Closing the Open Forum of the American Academy

Karen VanTil Gushta, Ph.D.

In the not too distant past, students went to universities to be exposed to the world of ideas and receive what was deemed a “liberal education.” The term “liberal,” in this instance, is taken from the Latin, “liber” or “free,” and so the aim of higher education was thought to be the cultivation of a “free” individual.

But already in 1987, Allan Bloom declared in The Closing of the American Mind that higher education has “failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” To the degree Bloom was correct, universities are now reaping what they have sown. We see campuses descending into mayhem and mobocracy as students protest speakers whose views do not accord with their own.

On the other hand, in respect to another of Bloom’s claims, there seems to be a major shift taking place on campuses. As one writer in The New York Times argued, the moral relativism Bloom saw in the 1980’s has been replaced by a “shame culture.” And Jonathan Merritt, writing in The Atlantic (3/25/17), points out that “A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.”  Furthermore, Merritt says, “This new code has created a paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.”    

Thus we now have students justifying their disruption of and even violent protests against certain campus speakers based on assertions that the speakers are guilty of “hate speech.” The students, in turn, are only echoing their professors, as one author pointed out:  

Professors in all but the hardest of hard sciences increasingly indoctrinate students in the belief that to be a non-Asian minority or a female in America today is to be the target of nonstop oppression, even, uproariously, if you are among the privileged few to attend a fantastically well-endowed, resource-rich American college. Those professors also maintain that to challenge that claim of ubiquitous bigotry is to engage in “hate speech,” and that such speech is tantamount to a physical assault on minorities and females. As such, it can rightly be suppressed and punished.

So wrote Heather Mac Donald after she was forced to give an invited speech via live-stream from a vacant room in the auditorium that had been booked for her lecture at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.  “To those faculty,” wrote Mac Donald, “I am indeed a fascist, and a white supremacist, with the attendant loss of communication rights.”

When students found out that Mac Donald, the author of The War on Cops, was scheduled to speak on the CMC campus, they organized a Facebook event titled “Shut Down Anti-Black Fascist Heather Mac Donald” and encouraged students to protest her speech. A mob of close to 300 students showed up outside the venue and prevented anyone from entering the building.

“I completed my speech to the accompaniment of chants and banging on the windows,” says Mac Donald in her article in City Journal (4/9/2017). “I was able to take two questions from students via live-streaming. But by then, the administrators and police officers in the room, who had spent my talk nervously staring at the windows, decided that things were growing too unruly outside to continue. . . . Walki-talkies were used to coordinate my exit from the Athenaeum’s kitchen to the exact moment that a black, unmarked Claremont Police Department van rolled up.”

Heather Mac Donald’s speech was scheduled to be given in the college’s “Athenaeum,” a name long associated with clubs, societies, periodicals, and cultural centers dedicated to the discussion of ideas and dissemination of learning. The irony of the fact that people were prevented from coming to discuss Mac Donald’s ideas at Claremont’s “Athenaeum” was apparently lost on those who organized the mob outside the building.   

Sadly, similar incidents at Middlebury College and Berkeley show what Walter E. Williams has called a “fascist trend” on college campuses that have “disinvited” speakers due to student protests. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which keeps track of campus speech codes and speaker disinvitations, among the speakers students have protested are those whom they perceive as pro-Israel, anti-feminist, or not sufficiently sensitive to the plight of non-Asian minorities and transgender persons. But pro-Palestinian speakers or Black-Lives Matter activists are welcomed.

Writing in The Daily Signal (4/12/2017), Williams noted that although campus administrators spend billions of dollars to cultivate “diversity” on their campuses, “The last thing that diversity hustlers want is diversity in ideas.” This problem, he points out, was well underway in 1991 when then-president of Yale University, Benno Schmidt warned:

The most serious problems of freedom of expression in our society today exist on our campuses. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind.  

Williams says, “Parents, donors, and legislatures need to stop being lazy. Check to see whether a college has diversity mandates for faculty. Check to see whether campus speakers have been disinvited.” Williams observed, “College administrators have closed minds about their diversity agenda, but there’s nothing more effective in opening up closed minds than the sound of pocketbooks snapping shut.” And, I would add, parents who refuse to send their young scholars to such schools carry equal clout.

In pondering the current situation in higher education, we might do well to take a step back and consider some historical precedents. This year we are celebrating anew the Protestant Reformation, commemorating the date, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It is appropriate, therefore, to remember the important influence the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and others) had on the development of education. Believing that a strong church needed both an educated laity and ministry, they set a high priority on education for all youth, boys and girls included—unlike the Roman Catholic Church of their day.

John Calvin, in particular, set the pace in Geneva with his reforms to its schools. As one writer notes, “Although, unlike Luther, Calvin did not produce treatises directed specifically to education, his numerous expressions of concern about that matter and the actions he took to promote learning attest to his commitment. He was a first-rate scholar himself and so appreciated the value of a learned ministry for the church and a learned laity to serve society.”   

In Calvin’s view, knowledge of scripture was primary and essential for understanding every area of learning, and—given our current historical context—it should be pointed out that his view was in sharp contrast to that of Muslims, both then and now. Throughout history they have spread their religion, not by the preaching of their sacred text, but by the sword. And in the process they also destroyed all books other than the Qur’an, including the great library in Alexandria—the site of the translation efforts of the 72 scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek, the version we now know as the Septuagint.

Calvin, however, well-versed as he was in the classics, took Protestant education on a different track than that of the Muslim caliph who destroyed the Alexandrian library. He even declared in his commentary on Titus 1:12:

From this passage, we may infer that those persons are superstitious who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?

In Geneva, the Academy for advanced study became a model under Calvin’s leadership for higher education elsewhere, and the theological division of the Academy prepared pastors for the Reformed Church in Switzerland and other countries. The Academy laid the foundation for the Reformed view that education should be for the purpose of service to the church and to society.  

For decades now, educators have been arguing over what it will take to “fix” American education. But what would Allan Bloom say today about the current state of American higher education? Stories like Heather Mac Donald’s are tragic illustrations of how impoverished the souls of today’s students are.

Is there a way for Christians today to step forward with a “new reformation” that will bring about great changes to education, similar to what took place 500 years ago in Geneva and across Europe under the leadership of the Reformers? 

Perhaps the first step is to listen to Walter Williams’ admonition to parents, donors, and legislatures “to stop being lazy. . .” As long as we continue to subsidize the status quo and support these institutions of mass indoctrination by sending our own youth there and sustaining them with our donations and our tax dollars, no change will come. The American academy will continue to be a closed forum.

But there are some hopeful signs. FIRE’s report, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2017: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” showed the percentage of the 449 institutions they surveyed that infringe on students’ free speech rights dropped by nearly 10 percent last year, down to 39.6 percent—continuing a nine year trend. This is good news for Christian and conservative students who generally end up as the targets of these codes.

Also, if we take Walter Williams advice, we can be hopeful that market forces will cause smaller colleges such as Grove City, Dordt, and The King’s College to thrive. These colleges, and other like them, not only provide a “liberal” education in the classic sense of the term, but they also offer curricula rooted in a Christian worldview perspective that is nourishing to the souls of young scholars.