The spectacle of presidents of Ivy League universities unable to answer questions about the harassment and intimidation of Jewish students on their campuses by student “activists” without bobbing, weaving, and dissembling has given us an opportunity to think about questions pertaining to academic freedom and campus speech. Before retiring last year, I was a philosophy professor for over three decades, in places ranging from Lehman College in the Bronx to Missouri State University, in Springfield, Missouri, and my own views on the subject have changed substantially; not just due to the repellant performances of the Ivy League presidents just mentioned, but because of changes I’ve seen in the undergraduate student body more generally over the years and as a result of putting a daughter through college myself.
University Boards (and major donors) will determine the fate of these presidents – one is gone already – so all the extramural conversation about this part of the story is a waste of time. In the real world, the people who pay have a say – usually a decisive one – and it is worth remembering that Ivy League presidents are employees; no more and no less. And when you bring shame and hostile scrutiny to the institution you are charged with leading and enrage its principal financiers and governing body, you shouldn’t be surprised when you are handed a pink slip, romantic musings about higher education, “the pursuit of truth,” “global justice” and the like notwithstanding. This is one of those times when rhetoric and “principle” have run headlong into reality, and things are going exactly as one might expect.
So, I’m not going to say anything about what Claudine Gay or any of the others deserve. Their employers will deal with them, and nothing I add will make a bit of difference. I’m also not going to say anything about the merits of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the extramural conversation about which is an even bigger waste of time than the one about the college presidents. Hamas kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered thousands of the children and grandparents of a vastly stronger neighbor. They will get what they get and likely will not survive it, and a bunch of hyperventilating American college students will not affect this in the slightest.
What I’m interested in here is the “free speech” angle of the question and what colleges and universities are actually for. Unfortunately, it’s here that we wade the deepest into the “romantic musings about higher education” I just referenced, and it’s a mess: a mixture of cluelessness, self-importance, and idealism. It’s also where we encounter a basic confusion underlying the conversation over the relevant places, respectively, of academic freedom and freedom of speech, in the context of the university.
Put briefly, “academic freedom” is the idea that scholars – including students involved in scholarly pursuits – should be able to pursue their inquiries without fear of retaliation or unemployment. One of the central purposes of the university, after all, is the pursuit of knowledge, which is one of the engines of social and material progress, in which everyone has an interest.
When we are talking about undergraduates, academic freedom applies only minimally. For the most part, students arrive at university in order to obtain already existing knowledge, not to pursue it at its frontiers. (The latter is the province mainly of graduate study and professional scholarship.) Their learning is highly structured, mainly top-down, and subject to discipline on the part of faculty, including failing grades that may require students to repeat courses again. In short, it is anything but free; undergraduates are at school to learn, not to teach.
To think, then, that student “activism” – chanting; screaming; garment-rending; blocking buildings and preventing others from attending class; surrounding fellow students and berating them – enjoys academic freedom protection is to misunderstand what the thing is. Such activism constitutes scholarly activity in the same way that Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election constitute “activities done within the scope of the functions of the presidency,” i.e., they don’t. Being on a campus while screaming at Jewish students no more makes for scholarly activity, deserving the protection of academic freedom, than Trump being in office and phoning governors saying he “needs to find eleven thousand more votes” makes such acts presidential and deserving of immunity.
So, what about free speech? The Constitution of the United States protects it, and this means, essentially, that one can express one’s views in public spaces, without retaliation or punishment by the government. It’s why you can stand on a street corner and shout that Joe Biden is a Communist or brandish a The End is Near! sign at people as they walk by, without being arrested or fined.
Free speech is not absolute, however, and is subject to any number of constraints. If you stand up in the middle of a performance of Swan Lake and start shouting “Free Palestine!” you will be removed, and it doesn’t matter if the venue is public or private. (Try doing it in the New York City Ballet – which is funded both privately and publicly – and see what happens to you.) If, while on a public street, you follow a person around with your End is Near! sign, cursing and screaming in his face the whole time, you will be arrested, and a free speech defense won’t help you. And if you and your buddies form a human chain around a courthouse and obstruct people from entering, the lot of you will be dragged off in handcuffs, your right to free speech notwithstanding. So, while some of what falls under the umbrella of “student activism” comes under the rubric of free speech – especially at public universities – plenty of it does not and is appropriately regulated and subject to administrative discipline.
