“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
~ Thomas Jefferson to C. Yancey, 1816
America, former home to the finest universities the world has known, mourn their loss! It is fitting that, after decades of conservative hand-wringing about leftist infiltration of the university, hand-wringing that was mostly accurate, the death stroke was delivered at the hands of the right wing.
Indeed, life at universities had liberalized; this was not an entirely unwelcome fact. I for one felt it to be a positive that, at most schools, young ladies no longer needed a chaperone when leaving the dorm in the company of a man. As a college student living in a coed dorm, what surprised me was how easily we all adjusted to this environment, and the relatively low levels of sexual tension. A less controlled, regimented social life in the colleges was entirely a plus. No longer were students walked to the dining hall by faculty escorts, and no longer did they sit in assigned seats. College students were being treated as, well, fully capable human beings, able to make their own choices. Sure, this was a more liberal approach than had been seen in the past, but it worked.
Not that there weren’t problems, of course. The tenure system did attract radicals opposed to the idea of a market for talent. Once tenured, opponents of private property and individual freedom from the left did attempt to influence students in their direction. If they had a magic button that would allow them to eliminate ideas they find unpleasant, there is little doubt that the leftists would have pressed it. The fact is, though, that the laws of economics they so railed against limited their ability to do so. Colleges make money from paying (or federally paid for) students, and are ranked on their selectivity and retention. Colleges answer, in some ways, to market demands from students. Yes, leftist professors mark down students expressing private-property ideas — but they cannot immediately fail all such students. Doing so would simply produce a flight of students from the school, and the subsequent end of the school — and their tenure. So they made life unpleasant for students, but the worst a student would experience from crossing a teacher would be the loss of a letter grade, or perhaps even one failed class. I promise that one failed class is hardly a life-changing experience.
Yet the relatively limited and highly checked power of left-wing professors sent such writers as Bloom and D’souza into terrified, foaming-at-the-mouth tirades. They screamed of the loss of academic freedom, and warned that our nation would be bereft of intelligent right-wingers. This last fear, of course, might have come true, but had more to do with the watering down of conservatism and the crusades against paleos than with anything the left could do on campus. After all, are even the most intelligent students supposed to be unable to think for themselves in the face of a propagandizing professor?
No, the left could not shut down the ability of the mind to think for itself. Students taught by leftist professors can still be libertarians after graduation. Yes, one with different ideas can even enter into discussion with a leftist! Those who enter the professoriate, no matter how biased they may be, no matter how rabid in their beliefs, have at least some of the intellectual character in them, and can be engaged in discussion. I was nominated for Phi Beta Kappa, by the way, by a far left professor with whom I cannot remember ever agreeing prior to 2001. We disagreed, but engaged in civil discussions, drawing on philosophy, history, and so on.
The left no longer largely controls our campuses. The new masters, right-wing law-and-order types, do not engage in civil disagreement. If the students dare challenge them, the taskmasters will not simply mark down their grade, or fail them. No, today if you challenge the real power on campus, you will be beaten and either killed or arrested. Now that so much money flows even to private schools from the state and federal governments, control of the campus is no longer effectively exercised by the administration or the faculty. Nowadays, the administration is unable to stand up and defend the students when they are under assault from the agents of the state, whether they be university police, or an outside police agency with jurisdiction.
I remember the University Police Department when I went to school at SUNY Geneseo. Sure, they gave you parking tickets from time to time — but most of the time, interactions with them were civil and peaceful. You truly felt that the officers were there to help you safely spend your 4 years at the college. They felt no desire to hassle the students, who after all are the purpose of the college. Never could I have pictured our unarmed officers abusing students violently. Nowadays, well, just watch the videotapes.
It was with this idea in mind that I felt inclined to reread Ayn Rand’s essay "The Cashing In — The Student u2018Rebellion.’" Among the usual assortment of head-scratchingly odd remarks about Kant, philosophically naïve epistemological and ethical pronouncements, and warmongering (don’t get me wrong, I find a lot that I like about Ayn Rand, just not any of the topics I just mentioned), I found an interesting statement. While listing what she considered the worst of the student rebel’s demands, she writes "…declarations of the freedom to join, organize, or hold meetings of any organization…abolition of tuition fees; control of law enforcement by the students and faculty…" Admittedly, some of these demands are somewhat bizarre, particularly the abolition of tuition. That doesn’t seem like a particularly libertarian demand. But what of that last one? Control of law enforcement by the students and faculty…what if we had granted this demand so many years ago? Might we have avoided the complete loss of the universities we have experienced today?
