OPIOID SERIES:

'Freedom of speech' is too sophisticated a concept for today's illiberal students

'Freedom of speech' is too sophisticated a concept for today's illiberal students
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While American Enterprise Institute philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers was gamely endeavoring to finish her remarks over the din of protests at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., Janet Steverson — law professor and diversity and inclusion dean — intervened to bring Hoff Sommers' speech to a premature close.  

The diversity and inclusion dean had noticed that the mob (I mean students) were growing restless at the diversity of including a speaker such as Sommers, a guest of the Federalist Society, on the roster. Steverson told the Inside Higher Ed that the poor dears were becoming "antsy."

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Well, that's one way of putting it when college students hurl vicious insults — including the ever-popular "fascist" epithet — at a renowned scholar in an attempt to intimidate. Let's face it: What these students did at Lewis & Clark was a macro-aggression. And the diversity dean catered to them.

Sommers, as we all know, is just one of a growing list of prominent intellectuals who have been shouted down on American college campuses.  At least in this instance there were no reported physical injuries, as was the case when a faculty member at posh Middlebury College in Vermont was injured escorting Charles Murray, another American Enterprise Institute scholar and author, through a howling mob of students. 

It has become customary, when these all too common eruptions occur, to opine that the guarantee of the right of free speech, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is in jeopardy. We also observe that these students don't want to hear ideas different from their own. I think this is far too kind.

The concentration on the threat to free speech, valid though it is, actually obscures the nature of the greater peril we are facing: We're starting way too far up the food chain with a sophisticated concept such as the right of freedom of speech. What we are really seeing is that the most lavishly financed university system in the history of mankind — or should I say peoplekind? — isn't educating people. In my day, nobody cared if we got "antsy" during a lecture: We were there to learn. 

These kids are not refusing to grapple merely with ideas that are different from theirs but, I submit, are ill-prepared to engage with ideas. Period. And how could it be otherwise? These opinionated kids don't even know the definition of the all-purpose label fascist. Look it up, class, fascists engaged in street brawls and disruption to forestall debate.

A look at the US News & World Report description of the Lewis & Clark Law School offerings sheds some light on why students didn't show up intrigued to listen to an iconoclastic thinker. For tuition and fees of $43,290 a year, the Lewis & Clark future lawyer...

“...can focus in legal areas including global law, Indian law, and more. Among specialty programs, the institution has a high law school ranking in environmental law."

Hands-on training can occur in "the Animal Law Clinic and the International Environmental Law Project. ... Northwestern Law school operates several centers that also offer research and training opportunities for law students, including the Center for Animal Law Studies, the National Crime Victim Law Institute, and the Natural Resources Law Institute.

Additionally:

“Students may also seek out involvement opportunities in the school’s clubs and organizations, from the Latino Law Society to the softball league. Law reviews at the Lewis & Clark College Northwestern School of Law include Animal Law, Environmental Law, and the Lewis & Clark Law Review."

Sadly, this may not be the most solid preparation for understanding the ins and outs of the legal theory or writing briefs for clients. While there is nothing wrong with studying animal or environmental law — and these fields are prominently represented at top law schools — U.S. News choice to highlight them is an indication that such trendy offerings may be more attractive prospective students that duller studies in, say, constitutional, corporate law, or criminal (for humans) law.   

Rightly concerned about the atmosphere on campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman (respectively dean of the law school at Berkeley, and chancellor of the University of California, Irvine), wrote a book entitled “Free Speech on Campus.” In it, the authors seek to find a way to balance "unfettered" speech and at the same time promote "inclusive environments" on campus.

I'm glad the professors believe in free speech, but they couldn't be more wrong about "inclusive environments." First, inclusive environments aren't inclusive. Witness the inclusiveness dean shushing Sommers. Second, colleges were not, according to the idea of the university as it developed in western civilization, supposed to be "inclusive"; they were supposed to educate, which often meant exposing scholars to new ideas (and facts — remember those?).

Colleges have abandoned the project of exposing students to the poet Matthew Arnold's ideal of "the best which has been thought and said." The result is that too many graduates are ignorant of the basics. You can't understand why free speech is important if your mind is unfurnished — or furnished with fact-free indoctrination picked up in a women's studies class or other class that concentrates mostly on grievances, real or imagined.

If, as Thomas Jefferson believed, education is the cornerstone of our democracy, we're in deep trouble.

Of course, Mr. Jefferson would never be allowed on most American college campuses today.  

Charlotte Hays is senior editor and director of cultural program at Independent Women Forum.