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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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Critical Thinking at Risk                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/16/2017 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Society, Watching America,

Colleges in America have been special places for a long time. Parents, when first looking at their newborn infant almost immediately establish an aspiration for their children to attend a university at some point in their future. While a college path is not for everyone, there are some key benefits that have traditionally been garnered during the pursuit of a college degree. Among these benefits are intellectual competence in a specific discipline along with skills in critical analysis and thinking. Unfortunately, as our colleges and universities become less and less accepting of alternative thought, the development of true critical thinking skills become more at risk.

Colleges have for a long time been the bastion of new or extreme thinking and this has been manifested in the execution of free speech to a level not typical in other parts of our society. In the spring of 2017 a number of guest speakers after initially being invited to speak at various college campuses, were ultimately barred from addressing their audience or shouted down ending their presentations early. At Middlebury College in Vermont, students assaulted Charles Murray and shouted him down from the stage. At the University of California-Berkeley, conservative commentator Ann Coulter had her speech first cancelled, then allowed at the last minute under high security. At Claremont-McKenna College, outside of Los Angeles students prevented conservative author Heather MacDonald from giving a presentation about her latest book.

In the case of Heather MacDonald, the school administration stated that speaking about her book “War on Cops” would make “students of color feel unsafe.”

Exposing students to a plurality of ideas beyond what they learned during high school or around their family dinner table used to be a corner stone of the college experience. This was measured by the frustration parents had when their children would come home from college with new ideas that were often contrary to what Mom and Dad had taught them for 18 years. Now, much of this aspect of the college experience seems at risk, if not already fading.

Lots of things have changed on college campuses since the early 1970’s. Between 1976 and 2012 the number of African American college students in the United States tripled. Additionally, women now receive 57% of all undergraduate degrees; in 1976 it was closer to 26%. These are good things as a university campus should be representative of the society outside its ivy covered walls. Students used to have to meet to share views, new technologies now allow the sharing of ideas without direct interaction, and therefore less anxiety about its potential outcome. The waves of college cultural changes, political correctness and the tenure system have also had an impact on what interpretation of free speech is allowed on college campuses.

It is important to note that protests and challenges to free-speech on our campuses is not new. The hurdles to free-speech on at our universities since the sixties has moved in four significant waves.

The first wave of reportedly “Young Radicals” was made up of the anti-Vietnam and anti-establishment radicals. Many of these individuals were violent and the established campus security and public officials of the time were clearly not prepared to deal with them. A great many of the Sixties radical leaders rejected classical-liberal conceptions of freedom in favor of a neo-Marxist analysis. In this view, free speech and constitutional democracy were perceived as tools of the “ruling class” to suppress dissent and protect an oppressive society. While most people doubted free-speech as a tool of repression, these Young Radicals viewed the Cold War Industrial Machine as a clear target representing everything that was wrong with America and needed correction at that time.

The second movement of those trying to change the concept of free-speech on colleges hit in the early 1980’s. As the radicals of their generation left graduate school, many took up junior faculty positions focusing their attention on any injustice they believed existed around them. This era is often referred to as the “culture wars”. Any ethnic or cultural group that was believed to have been suppressed by American society including blacks and women became rallying cries for changes. Central to all of this was Stanford in 1987. Despite most of the societies of the northern hemisphere having evolved from Greek and Roman social roots, the required course of Western Civilization became the center of this heated debate. Succumbing to the pressure, in 1987 Stanford dropped Western Civilization as a required course in favor of having students select from Western Civilization, African Studies, Women’s Studies and Native American Studies to fulfill the academic requirement for cultural understanding. During this time, the student protesters at Stanford even demanded a speech code in an attempt to challenge and restrict the administration during any public debates. Within 5 years, nearly every college in the country had adopted Stanford’s new standard for understanding the origins or their society.

The third act in the restriction of free-speech on college campuses began in the mid 1990’s as the older generation of professors began to retire. As the new generation of professors reached critical mass they also gained control over the interview and hiring process for their peers. Where the previous generation of college professors were considered the finest scholars in their particular discipline, now their personal politics and perspectives needed to align with those who were interviewing and hiring the next wave of educators. This created an intellectual monopoly on one side of the political spectrum. While receptive young college students used to be exposed to a plurality of ideals in the social sciences and humanities, now the voices were mostly on one side of the political spectrum.

The fourth and most recent wave in the restriction and limitation of ‘free-speech’ at colleges began approximately 2010 with a wave of shout-downs and dis-invitations to previously invited speakers. Whether attributed to the wave of political correctness or emergence of ‘social hyper-sensitivity’, the result is the same. There is a general fear of allowing anyone to speak who might offend someone on campus or associated with the school. Not too long ago at a major university a wall was designated for communicating cultural concerns. One of the first postings was a sign stating that “Black Lives Matter.” In response another group or individual posted a sign saying “All Lives Matter” which was considered controversial and insensitive. When did we become so worried about measuring and establishing a hierarchy for who is more persecuted or disparaged than the other?