Of course, nowhere else does this principle hold. Of course, it should hold everywhere — we pay their salaries and expenses, do we not? Nonetheless, one can understand why the student rebels made this demand, and the eminent sense the demand makes. For one thing, unlike at my house, at a university there are layers of powerful administrators, each layer of which can offer additional protection from the forces of law and order. That is, such a suggestion can be implemented far more easily at a college than at regular private property, since the mechanism for enforcing it is built into the institution already. For another, universities can only survive in the presence of real debate and the expression of ideas, which are precisely what are being shut down today. Finally, without universities, a civilized society cannot survive in any shape resembling that of a free nation.
Let this point not be misunderstood — we cannot give up the universities. They control the airports — we can do without flying. They control the public schools — we can homeschool. But when the universities are destroyed, collapsed under the weight of an iron fist — there is no real alternative. Universities are the home of ideas; if the university is destroyed, our society loses the power to spread, grasp, and analyze ideas. Without this, we are doomed. Make no mistake about it — what is happening in our universities is not just about narrowing the range of ideas which may be expressed. It is about the destruction of ideas as such. It is about the replacement of the battle of ideas with the battle of bodies. Physical force is not just being used to support one idea over another, it is being used to eliminate ideas from the playing field. With society bereft of ideas and utterly confused, there can be no means to mount a meaningful resistance to tyranny. Already, we are close to that point, but ideas still live, to some extent, in our universities. So long as professor and student sit down together and discuss them, ideas are alive. Now the right has destroyed our colleges, tasering students who express disregard for President Bush, brutally beating foreign students for, well, studying in the library, and what’s far worse, justifying these behaviors.
Some have asked why the police continue to engage in these outrageous behaviors in so public a manner. After all, don’t they know about YouTube, don’t they realize that attacking students in the library will get their faces on the internet and seen by thousands? The answer is — they don’t care. There was a time when the presence of a videocamera, particularly a small one that might be in the hands of any of the hundreds of people in the library — offered some protection. For such a video to matter, though, there has to be a realistic means of seeking remedy. There has to be a system in place for examining such complaints that has as its goal seeking justice and avoiding abuse. We have no such system nowadays. In no branch of government is there concern with oversight of the agents of the state. The video will be shown on YouTube, be emailed around to concerned citizens — and nothing will come of it. There is no realistic means of protest, no realistic way of bringing these agents under control. For every 20 people who see the video, 10 will think the actions were appropriate, 8 will be upset but say "that’s the price of freedom," 1 will be outraged but think of nothing to do, and 1 will call the police department and complain — an action which will lead nowhere. With numbers like that, why should the state be concerned about what is posted on YouTube? Heck, if it actually became a problem for them, Fox could always buy it.
Also useless is the advice often given by well-meaning internet dwellers to call the police department involved, complain, and demand action. Does anyone really think that anything will come of doing that, other than the telephone number you called from being logged for future use? If public pressure turns up high enough, sure, someone might be sent out as a sacrificial lamb — none of this does anything about the real problem of the growing police state, though — or the particular case of the growing police state on university campuses.
The right-wing crackdown on dissent in the universities has destroyed the American university as a place where ideas may be freely discussed. We cannot fight to save the university — it is already gone. We must reclaim it, and we must do so in an entirely non-violent way. We must fight only through the power of ideas, so that if we win, our victory will be moral, and pure. A tainted victory here is truly a defeat — one cannot forge a place for ideas in a violent manner, in a way that denies the power of ideas. However, we cannot take our places in the battle of ideas as defenders of a status quo against those who challenge it — we must realize that we lost once, that the university is gone and that we are trying to rebuild it. Let me emphasize that, on our side, we cannot raise one fist in anger, let alone spill any blood for our cause. This is not the type of battle we face — we need to proceed on the assumption that the most important thing in the world is the power of an idea. We must proceed on this assumption because it is true.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the newest member of the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.