The Closing of the Millennial Mind on Campus

The Closing of the Millennial Mind on Campus

Completing a college education, people have long presumed, shows that a young adult has not just mastered a particular subject but has broadened his or her intellect by exposure to many different disciplines, philosophies, and diverse approaches to both knowledge and life.

A successful college education replaces ignorance with insight, and insularity with confidence and engagement. With the escalating price and debt loads from tuition becoming a crippling fiscal burden to young adults, delivering on those values becomes more important than ever to their economic survival. 

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Unfortunately, most of our universities and colleges end up promoting ignorance, insularity, fear, and infantilism. Rather than seek out heterodox opinions, the faculties and student bodies of these schools attempt to insulate themselves from opponents through speech codes, demands for “trigger warnings,” demagoguery and shouting down of alternate views. Instead of education producing open minds, these institutions end up indoctrinating young adults on how best to keep their minds closed, limited to the boundaries of groupthink rather than freed to pursue truth. 

Three incidents this week demonstrate the gap between education and indoctrination. Oberlin College in Ohio and Georgetown University in Washington DC both had groups invite Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative critic of the current version of feminism, to speak on their campuses. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, composes a weekly video blog called the Factual Feminist, and most of her work challenges both the assumptions and conclusions of “third-wave” feminism, especially as practiced on college campuses. 

Much of what Sommers writes aims to counter the arguments that have become treated as unconditional truths, but which do not stand up to empirical tests. Those assumptions include the oft-cited  and roundly debunked claim  that one in five women on American college have been or will be victims of sexual assault during their student careers, or that women only earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. Both of these continue to be promoted not just by campus activists but also by the White House, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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The Department of Justice’s own data actually suggests that colleges and universities are slightly safer than the US at large when it comes to sexual assault, and the rate of those attacks on campus is six for every 1,000 people, or 0.6 percent. Even if only one in five attacks get reported, then the rate would be 2.4 percent rather than 20 percent. 

Needless to say, this pushback on popular feminist narratives hasn’t endeared Sommers to activists at these schools. In an environment with free and open dialogue – a college campus, say, which most Americans would have assumed qualified for the task – Sommers’ opponents would have offered a spirited debate on these topics and statistics.

They could also have invited their own speakers to campus to make their own arguments without any challenge to them. Instead, students at both schools encouraged their colleagues to declare themselves victims, provided shelter from opposing points of view on the basis of Sommers’ ideas being somehow “unsafe,” and made it clear that they’d prefer to see Sommers speak elsewhere. 

At Oberlin, activists authored an essay in the student newspaper calling her a “rape denialist” and accusing her of encouraging violence against women.  At both colleges, protesters plastered “trigger warnings” around the campuses near the venues where Sommers spoke. At both campuses, students complained that having Sommers speak at their schools created an “unsafe” environment for them, which necessitated the establishment of “safe spaces” to deal with the discomfort of having their assumptions challenged.

Related: University of Michigan Fires a Shot at Free Speech

Ironically, the point of feminism had once been that women didn’t need paternalistic protection from life provided to them by male-dominated institutions. Sommers herself noted the contradiction between feminism and “trigger warnings” in her most recent vlog entry prior to her appearances at Oberlin and Georgetown. Not only do they have “no basis in scientific fact,” Sommers explains, but they “convey the idea that women are helpless children, delicate little injured birds who can’t cope with clapping,” let alone any sort of debate or challenge. 

Even the good news comes freighted with recognition of the scope of the issue. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced earlier this week that after almost a decade of engagement with George Mason University, the school had finally agreed to dump its speech codes in favor of unfettered free debate. “Freedom of speech and academic freedom are core values of a university’s mission,” said GMU Foundation Professor of Law Todd Zywicki. “I’m delighted that George Mason has joined the ranks of universities that have committed themselves to the full protection of free speech.” 

Unfortunately, the ranks of universities aligning their policies to those core values remains very low indeed. GMU became only the 20th school to get a green light rating from FIRE, having been preceded by William & Mary and the University of Virginia – which Rolling Stone recently smeared in its publication of fabulism about rape culture on campuses. 

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FIRE has rated 437 colleges and universities in the US for their commitment to free speech on campus, spokesman Nico Perrino informed me in an e-mail. Over half of those earn a red light (where policies explicitly restrict speech), and another 39 percent get a yellow rating (policies which can be applied to restrict speech). Perrino said that FIRE is currently working with another 29 schools to support free speech fully, but even if they all converted tomorrow, it would still mean that only 11.2 percent of those rated campuses actually gives students the right to express themselves openly and have access to a broad range of opinion. 

The tantrums thrown by students at Oberlin and Georgetown, and the endorsement of speech restraints and indoctrination by school administrators, remain the rule rather than the exception. That prompts the question: what value are these students actually gaining for their mortgaging of their financial futures? 

Better yet, considering that student loans primarily get backed by taxpayers, what outcomes will we see from this investment in social and monetary capital? We are creating a generation of “delicate little injured birds” whose only developed skill involves curling up into a ball at the first sign of adverse experience. Perhaps we should invest in trade school education instead.

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