.) Santorum had to do some damage control again, explaining that he meant that college indoctrinates students and changes their ideas.

I don't think Obama's a snob, and I do think that Santorum is a dangerous, stupid fanatic. But I couldn't help noticing, first, that there was some truth in his complaint, and second, that there was nothing new about it. The Right has been complaining that academia is too far left for a long time. It goes back at least to William F. Buckley Jr.'s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom," which was originally published in 1951, and is probably much older. Which made me think of this piece I wrote, and somehow got published in the student newspaper, in the early 1990s. I'll have more to say in another post, but for now, consider that one customer review at Amazon lauded Buckley's polemic as a "Common Sense View of Education Too Profound for the Elite." Funny how the Right flipflops between a fake populism and an equally fake defense of elitism, as the needs of the moment demand.

(Whatever happened to Young Americans for Freedom, by the way? They seem to have merged with College Republicans as the far Right took over the Republican Party. ... Oops, nope, they are now Young America's Foundation -- who needs freedom anymore, right? -- and they kicked Ron Paul off their board of directors last year for thoughtcrime and severe political incorrectness.)


The other day I found a leaflet in a trashcan at work: "Survive Political Correctness at IU" it began. "YOU Have a Right to be Heard!" On the flip side it read:

Indiana University Young Americans for Freedom
IUYAF is a conservative student organization dedicated to preserving the element that made America great:

YAF was founded in William Buckley's living room in 1964, and functions mostly as a sort of fraternity for extreme right-wing students, giving them access to government jobs when they graduate. The most famous YAF alumnus (not counting co-founder Marvin Leibman who came out publicly as gay in 1990) is probably Tom Huston, who as a White House aide in 1970 presented then-president Richard Nixon with a "clearly illegal" plan for suppressing dissent in the US.

I began reading. "Isn't the University supposedly a place where ideas are freely exchanged?" the leaflet asks itself. "It's supposed to be," it answers itself. That was a surprise. In general the Right views the University as a place where students passively ingest the glories of white heterosexual male culture. According to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the New Left of the 1960s destroyed this age-old curriculum and encouraged students to think for themselves, even to question their professors. It's gratifying to see how far YAF has swung to the left.

"However, many professors are LEFTISTS," the leaflet goes on. So? Many professors are Rightists. People who are committed to the free exchange of ideas welcome a variety of viewpoints in the University; but not YAF. (Similarly, right-wing IDS columnist Reid Cox warned freshmen against taking any "leftist" classes such as Jewish Studies, lest they be exposed to contaminating influences.)

"Many professors will ridicule any attempt to present views that are contrary to their own." Professors anywhere on the political spectrum may exhibit such unprofessional conduct, but apparently it only bothers YAF when "LEFTIST" professors do it: Rightist profs may and should ridicule any ideas that are contrary to what YAF calls "common sense." There is a serious point here: how can there be a free exchange of ideas with or under someone who has the power to grade you, who may be tempted to impose his or her beliefs by turning them into course requirements? "LEFTIST" educational critics have been pointing this out for years, but it's not a partisan political question. YAF would have you believe that the Right is neutral, universal, while only the Left is partisan.

The leaflet then lists some "LEFTIST" ideas: professors "will criticize free markets. They will condemn the actions of 'whites'. They will scorn the traditional two-parent family and praise homosexuals."

"All these things are contrary to common sense," says the leaflet. "Yet you will hear professors repeat these themes in class again and again." Most advances in human thought have been "contrary to common sense," from the recognition that the earth moves around the sun to the extension of the vote to non-propertied white males, from religious toleration to equal pay for equal work. If we limited discussion to ideas which one special-interest group considers common sense, we'd still be living in caves. Evidently YAF really wants something like "the free exchange of ideas which meet YAF criteria of True Political Correctness."

"What kinds of people will I encounter?" the leaflet then asks. "All kinds," it replies. " ... Treat them all with respect." Since Diversity Programs at IU are meant to promote respect for all kinds of people, I thought for a moment that YAF had come around. But watch out for "some people who seek to destroy what you know is true ... These persons are IU's 'thought police.' They want you to think that their way is the only way." (Perhaps they believe that only their way is "common sense"? In other words, anyone who disagrees with you is "thought police," the crack PC commando squads of IU's Ministry of Diversity, "slaves to the University," which 'pays them to break down what you learned before coming to IU."

Notice that the "you" addressed here is a white heterosexual male of right-wing Republican views. (A potential member of YAF, in other words.) YAF apparently assumes that any student outside this narrow target group will have no trouble surviving Political Correctness at IU. Indeed, YAF views such students as the problem: YAF knows that its opponents go far beyond Diversity Advocates to large numbers of its fellow students. The programs and classes YAF deplores were not unilaterally imposed from above, but are the products of student pressure dating back to the 1960s.

"How can I survive this war on free thought?" Confront "opinionated" professors, YAF advises. Allan Bloom must be spinning in his grave! Of course, this is only acceptable if they are LEFTIST: black students who disagreed with a white professor at Harvard were misrepresented and vilified in Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. "If he or she [note PC terminology!] belittles your views, simply say, "Gee. I thought a scholar like yourself would be open to a true discussion of opinions.'" This is cute, but a "true discussion of opinions" requires more than the insistence that one's own view is "common sense."

Still, a pattern is emerging. The free exchange of ideas always carries with it the risk that you may be wrong, or at least unable to prove you're right. Your opponent may be better-informed, or a more skillful debater. If you're rational, you'll shrug, and resolve to learn more and do better next time. But YAF wants the exchanges rigged in their favor. If they lose, they complain that their opponents are paid tools of the diabolical PC agenda; it never occurs to them that they didn't do their homework, let alone that they might be wrong -- they know they're right. This attitude is consistent with the Right's approach to other issues. Free thought is risky; only total abstinence is safe.