In 2008, the University of Delaware installed a “mandatory education plan” that taught students the “right” way to think about issues of race, sexuality, sustainability, gender and collectivism. The university asked students to explain when they experienced their sexual awakening. They told students how to think on issues of gender and race. They attacked the “privileged” on the grounds that they were born into privilege. They were not, in any way, entitled to anything.
The school mandated that all freshman students undergo this sort of re-education campaign. They argued that responsible citizenship mandates that the educated populace has the “right” views on issues central to public debate.
Who, though, is supposed to decide what the “right” views are? It is uncontested that the right view at Hillsdale College is different than the right view at Oberlin College. This is the reason that colleges are not entrusted, or even allowed, to mandate this sort of groupthink or re-education policy. Students, like all Americans, are entitled to freedom of conscience.
This freedom derives itself from the First Amendment. There, the Constitution asserts that all Americans have the right to freedom of speech. While it explicitly only precludes government from limiting one’s speech, this freedom has become so deeply ingrained in culture that freedom of speech implicitly applies to all organizations across the United States.
But the ability to openly disagree requires the right to believe different things. This is the freedom of conscience. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) lists this as one of the most fundamental rights for students. In their “Guide to First Year Orientation and Thought Reform,” the organization asserts that “Students entering colleges and universities deserve a rich intellectual environment where they find themselves into freewheeling debates, with many, many different voices, on a wide range of important topics.” This assertion is central to the mission of university operations.
Unfortunately, it seems that Case Western Reserve University has again lost its way on these issues.
Last week, The Observer published three separate articles on race and race problems on the CWRU campus. The commentary moved past the beneficial suggestions that often comes from the pro-diversity crowd.
In one of these articles, Shannon Lundeen, director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, said, “I think that we need to be working towards having policies that are in place that mandate cultural sensitivity training, diversity and inclusion training, unconscious bias training for the whole campus community.”
This was the single most terrifying comment made this year on the campus.
What Ms. Lundeen suggests is our own version of the Delaware thought reform classes that were the subject of nationwide uproar in 2008, and FIRE’s comments on that case remain applicable to CWRU’s current situation.
Adam Kissel, former Director of the FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program wrote in a letter to the University of Delaware, “It is unworthy of a great university or any liberal arts education to begin with certainty about a wide variety of topics and then to embark on a program designed to pressure students to adopt them. Such re-education programs not only violate the Constitution and the canons of academic freedom, but they also are fundamentally at odds with the principles of a free society. Those who are so confident in their own ideology should let their ideas be tested and debated in the unique ‘marketplace of ideas’ that a university offers, not empowered to declare truth with the imprimatur of the faculty.”
The sentiment of this comment is eerily applicable to our own situation. With calls for mandatory re-education programs—a more extreme person might call it brainwashing or indoctrination—universities have a responsibility not to give in to the “politically-correct” thought reformers, but instead they must double down on their commitments to academic freedom and free expression.
Of course there are unpopular beliefs. Over the last few weeks, race relations has been a topic of near constant discussion on the campus. The African American Society organized a large forum on race last week that resulted in many new comments about race and toleration. However, even before these events and the forum, someone shouting racial slurs on the quad would have been ostracized.
The appropriate reaction to views you disagree with is shouting back, louder. Former President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Nadine Strossen, someone who I got to spend time with this summer, stresses that this “counter speech” is the only method of responding to speech one disagrees with.
Perhaps an example of this counter speech is necessary so that everyone understands. Following the race relations forum, The Observer quoted African American Society President Destinee Henton as saying, “As CWRU Afro Am exec, we are committed to non-complacency this year.”
That is a value statement. Whether or not someone supports the task of social activism and education, you cannot blame Henton for her views. However, in response to her, I allege that her statement, while evoking a powerful image of populist uprisings like the Occupy Wall Street Movement or the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, also brings to mind images of 1960s violence. It evokes quotes like, “They call me ‘a teacher, a fomenter of violence.’ I would say point blank, ‘That is a lie. I’m not for wanton violence, I’m for justice” (a line from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”).
Henton’s statement compares the status of race on our campus to the injustice perpetrated on African Americans in the 1960s. This sort of thing is a disservice to the crusaders who did so much 50 years ago. While the current system isn’t perfect, we cannot compare two societies that have so little in common. I have more commentary on the issue, but hopefully you get the point.
It is not the responsibility of the school to tell people what they should believe or how they should think about issues like race. It is merely their job to provide forums for the expression of those beliefs. It seems, though, that as CWRU engages further in discussions of race, the ability to be contrarian is quickly escaping.