Academic Purity and the New Jacobins | Opinion

An ancient religion has been made new again. It is a religion that requires total allegiance and public declarations of fealty to the "one truth." It has no compassion and does not care who or what gets hurt along the way. The only thing that matters is the purity of the professed new faith. The world has seen this story many times, and yet we never seem to learn the lessons of history. It is an insidious religion that has already permeated many aspects of society, including many of our academic institutions.

It is the religion of intolerance, and its poison seems to have reached the soul of our nation. It currently masquerades, for many, under the organizational banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the sloganeering banner of "social justice."

First came the "safe spaces" that were carved out on college campuses across the country. This is where students could find respite and retreat from the harsh reality of other people's opinions that might be offensive and could make them feel "marginalized." Then, entire campuses had to be made "safe" since students needed to be protected from being judged and micro-aggressed against. Speech that students did not want to hear in their safe space soon became speech they refused to hear anywhere at all, on or off campus. Nowhere is this more apparent than the countless events, mostly by conservative speakers, that were censored or canceled due to violent protests from students who only believe in their own free speech, but have no interest in affording the same right to others who think differently than they do.

A perfect example is Professor William Jacobson at Cornell Law School. Professor Jacobson wrote an article regarding the origins of the BLM movement and its founding philosophy. He posted it on his personal website, outside of his faculty position, having nothing to do with Cornell. He went on to suggest that the ensuing riots had little to do with Mr. Floyd's death, but were rather a long, planned, generational struggle to further an anti-capitalist, anti-American agenda. He is hardly alone in that belief. For having the temerity to transgress BLM, there are ongoing efforts to have him fired, calls to boycott his classes, a public letter of condemnation from the dean of the law school and, of course, he has now been branded a racist. This is only one of the many examples of intimidation and censorship of independent thought and diversity of opinion that now occurs far too frequently on college campuses across the country.

As this intolerance of free thought and speech has spread, purges and purity tests have become more and more common. Professors and students alike who do not espouse the correct way of thinking and pass the new "purity of thought" test are now routinely attacked in an effort to silence them. They are attacked verbally, institutionally and, at times, violently. They are heretics and infidels who refuse to pledge allegiance to the new faith, and must therefore be silenced and cast out. Diversity of thought has now been replaced by diversity of gender and skin color.

Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Is there really any doubt that academia has become a bastion of progressive liberalism, whose goal is now not to produce independent thinkers, but rather to churn out students who think in a particular way? This goes back to the 1960s, when the Hippie student movement first really took hold on college campuses. Those ivory walls and hallowed halls were originally designed to afford space for true intellectual growth through objective analysis, rigorous examination and open and honest debate. Professors promoted scholarly thought on all sides of an issue, and it was in that exhaustive process of examination that intellectual and emotional growth occurred.

As the 60s gave way to the 70s, and the Hippie generation got older (and needed jobs), many sought refuge in academia. Academia was a perfect place for many who either could not or would not be able to make their way in the outside world, where, more often than not, meritocracy supplanted the intellectual aristocracy of college campuses. With the acquisition of tenure (the original "safe space"), those teaching in academia over time were free to radically alter course curricula and educational guidelines along strict ideological lines. Slowly but surely, higher education put less and less value on classical education and civic responsibility—and, instead, put more emphasis on relativism and social acceptance.

Revolutions have spanned the arc of time, and over the past 300 years have included the French Revolution (1789), the Russian Revolution (1917), the revolutions in China—both the Communist Revolution in the late 1940s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s—and the Iranian Revolution (1979). Each had its own justifications and outcomes. Each had its own casus belli. There are two things that have been true of each: the absolute requirement of public conformity to the new truth and the ruthless brutality used to purge those who refused to bow down to the new political order. Black Lives Matter and much of the social justice movement is no less of a revolutionary crusade.

In the final analysis, if we are to find our way forward as a nation, it will be because of people who dare to think differently and will not be silenced—those like Professor Jacobson. Those of us who have the courage to call things by their proper names will be our beacons of light during these dark times. Their courage is needed to show everyone else the way forward, to the light of the freedoms we used to take for granted, to a place where one is not judged by the color of their skin nor the conformity of their thought, but by the content of their character.

Robert B. Chernin is the chairman of the American Center for Education and Knowledge.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.