In the 1960’s, promoting unbridled free speech on a campus branded you as a liberal. Because of the excesses of cultural sensitivity, encouraging free speech is now considered the bailiwick of a conservative. In a recent survey, 43 percent of college freshmen said that colleges should have the right to ban “extreme speakers”, up from 24 percent in 1971…but who gets to define “extreme”? Did we spoil the current generation of young people encouraging them to be overly sensitive to anything that does not align with their perspective or might hurt their feelings?

In 1969 a middle-school 13 year old student was suspended from her Des Moines Iowa public School for the extreme act of wearing a black armband to school protesting the Vietnam War. Citing her First Amendment rights, Mary Beth Tinker chose to continue wearing the arm band. The case of Tinker v. Des Moines rapidly advanced to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that students in public schools do have First Amendment rights. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that students and teachers “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” setting a definitive legal precedent.

At the time of her casen, Ms. Tinker reminded us that she was a child. As a child, speech was really the only thing she had for enacting social change. While this may not be normal behavior for a 13 year-old, social consciousness at a young age is not a bad thing. Historically, free speech has been considered the only weapon of the powerless, not the powerful. Frederick Douglass, a champion of Black freedom and rights said "To suppress free speech is a double wrong." Douglass told a Boston audience in 1860, after a mob had broken up an anti-slavery meeting at the same location. "It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money."

Would a black arm band now be considered “extreme”?

People come to college divided into groups based on their race, ethnicity, convictions, income strata and perceived occupation. This perversion of free speech at institutions of higher education inhibits the ability of many to transcend these boundaries, and instead emphasizes them. Whether a debate team member, or any other college student, being exposed to alternative views is a critical aspect of personal growth. Students traditionally develop an awareness of other segments of society and differing political perspectives. These alternative views help people to cross boundaries from who they currently are to who they can potentially be. As a minimum, being exposed to alternative views grows their empathy and enhances critical thinking. Even when this exposure does not change their personal beliefs, it educates them in the need to compromise because there are alternative views.

When young people first leave the immediate supervision of their parents to go to college there is a trend to explore things they have not previously been allowed to. For some students college is a changes to try recreational drinking or drugs. For others, college is a chance to explore social change. None of this is ultimately a bad thing, rather…it is part of the dynamic culture and freedom of thought that allows the United States to continuously reinvent itself. It has been said sarcastically that people become liberal at college and more moderate or conservative once they enter the mainstream economy paying taxes and being competitively challenged to keep their jobs. There is a segment of society that seems insulated from this progression, they are the permanent academics. The permanent academics are those who progress from undergraduate student, to graduate student, to associate professor, to full professor. This is not a dishonorable path in life, but the path often requires absorbing, assimilating and regurgitating the ideas being presented by a select few. Being indoctrinated into to thinking in a select manner is an unfortunate part of getting a thesis approved. Unfortunately, when this same closed loop is used for hiring the next generation of professors new ideas and thought become very rare.

Ultimately, the public has granted our institutions of higher learning special privileges including financial protection and faculty tenure – on the condition and expectation that these academies will pursue and share truth with a fairness to all points of view. There is an implied social contract that is now being persistently violated.

Political correctness has its origins as a theory published in 1919 arguing that “cultural Marxism” could not succeed in the west until the “working class” was no longer blinded by western culture and the values of the Christian religion. The modern usage of this same phrase describes an attempt in language and policies to avoid offending anyone, especially if they are perceived as being a member of a disadvantaged group. Both the early and the modern usage of political correctness focus on setting aside individuality in favor of some predetermined group mindset. This concept was extensively explored in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind.” Effectively, the desire to not offend anyone trumps freedom of speech and thereby the open exchange of ideas.

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then the dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
George Washington

While tenure ensures that professors are not arbitrarily dismissed, it would appear there is a need to move the hiring process from an internal one to some external board reducing the monopolistic abuse on ideas and thinking. From a broader social perspective we need to get over our hyper sensitivity and zeal for political correctness. If something is said that offends you, either argue for the alternative view or get up and leave the room. A dynamic and evolving society needs to be able to express a broad spectrum of ideas without fear that free speech be repressed merely because someone is offended. Without some outside intervention, by the public through its elected representatives, the structure of the anti-free-speech university is locked-in for the foreseeable future.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We cannot realistically educate the next generation to deal with the challenges in their future if we do not allow them to learn how to think for themselves rather than in a specific and predetermined manner. Additionally, they need to understand that there are alternative views that might offend them, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong for someone else to have those views. Creativity and innovation do not come from thinking and acting in the manner that is status quo, they come from testing the limits and establishing new boundaries.

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