The death of liberalism on college campuses

Robby Soave Reporter
Font Size:

At universities across the country, liberalism is going extinct. I know what you’re thinking: Surely, he’s joking. Or even, good riddance!

No, I’m not joking. Campus liberalism really is in a death spiral — and this is not happy news.

I witnessed firsthand what passes for “liberal” discourse these days at a guest lecture at the University of Michigan last month. A libertarian student group invited anti-affirmative action activist Jennifer Gratz to give a speech to students about her issue and its recent history at the Supreme Court.

Radical activists — many who weren’t even U-M students — repeatedly attempted to hijack the event, talking over and shouting down Gratz at every opportunity. Never mind that that the event was organized exclusively by members of a libertarian club who wanted to hear from a libertarian-aligned speaker; the mob was not going to let anyone express ideas they didn’t like.

At least the U-M protesters begrudgingly permitted Gratz to resume her speech eventually. The same cannot be said for leftist protesters at Brown University.

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had come to Brown to discuss the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Where would be a better place to debate a controversial policing strategy than an Ivy League university?

But left-wing students who oppose stop-and-frisk were so determined to prevent Kelly from speaking that they preemptively formulated a strategy to deny him the opportunity. Hecklers interrupted every second of his speech, eventually forcing organizers to cancel it. In the wake of their success, protest organizers promised a new and emboldened reign of terror in which disagreement with their agenda would not be tolerated. Adding insult to injury, they said that they were exercising their own free speech rights by denying everyone else’s.

One wonders if the students were familiar with “doublespeak” and other concepts described in the works of George Orwell. They certainly haven’t read Voltaire, the Enlightenment thinker who once said, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

As I said, college liberalism is going extinct.

A clarification: It’s true that modern, “progressive,” far-left liberalism is thriving. But what today’s adherents of far-left liberalism want is actually the opposite of liberalism as originally conceived. Classical liberalism requires free speech and free expression. It requires tolerance of dissenting views and perspectives. It challenges people to defend each other’s basic rights and develop systems of governance that treat people equally — as individuals — but do not force equal outcomes.

And just as free speech and equal treatment are central to liberalism, so too are they essential to a proper liberal education. These values are enshrined in the First Amendment — something public universities are required to obey — and held up as worthy of protection in countless student codes of conduct.

Sadly, the new liberalism has replaced free speech with speech police and equal treatment with special privilege. At many universities, it has obliterated the old ways of thinking.

Occurrences like the ones at U-M and Brown are no longer shocking. They are common. Self-proclaimed “liberals” at Dartmouth, Northwestern, Harvard and a hundred other once-great institutions have crashed public forums and conspired against non-liberal speakers, often under the guise of demands for greater tolerance. Liberal tolerance once meant showing respect for those with whom you disagree. Today when college liberals invoke a need for greater tolerance, they mean the opposite: They want perspectives that offend them to be silenced.

No better example could have presented itself than what happened earlier this week at the University of Texas-Austin. Conservative students who planned to host a controversial “Catch An Illegal Immigrant Day” event found themselves denounced repeatedly by their peers and cancelled the event for fear of retaliation.

Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to denounce abhorrent views. It’s another matter to silence them entirely. University administrators opted for the latter, announcing that organizers could face disciplinary action if they proceeded as planned. And another victory was scored for new “liberal” tolerance.

What is the purpose of a university if not to provide a forum for public discourse on important and controversial subjects? What is the point of a liberal education if students are never exposed to views with which they disagree or find uncomfortable?

It’s this kind of liberalism that has died out at American universities. What is rising in its place should concern us all.

Follow Robby on Twitter