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We Need an Overhaul on Campus – Now
It's time to take a pause and evaluate the results we're seeing from a decade of changes to our higher education system
“Have we reached the ultimate stage of absurdity when some people are held responsible for things that happened before they were born, while other people are not held responsible for what they themselves are doing today?”
- Thomas Sowell, 2022
As someone who graduated almost 25 years ago, I was largely unaware of the dramatic changes unfolding across America’s higher education institutions over the past decade. Frankly, I also thought that people on the right screaming about “wokeism” and indoctrination on college campuses were being hyperbolic.
My eyes began to open two years ago, when I first read the book The Coddling of The American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That book illustrated how dramatically campus life has changed in the past two decades, and mostly not for the better. The authors particularly dove into the suppression of free speech on campuses.
I became even more concerned after reading Tim Urban’s recent book What’s Our Problem? which offers an in-depth, factual look into the concept of social justice fundamentalism, a philosophy that now dominates many college campuses, largely unchecked. The timing and predictions of this book could not have been more prescient.
Both books forewarned of changes that are clearly visible after the events of the past month. And, as has been thoroughly reported, these changes are most acute at some of our country’s most prestigious universities.
I know many people have been shocked by both the words and actions on college campuses over the past several weeks. However, many of those people missed the warning signs along the way.
What Has Changed?
Two substantial trends have evinced themselves in today's college education system. First, it's apparent that many schools now emphasize teaching students what they should think, rather than instructing them on how to think critically for themselves. Second, we are witnessing a significant decline in the protection of free speech, and instead are seeing the promotion of preferred speech and narratives.
At numerous universities today, students are introduced to social justice and societal matters through approaches that, while well-intentioned, often lack academic rigor or space for intellectual debate. This frequently manifests in a fundamentalist form, as Urban notes, with many supporters of these philosophies believing their credibility or effectiveness cannot be questioned.
At a high level, these beliefs divide everyone into one of two categories: oppressors and oppressed. This is rooted in critical theory, which broadly argues that there are limited objective truths, and presents most issues as a power struggle between the empowered and the disenfranchised.
This social justice fundamentalism philosophy, and the schools of thought that stem from it, is steeped in a culture of victimization and requires examining most issues through the lens of historical oppression. Adherents to this philosophy also heavily reward virtue signaling and rely on a weaponized interpretation of intersectionality as a justification for otherwise questionable or hypocritical behavior.
Many students today have been told that microaggressions, misgendering, using the wrong words, and even disagreeing with viewpoints of marginalized people are examples of violence. Even questioning these new norms can make someone a target of cancel culture, or can prompt action by campus DEI departments that have grown exponentially since the racial justice reckoning of 2020.
While educational institutions robustly affirm their commitment to upholding free speech publically, a conspicuous trend of selective enforcement has emerged, which reveals a profound discrepancy between their professed values and their on-the-ground actions. Individuals who express dissenting or unpopular viewpoints, particularly those who contest popular narratives, often face backlash, censorship, or various punitive measures. In contrast, people whose beliefs align with favored perspectives feel empowered to advocate for violence, hate, and other controversial and unproven ideas without any pushback or moderation.
When Theory Meets Reality
The events of the past three weeks have made it clear that the same system of values that believes using the wrong words is unacceptable violence, can simultaneously excuse, or even promote, actual violence. This illogical behavior has strongly played out against an oft-persecuted minority that has been conveniently omitted from the intersectional stack: Jews.
When students, teachers and administrators at our elite intuitions were faced with the hate-motivated violence that occurred in Israel on October 7, the ideologies pushed in their classrooms and administrations spectacularly failed that real-world test. They were so caught up in their preconceived intellectual frame—one which presented Israel as a colonizing, oppressive government—that they were incapable of denouncing barbaric terrorism, empathizing with the victims of a depraved act of inhumane violence, or giving any consideration to the feelings of their Jewish peers.
