Majoring In Demagogeury: University Illiberalism And The Student Experience

September 2018

“The university is in crisis.”

With the advent of the Lindsay Shepherd affair and what has been described as the “Jordan Peterson Revolution,” variants of the above mantra have been routinely expressed by many fretting over the ideological myopia that seems to pervade the academy. According to Peterson, Gad Saad, and others, universities are rife with “thought police” and are bastions of leftist indoctrination and illiberalism.

Yet, whenever a situation arises that corroborates claims of crisis, left-leaning professors will deny that there’s anything to worry about. For example, writing in the Washington Post, historian Andrew Hartman argues that there is no free speech problem on university campuses, and that students “are more tolerant than ever.” Well, this depends on what one’s definition of “tolerant” is.

The fact that due to threats from leftist protestors conservative author Ben Shapiro needed around 600 police officers in order to speak at Berkeley in September 2017; or that Jordan Peterson was constantly interrupted by an aggressive contingent of demonstrators during his discussion at Queen’s University in March; or that Charles Murray’s attempt to give a talk at Middlebury College sparked riots by cadres of leftist students indicates that Hartman and others either don’t know what has occurred on campuses or are engaging in chicanery so crafty that it’s almost impressive.

What is certain is the one thing that these scenarios have in common: The targets of vitriolic responses have conservative or libertarian leanings, or they simply transgress the far-leftist orthodoxy that prevails on campus.

It’s easy for people like Hartman to dismiss concerns over the state of free inquiry because their views are in line with majority views. In September 2016, Econ Journal Watch published a study that examined the political affiliations of professors from forty different American universities, demonstrating a wide gap between liberals and conservatives within the professoriate. Deriving from results collected in the departments of Journalism/Communications, Law, History, Economics, and Psychology, the study concluded that of 7,243 professors, liberals outnumber conservatives 3,623 to 314.

The situation is similar at Canadian universities. Studies undertaken by MK Nakhaie and Barry Adams indicate that during election years throughout the 1990s and 2000s, university faculties have overwhelmingly been supportive of the Liberal and New Democratic parties to an extent that is three times that of the Progressive Conservatives (support averages out at 40 percent for Liberals and NDP compared to 10 percent for Conservatives).

Because those of left-wing persuasion dominate, students will likely never hear an opposing viewpoint defended. They might even become hostile towards other views because their professor dismisses them or fails to cover them in a fair, even-handed manner.

This was demonstrated well in a conversation I had with a former professor of mine. I inquired about pursuing graduate studies at Western University, and about the school’s attitudes towards protecting free speech and academic freedom. The performance of my alma mater, University of Windsor, had been, in this area, quite deplorable. Their response was: “There is free speech on campus, but free speech for the Left. You’ll notice most academics/historians are on the Left because they are more educated.”

The clear belief in an Orwellian double-speak definition of free speech aside, this presupposes that those not on the Left are inherently ignoramuses and the Left has a monopoly on intelligence and scholarly rigor. This mindset was typified by another professor telling a group of students that people who lean rightward are “essentially incorrect and lack merit.” Since large swaths of university faculty share this supercilious line of thinking, an unhealthy environment develops where every discussion is tilted in favor of one side. As a result, 54 percent of students will censor themselves in the classroom at some point, as was found in a survey done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

My experience as a graduate student at Western University (I recently completed a Master’s degree in American Studies) further attests to this. I fell victim to credulity when it came to the nature of such a program. I thought it would be a balanced study of the many facets of the American experience, including the Founding and the country’s progenitors, America’s role in the world, and its history, politics and culture. It turned out to be quite the contrary. Every discussion in the program’s required course was driven by Marxist platitudes and revolved around how the United States was endemically racist, responsible for all global turmoil, and, alas, had no redeeming qualities. It was not about studying America so much as it was the professor’s endeavor to inculcate anti-Americanism in impressionable students and then determine the various ways to dismantle the American enterprise.

Social scientist Allan Wolfe aptly describes the field in its current state as “Anti-American Studies,” claiming that scholars have “developed a hatred for America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all.”

This hatred of America leads them to even deny the existence of the concept of ‘America’ or the Western tradition upon which its philosophical foundations are based. This was exemplified in one class where we were discussing American involvement in the Middle East. On this day, the professor made the harebrained assertion that there is “no such thing as Western civilization.” Flabbergasted at how one could voice a nonsensical belief with such conviction, I was speechless. Equally astonishing was the fact that most of my classmates showed a sort of insouciance that signified they might have had sympathy for the idea. Leaving the class wishing I had challenged it, I would learn in a later class that doing so was an unforgivable infraction.

