campus speech wars
The Foundations of the Campus Free Speech Crisis

How did college campuses become such intolerant spaces? On Monday night, TAI contributor Jonathan Haidt considered that question on Charlie Rose with guest host Dan Senor and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Asked why it is so difficult to support Israel publicly on campus, Haidt makes one particularly important point:

The old idea of education is, come to campus, we’re gonna teach you lots of perspectives…What would an economist say? What would a Marxist say?

What’s happening now is, and it’s only some students in a few departments, but they’re learning one perspective to look at everything…There’s a good kind of identity politics which is, you know, if black people are being denied rights, let’s fight for their rights. That’s the good kind. But there’s a bad kind, which is to say, let’s divide everybody up by their race and gender and other categories. We’ll assign them moral merit based on [the idea that] privilege is bad and victimhood is good.

Now let’s look at everything through this lens. Israel. The Palestinians are the victims. So, therefore, they are the good and the Jews, or the Israelis, are the bad. This one totalizing perspective—all social problems get reduced to this simple framework. I think we’re doing them a disservice. I think we’re actually making students less wise.

As we argued in our coverage of last week’s violent protest at Middlebury College, fighting illiberalism on campuses will require more than a defense of abstract principles. Professors and administrators must be ready to engage in a substantive debate that can take on the core ideas of the ideology underlying many students’ opinions—an ideology many faculty have spent years incubating. We were happy to see a group of Middlebury professors sign onto a statement reaffirming that “exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence”, as that is one of the most serious misunderstandings hundreds of Middlebury alumni and students have about the nature of rhetoric.

But Haidt observes something even more fundamental about the simplified and indeed simplistic nature of how today’s students are taught to think (if one can even call it thinking). The issue of Israel is an instructive example. The country’s conflict with the Palestinians is one of the most complicated political debates of our time. In a healthy academic environment, there would be lots of ideas and opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as students and faculty use different approaches to grapple with the controversies. But on today’s campuses, there has been essentially one acceptable position for many years. Increasingly, this is becoming true about a host of issues, and Haidt’s explanation of why that is the case is one of the most persuasive we have heard.

The entire conversation is worth your time. Here it is:

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