In fact, many in these academic communities’ very first reaction was to respond to acts of terrorism by attempting to justify, explain, or excuse the unprovoked mass murder, torture and kidnapping of civilians, including women, children and babies. This was done without any empathy or consideration for the emotional well-being of their peers who were connected to the violence in some way personally, and who felt very unsafe. Rather than checking in with peers who were directly impacted by a heinous act of violence, individuals at all levels of our most prestigious universities resorted instead to idea supremacy. It’s hard to accept the moral authority of a movement that speaks so frequently about inclusion and the perils of history, but fails to consider the historic, and still very present, pain of antisemitism and antisemitic violence.
That so many individuals, and especially leaders, could not find a center in a moment that demanded unequivocal moral clarity was frankly unconscionable. Think about how many campus Deans and Presidents needed two or three tries to make a basic statement denouncing terrorism and mass murder and offering support and resources to those who needed it.
This Stanford student may have explained it best:
“All I wanted was humanity and a space to grieve, and I was put on public trial by my friends over whether the deaths of my family would be deserving of their empathy,” she said. “People were so entrenched in being ideologically correct that they were unable to see me as a human deserving of compassion.”
In the very halls where critical thinking, historical accuracy, and the pursuit of truth should be paramount, there appears to be an alarming trend of selective narrative adoption with very little pushback. When prestigious institutions seemingly prioritize one form of injustice over another, especially at the expense of student safety and well-being, it lays bare a glaring hypocrisy. This approach is not just a disservice to the academic community, but also a stark contradiction of the foundational principles of diversity, inclusion and unbiased education that these institutions champion.
As with many new experiments, it’s now time to take a huge pause, examine the values and ideology we are teaching in our schools, and evaluate if we are happy with the results.
It’s become all too clear that we are raising a generation of students—and future leaders—who see life through a backward-looking lens, with a heightened focus on victimization, and with little to no understanding of what it means to be accountable for their words or actions. Progressive political commentator and author Van Jones may have explained it best when he questioned his own side’s approach:
Right now, too many of us seem to approach liberal causes and conversations mainly by looking for ways to show other progressives where they are wrong. Too many of us can deconstruct everything but can't reconstruct anything and make it work. Too many of us know how to run a protest against the adults on our campuses but don't know how to run a program for children in our neighborhoods. Too many of us are great at opposition but awful at proposition. Too many of us know just enough critical theory to critique everything but don't have the practical skills to make anything function at the level of our high standards. Too many of us know how to march against an elected official but not how to elect one. Too many of us know how to call people out but don't know how to lift people up. And this reality creates internal dangers as real as anything we face externally.
The result of our current educational approach is a generation of students who are continuously outraged about newly invented forms of psychological harm, but who lack the empathy and skills to address real-world issues destroying lives and livelihoods right in front of them. We are raising a generation of critics with a victim-centric mindset, rather than productive advocates, problem solvers and leaders who view life through an optimistic mindset, are grateful for what they have, and feel empowered to make things better.
It’s past time to expose this intellectual dishonesty for what it is: an abandonment of the longstanding principles of our education system and liberal democracy.
I hope parents will soon realize that many of our schools, especially our elite schools, are failing the next generation of future leaders and that administrators, teachers and students need to be held accountable. If you’re newly aware of this problem and wondering how to respond, I have a few recommendations:
Stop the funding. Many large and small donors to colleges and universities have seen enough and are stopping their donations until schools show a willingness to make real structural changes. For example, at the University of Pennsylvania, many long-time donors have been encouraged to send in $1, so that the school knows why they are withholding their support. Some of the schools’ largest and most longstanding donors pledged to lead this effort until the current administration resigns.
Speak up. Over the last few years, the extremes on both sides of the political and ideological spectrum have dominated the dialogue, making their viewpoints appear overrepresented in the broader population. By taking up all the oxygen, they have scared off the vast majority of people who share common values and are capable of seeing even the most complicated issues with compassion and nuance. We need this majority, which has often been afraid to speak out, to speak up—especially against intolerance or hypocrisy from these fringes, and especially against policies with which they don’t agree.
I am hopeful that it’s not too late, and that the majority referenced here is able to break the fever we are seeing on campus.
We must respond to this moment by leaning into our shared democratic principles and our common humanity—not by descending further into victimization and conflict.
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