This is why I am pleased a ringing defense of intellectual freedom has been published to unambiguously positive reviews. I know people are reading less nowadays, but Greg Lukianoff’s “UnLearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” (Encounter Books, 2012) is worth the time.
Almost as wonderful as the book’s message is the messenger. Lukianoff, who is FIRE’s (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) chief lawyer and president, is an unrepentant liberal. By his own testimony, he has never voted for a Republican in his life — and never plans to.
As Lukianoff himself admits, much of the demagoguery on campus is coming from the left side of the spectrum. That he too recognizes this as a threat to our democratic institutions is a wonderful sign that Americans may yet come together to defend our legacy of freedom.
If we as a nation are to move forward toward “a more perfect union,” it is essential that our colleges and universities create, and disseminate, the innovative ideas that will improve our shared circumstances. This, however, is not possible when only politically correct positions are allowed to flourish.
Almost everyone is aware of how dominant liberals are in the groves of academe. They may be less aware of how this dominance has been translated into censorship and indoctrination. Because he has been fighting these tendencies for many years, Lukianoff provides scores of chilling examples of these trends.
In one well-known instance from 2007, a student was expelled from an Indiana university for reading the wrong book. It was about how the KKK had its wings clipped during the 1920s. In other words, it was aimed at exposing and resisting tyranny. Nonetheless, an onlooker objected to its cover, which showed robed Klan members, and on that basis accused its reader of being a bigot. Solely on these grounds, without so much as a hearing, the school refused to allow the accused to register for any further courses.
Lukianoff also documents cases where university residence halls asked incoming freshmen to reveal their sexual orientation. This was supposedly to facilitate offering special services to gays but wound up as a device for clamping down on anyone who believed homosexuality is sinful.
Residence programs have also been in the forefront of the battle against racism. This might be applauded if it entailed treating students equally, but all too often “sensitivity” programs have required students to admit that whites are inherently racist, while blacks are incapable of racism. Disturbingly, when such programs have been challenged in court, the administrators who created them have rallied to their defense. Even when these have been ruled illegal, they introduced subterfuges to keep them going.
In, for me, what was one of the more alarming sequences in Lukianoff’s book, the professional organization to which residence hall officials belong held a quasi-religious service during which they congratulated themselves on their intransigence.
They lit candles, as one would in church, to celebrate their devotion to spreading wisdom — as they perceived it. For them, forcing vulnerable students to agree with their own ideological commitments was a sacred cause. That these practices were an affront to freedom of speech and thought never entered their heads.
But it should enter ours. Indeed, it should do more than that. It should arouse us to make certain that self-righteous academics do not confuse their personal beliefs with a liberal education. Higher education should be about examining multiple sides of controversial issues, not foreclosing discussion in the name of pre-determined virtues.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D., is professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.