I’ve been reading a book by Roger Scruton (2015) titled “How to be a Conservative.” It’s one of the those book loaded with penetrating observations and the occasional prose that reveals a remarkable degree of insight.
“Conservatism," Scruton tells us, “starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” He tell us that a core principle of conservatism is that “....we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep."
What are those “good things?"
Scruton then lays out our “collective assets” that emerged over time from the labor of efforts but that remain vulnerable to destruction:
Destruction, he notes, is “quick, easy, and exhilarating,” yet the work of creation is “slow, laborious, and dull."
I think Scruton’s comments apply broadly and serve as a caution based in wisdom and historical experience. We take civilization for granted, assuming that our institutions will protect us and not enslave us. We assume that efforts towards building a better society always, inevitably, lead to a better society. We take for granted the conditions that have given rise to the remarkable degree of social altruism, cooperation, and trust we extend to others in our daily lives.
And we always take for granted that our institutions of higher education will always be beacons of intellectualism, free inquiry, honest scholarship, and critical analysis. Indeed, universities can and have been the focal point of human reason, creativity, art, philosophy, and the pursuit of truth.
Despite the cautions raised by liberals and conservatives against the growing intolerance, parochialism, and anti-intellectualism that gained a foothold on American campuses decades prior, few paid attention.
Despite the cautions of critics of the potentially devastating consequences associated with what has broadly been defined as “political correctness” and despite a broader realization that a fundamentalist, almost totalitarian ideology had gained traction and spread across academic programs in the humanities and the social sciences, few in power objected. Instead, they capitulated.
When demands for speech codes emerged, they capitulated.
When demands for ideologically oriented academic programs emerged, they capitulated.
When demands for racial and sexual quotas emerged, they capitulated.
When demands for political indoctrination emerged, they capitulated.
When demands were made to create secret trials and to deprive accused students of basic due process rights, they capitulated.
Today we see the consequences of the decades long march towards capitulation.
We see “diversity” used not as a principled objective but as a rhetorical weapon. We see faculty suspended for using a word that offended a single student. We see administrators lose their jobs for not capitulating fast enough. We see entire departments of scholars willingly suspend judgement and critical thought in matters of social importance. We see college presidents and their cronies seek to shut down social media sites and Facebook pages deemed offensive, and we see administrators apply remarkably disparate sanctions against students for their speech.
This is not mob rule, as it sometimes appears. Nor is it caused by students petitioning universities or asking their grievances be addressed. It is, instead, the continuation of a process that has been ongoing since the 1960’s. The only thing that is really different is that the process, the rhetoric, the players, the capitulation, and the betrayal is now visible for everyone to see. It is no longer camouflaged by the prestige of the university, nor is it cloaked in the language of “academic freedom.” Today we can see the corruption of reason, the subjugation of fact, and the elevation of brute political power on campuses.
Capitulation is a creeping corrosive. It is the acid of freedom and liberty and open inquiry, slowly dissolving these pillars of higher education until they fracture, split, and eventually crumble.
Today I learned that the University of Kentucky president has decided to put a curtain up to hide a mural that has been part of UK since the 1930’s. The mural, exquisitely painted and breathtaking in detail, attempts to show life in KY during an earlier period. Unfortunately, a handful of students complained that it showed African-Americans working in the fields--which was not uncommon for the period. In the language of “micro-aggressions” these relatively few students and their faculty mentors convinced the president of UK to hide its art.
The president of UK said the mural made some students “uncomfortable.” This was the justification for putting a curtain over a piece of art.
Where, I ask, are those campus liberals who defend art and creativity? Where are the campus liberals who defend all matters of provocation, either literary, symbolically, musically, poetically, or through paintings? Where are those who chastise conservatives for their protests against art they find offensive, such as the “Piss Christ,” that showed a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Where are those liberals who supported the artistic depictions of republicans as members of ISIS and the Nazi party at a recent conference at Cornell?
In 2002 then Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that two curtains hide the statues that graced the halls of the Department of Justice. The statues were of mother liberty and mother justice, with each showing exposed breasts.
The hue and cry from the left was as loud as it was justifiable. When the Obama administration, however, again covered the statues for their press conferences nothing was said. Not a chirp. Is this what we are now seeing on our campuses? Is our outrage over the violation of core academic principles conditioned by which side of the political spectrum seeks to limit those principles? If so, it is simply better that we quit pretending to have any academic principles at all.
The good things we have inherited, including our university’s culture of enquiry, are worth preserving. They should not be destroyed to accommodate the prevailing ideology or the whims of any group, large or small.
The idea of the university is a testament to our evolution, to our commitment to reason, to our belief in open inquiry, to our value of artistic creativity, to our acceptance of due process, to our belief in the necessity of dissent, and to our desire to pursue truth.
Building the university has been “slow, laborious, dull,” to use Scruton’s language. Destroying it, however, is “quick, easy, and exhilarating.” Paraphrasing Scruton, one position is “true but boring,” while the other is “exciting but false."
May I suggest a little more boring and a lot less excitement.
John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi
Professors of Crime and Criminology