Stepping out of the framework of law and academic norms, it is worth thinking about what the typical person goes to college for, something that many academics (and former academics) seem confused about. It’s here that we encounter a lot of the romanticism I mentioned earlier – all the lofty talk one hears about the pursuit of Truth and Justice and What it Means to be Human, and the like – but the reality is that most undergraduates are at school to engage in a course of study and earn a degree that will support them in their pursuit of a career.
Given that this often costs students and their parents a raftload of money, we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of people don’t have a lot of patience for a lot of nonsense, and student “activism” today is mostly a lot of nonsense. While very excitable, undergraduates are not particularly knowledgeable and increasingly are flat out ignorant. Several generations of declining K-12 educational standards, endless flattery as to how brilliant and moral they are (Gen Z will save the world! and all that sort of nonsense, which really got going with the Greta Thunberg extravaganza), and a kind of presentist myopia resulting from being bombarded with excessive amounts of information all day, have resulted in those entering college knowing very little about a very short period of time, but thinking they are geniuses and paragons of virtue. I began to see this more and more in my own classrooms, beginning roughly around 2010/2012: my students were incensed about the “rape culture” they said they were living in, but were completely ignorant of the relevant crime statistics from the previous decades, and when shown them, denied their relevance; they were quick to cry “OK Boomer!” when that awful phrase became popular, but it soon became apparent that they had no idea who the Baby Boomers are or why they should be angry at them; teaching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in my philosophy of literature courses made me realize students knew nothing of Nixon, Vietnam, the “Silent Majority” or the collapse of the counterculture; and needless to say, they knew even less about the Middle East, the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict, the Munich Olympics massacre, Entebbe, the decades of skyjacking and hostage taking and intifadas and the like, or much of anything pertaining to geopolitics and global conflicts, more generally. Today, things are even worse.
We pay the aforementioned raftload of money for our daughter to learn marketing, public relations, and the other things relevant to her course of study from serious, professional, credentialed scholars and teachers. We do not pay it so that she can have screamed in her face the opinions of her fellow undergraduates – who know nothing more about the matter than she does (and probably less) – on Hamas, Israel, Gaza and other such subjects. This kind of activism isn’t worth pennies, let alone sums equal to the cost of a house. We pay for her to attend classes, not to be blocked from them by gaggles of overexcited teenagers and twenty-somethings. We certainly do not pay for her to be told that she and her family are “colonizers,” engaged in “genocide,” that they deserve to be “pushed into the sea,” and all of the other sorts of things that are being shouted at Jewish students across campuses across the country; the sorts of things that the Ivy League presidents were asked about; the sorts of things that people paying raftloads of money are not going to tolerate.
One can lament that people overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities to prepare for careers, but once these became venues of mass education, rather than places where elites sent their children to be educated and acculturated (which is what they used to be), such a shift in mission was inevitable. One can wish that student activism hadn’t devolved into the sorry state it’s in today since its finest hours during the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960’s and early 70’s, but it will require undoing decades of primary and secondary educational damage and a re-grounding of student sentiments and attitudes to change that (the latter of which will require significant changes in the norms surrounding parenting and serious regulation of social media). And one can think that the cynical, Trump-soiled Republicans in Congress should have stayed out of the whole thing, as they are as much to blame for the current state of affairs as their liberal and progressive counterparts – in some ways, even more so – while at the same time realizing that the performance of the Ivy League presidents was an unmitigated disaster and that the public is not going to suffer their brand of institutional cynicism and cowardice or the unhinged antics of the student “activists” to whom they are trying so desperately to give cover, for much longer.