“Beliefs aren’t facts.”
That would be an unremarkable title for an unremarkable column except for who wrote it. In a new column in Persuasion, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro took on the illiberal tyranny that permeates most of higher education.
Schapiro, you may remember, is the one who told his incoming freshmen to “look for safe spaces” and pledged that “if you can’t find them, we will help you find them.” Regarding traumatic ideas, Schapiro said, “If they say that…you shouldn’t be warned to prepare yourself psychologically for that, that somehow that’s coddling, those people are lunatics.” As for microaggression, he told students that those who deny the existence of microaggressions are “idiots.”
During his tenure as president of Northwestern, the school has been consistently regarded as near the bottom on tolerance for diversity of opinion. Law professor Jonathan Turley, a graduate of Northwestern’s law school, wrote in 2016 that “Schapiro has succeeded in not just abandoning principles of free speech but directly assaulting core values of academic freedom. The chilling effect of his words will be most felt by untenured faculty who may think twice about advocating views that Schapiro has not defined as lunacy and idiocy.”
Northwestern President Morton Schapiro
But his new column, which he co-authored, is a reversal. It says what centrists, conservatives and the few remaining true liberals say every day: intolerance has destroyed academic freedom; the left is vastly over-represented in faculties; everyone shouts and no one listens; and, “perhaps worst of all,” the certainty that professors assert makes facts irrelevant.
“No evidence could possibly persuade them that they are mistaken,” he wrote.
Heck, he even quoted John Stuart Mill who isn’t exactly a hero on most campuses today.
What happened to Schapiro?
We can only speculate, but maybe he got fed up with what’s surely a horrible job – trying to manage a university full of the “righteous indignation” and intolerance his new column says is common on campuses across America.
Maybe the final straw was last year when Northwestern students demanding an end to campus police assaulted his home. Schapiro wrote a blistering open letter condemning them — appropriately. “I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion,” he wrote. “I refuse to engage with individuals who continue to use the tactics of intimidation and violence.”
Or maybe he started taking heat from the school’s contributors. That’s the most optimistic possibility because universities won’t be turned around until those who write the checks start demanding change.
Schapiro’s new viewpoint still has some problems. Most faculty, he says, “avoid imposing their own political views on students and strive for impartiality” and he doesn’t think students get brainwashed. “Brainwashing undergraduates is close to impossible,” he wrote.
Sorry, but that’s just not consistent with the constant flow of stories from most schools, where truth has become indistinguishable from satire. Nor is it consistent with the anecdotal experience often told by those who deal with today’s students, and that I’ve seen myself.
Imposing political viewpoints on students is now routine, and it has reached into K-12 schools as well, particularly when it comes to race.
And far too many students (as well as adults) have simply become sheep. Not all students; it’s a bit of a mystery why some seem impervious to propaganda. But something strange has happened in recent years that made far too many unwilling and unable to think critically.
Schapiro’s claim about free-thinking teachers and students is contradicted by what he and his co-author call their “theory,” which is that “interconnected forces in several disciplines have led to a rise in styles of thought that, in our view, are fundamentalist.” A fundamentalist, they wrote, “is absolutely certain that his system of thought gives him access to unvarnished truth, and therefore doesn’t waste time examining contrary evidence or engaging in dialogue with nonbelievers.”
That’s hardly a “theory” that two professors needed to come up with. It’s what critics of the modern left say day in and day out. It’s the primary criticism, for example, of the absolutism in critical race theory. “Agree that you are a racist or your denial will prove your racism,” it says.
The most important challenge to Schapiro’s column should be this: Nice words, but what will be done about it? Schapiro’s new column offers nothing.
Schapiro won’t have long to match his words with actions. He recently announced that he is stepping down as president in August 2022. How delightful it would be if he went out with a bang by insisting on reforms to fix what he now criticizes.
But the challenge goes far beyond Northwestern. Restoring freedom of inquiry and speech to universities will not be easy thanks primarily to tenure and the plain fact that most faculties have no interest in reform.
It will indeed take demands from contributors to force reform. Maybe the next time you get solicited by your alma mater you should respond by sending a link to Schapiro’s new column with a simple note saying “Fix this first or go away.”