In the winter, I enrolled in a course entitled, “Race and Gender on Imperial Frontiers,” that explored the phenomenon of “settler colonialism.” Guided by the apocryphal axiom that imperialism was almost exclusively a deed perpetrated by Westerners, the course description reads: “scholars have begun to use ‘settler colonialism’ to describe societies in which outsiders (white Europeans in most cases) invaded a place in order to settle there permanently, and used political, legal, cultural, and economic structures to transform it into their space, turning themselves into its ‘natives.’”

During one particular session, we were discussing an article by anthropologist Audra Simpson, titled “The State is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders, and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty,” in which Simpson argues that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had genocidal intentions due to the fact he was the male leader of a “settler” Conservative government, and failed to meet with female Idle No More leader Theresa Spence, during her fast. In one ill-conceived passage, Simpson writes: “Spence’s fleshy body was not seen as a sign of resurgent Indigenous life to white Canada, it was not seen as a stubborn, resolute, and sovereign refusal to die, staying alive to have that conversation about Crown obligations, about housing and about historical obligations - it was read as a failure to do what it was supposed to do - perish.”

Taken aback by the imputation without evidence of such a grotesque motive, a classmate asked the innocuous question: What was the basis for such a statement? To which the professor and the class responded by subjecting the student to some dogmatic browbeating because of the student’s temerity to question the merit of an idea. In the midst of this, the professor posed this question: Why would she need evidence? Communicating thusly that their purpose was not to debate ideas to eventually arrive at the truth, like one would expect the point of a graduate seminar to be. Instead, it was to create a coterie through orchestrating an echo chamber at the truth’s expense to further one’s ideological agenda.

More troubling is speaking to students from other universities and seeing how similar, and predictable, our experiences are. A student at Wilfrid Laurier provided me with some insight into the kinds of absurdity that can be witnessed there. The antics of a few professors are a product of the same postmodernist/Marxist and ‘racialist’ doctrines that I frequently had to contend with at Western.

In a tutorial, one professor prioritized hearing from someone who wasn’t a “white male.” They also used class time for meditation and cancelled class for two weeks after the 2016 Presidential election so that students could reflect on the victory of Donald Trump. In addition to halting a class for which students had paid, this raises two issues: 1) using one’s position as a professor to explore their own personal political interests to the detriment of the students’ learning experience; and 2) it likely had no close relation to the course material, considering the professor in question specializes in Eastern religion and social theory.

Another professor unabashedly displayed their support for hard Left causes, and promoted tactics resembling those regularly used by groups like Antifa. This professor posted a placard outside their office that provided instructions on how to avoid being arrested during a riot, encouraging such behavior as covering one’s face and forging one’s name. Since they felt so free to show their endorsement of these unlawful actions, one must ponder this question: If the professor posted material that supported aspects of Antifa’s right-wing equivalents, would they be as free to do so? Considering that Lindsay Shepherd was punished for the harmless act of presenting a complex topic neutrally, this is doubtful. Now, this is not to express support for the Alt-Right, but it’s clear that those who adhere to the ideology of the majority are exempted from the same comeuppance those on the Right would likely receive for similar behavior.

On the campus activist front, the partiality of the institution is perhaps at its most visible. A member of the pro-life group Life Link, at Laurier, shared some experiences that exhibit the ramifications of Leftist dogmatism becoming institutionalized. On one occasion in Fall 2017, the group attempted to host a chalking event on a public sidewalk in front of the university that promoted pro-life messages. The Students’ Union postponed it for a month, and when the group was finally able to have it, they were forced to put up warning signs about the display and have the chalk washed-off by 4:30 pm. As expected, pro-choice protestors began drawing their own counter messages. What transpired afterwards confirms the Union’s ideological bias. As the member recalls: “When I questioned about the chalked messages from those protesting us, they informed me that since they were individuals, they could not enforce them to wash off their messages. The chalk remained there for days afterwards and they were not forced to have warning signs, even though the topic was still abortion.”

Indeed, universities do have a double standard. The fear of “triggering” students is non-existent if the action is compatible with the broader ideology. As Canadian Jewish News reported in 2015, on several campuses, including Concordia and Laurier, pro-Palestinian groups have been allowed to host events where they discuss “Israeli war crimes” and how “Jews kill babies” without the same rigid precautions being enforced even though Jewish students may be deeply offended by these demonstrations.

Needless to say, this is all anathema to the values for which universities should stand. In 1984, former US Secretary of Education William Bennett published his report, “To Reclaim a Legacy,” that outlined the ills afflicting universities and contended that there was “no longer agreement on the value of historical facts, empirical evidence, or even rationality itself.” This has since festered to a point where it has been settled by some that objectivity or the free exchange of ideas cease to be sacrosanct concepts in scholarship and academic life. Consequently, the institution’s historical aim to “transmit a culture to its rightful heirs” has been replaced by the mission of radicals to transfer their ideology to potential progenies. With this demagoguery being subsidized, continually exposing it for what it is—specifically to its source, the taxpayers or alumni—may be the best remedy for the lugubrious state in which the university seems to be trapped.