Thursday, November 13, 2014

Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts

What's happening to freedom of speech at universities is a weird combination of infantilization and Fascism

On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech. The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic. Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can’t survive.

Consider what happened after Smith College held a panel for alumnae titled “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” Moderated by Smith President Kathleen McCartney in late September, the panel was an apparent effort to address the intolerance of diverse opinions that prevails on many campuses.

One panelist was Smith alumna Wendy Kaminer—an author, lawyer, social critic, feminist, First Amendment near-absolutist and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She delivered precisely the spirited challenge to the echo chamber that the panel’s title seemed to invite. But Ms. Kaminer emerged from the discussion of free speech labeled a racist—for defending free speech.

The panel started innocuously enough with Ms. Kaminer criticizing the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain ’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguing that students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”

Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word . . . ”

And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” She then compared the trend of replacing potentially offensive words with an initial to being “characters in a Harry Potter book who are afraid to say the word ‘Voldemort.’ ” There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.

The event—and Ms. Kaminer’s words—prompted blowback from Smith undergraduates, recent alumnae and some faculty members. One member of the audience posted an audio recording and transcript of the discussion, preceded by what has come to be known in the academic world as a “trigger warning”:

“Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.”

One has to have imbibed this culture of hyper-victimization in order even to understand the lingo. “Ableism,” for example, is described at as “the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities” and that “assign inferior value (worth) to persons who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”

The contretemps prompted articles in the newspapers of Smith College and neighboring Mount Holyoke College, condemning Ms. Kaminer’s remarks as examples of institutionalized racism. Smith president Ms. McCartney was criticized for not immediately denouncing Ms. Kaminer. In a Sept. 29 letter responding to the Smith community, she apologized to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by Ms. Kaminer’s comments in defense of free speech.

A rare academic counter-current to the vast censorial wave came from professor of politics Christopher Pyle at Mount Holyoke. He wrote in the Mount Holyoke News that readers of the paper were misled by a report that “a Smith alumna made racist remarks when speaking at an alumnae panel.” He criticized the condemnation of Ms. Kaminer for her willingness to challenge the tyranny of “sanitary euphemisms.”

Smith is not the epicenter of hostility to free speech. On university campuses nationwide we are witnessing an increasing tide of trigger warnings. They are popping up on syllabi, in discussions of public art, and even finding their way into official school policies.

On Oct. 27, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology circulated a survey questionnaire to its entire student body on the issue of sexual assault—a so-called “climate survey” to try to determine and expose the extent of the problem at the school. Remarkably enough, the survey itself came accompanied by, guess what:

“TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts and specific behaviors to ask about sexual situations. This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting. Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.”

Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day. What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.


UK: Parents [mainly Muslim] in revolt over primary school head's war on homophobic bullying: Police called in after heated protest when teacher gave children books on tackling the issue

Parents angrily confronted a head teacher after he gave primary children books about tackling homophobic bullying.  Police were called after the protest, which had been orchestrated by religious campaigners, became heated.

Head teacher Jamie Barry is said to have faced aggression and verbal abuse at the meeting at Welford Primary in Birmingham, one of the schools linked to the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal earlier this year.

It was one of 21 schools inspected by Ofsted amid claims of a conspiracy by hardliners to impose strict Islamic practices.

While Welford, which has a large Muslim intake, was given a clean bill of health, inspectors reported some children saying they believed it was wrong to be gay.

The protest occurred at a regular parents’ meeting last month.

Mr Barry was expecting about 20 attendees to discuss routine matters, only to find around 100 parents there demanding to know about the introduction of teaching materials called Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools (Chips).

The parents had been encouraged to attend by anti-abortion group the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc), which shares common ground with conservative Muslims on several issues.

An email obtained by the Daily Mail was sent to some parents by Antonia Tully, who coordinates Spuc’s Safe At School campaign.

She listed 13 questions she asked to be forwarded to as many parents as possible to support Spuc’s view that young children should not be taught about homosexuality.

The email said the head teacher ‘needs to hear the same concerns’– such as ‘teaching children about sexual orientation isn’t making them safe [but] putting ideas into children’s heads’.

As a result, the meeting – involving parents from a variety of religious backgrounds – became heated. Some complaints were ‘very personal and very aggressive’, Mr Barry said.

Staff called the police and the head was advised to leave the room, although he denies police escorted him from the premises for his own safety.

Mrs Tully said she got involved at Welford after being contacted by parents earlier this year. ‘They told me that someone phoned the police which was a very inflammatory reaction. 'They said nothing that happened at the meeting warranted any police involvement,’ she said.

She has helped dozens of parents to complain to Birmingham Council about the school.

Chips, which features a series of story books, is being used in about 35 Birmingham schools.

Mr Barry said he had not been surprised to hear that some pupils had made anti-gay remarks.  ‘We were aware that they might do, because culturally, within the community we serve, we know those views are heard,’ he said.  ‘But it made us think that as a school we need to do a little more in terms of teaching children about diversity and relationships.

‘While we respect everyone’s right to a personal view, same-sex marriage is legal and some same-sex couples adopt or foster.  'Our children will come into contact with these people and we don’t want it to be a shock to the system.’

Rob Kelsall, senior regional officer for the National Association of Head Teachers, said the Government must give its ‘full support’ to heads who deliver the Chips programme.


UK: Student journalists, it’s time to fight back

Student Union meddling has turned student newspapers into little more than PR rags

Universities are supposed to be places of learning; they train us to question, to argue and to listen. But while students are encouraged to think critically in their studies, they are often lambasted by their universities and students’ unions for employing similar scrutiny towards the institution’s activities.

Student journalists have, for many years, unearthed groundbreaking stories and exposed serious impropriety at the highest level of university power structures. As reporters, their job is to be as engaged, as disciplined and as informed in their professional capacity as they would be in their studies.

As a former editor of a student publication, I have always maintained that the role of student journalists should be to hold universities and students’ unions – the institutions that make decisions on behalf of their readers – accountable, in much the same way that national newspapers scrutinise the public spending and policy that affect their audience.

To unearth and expose corruption and malpractice, presented in the frontpage splash we all dream of, requires resilience and tenacity. Standing up to power is not meant to be easy. But the freedoms afforded to student papers, their ability to dig out a contentious story and publish it, is gradually being eroded, leaving us editors feeling like little more than puppets at the helm of a PR rag.

Most student newspapers in the UK are funded by their universities and students’ unions. And, in recent years, these institutions have been trying to stop student journalists from probing into their affairs.

The editor of the University of Plymouth’s student paper, the Knowledge, recently revealed that she was threatened with expulsion, after she revealed alleged overspending by the university and cuts of up to £260,000 to support services, including disabled facilities. Often, newspapers have formal arrangements with their universities regarding final editorial decisions. And this power is being routinely abused.

But students’ unions are often just as guilty as universities themselves. Union reps are often involved in editorial decisions and, in some cases, are the ones who will actually send a publication to print. Last month, Leicester University’s paper, the Ripple, claimed its students’ union was using the university’s media constitution to delay publication of a frontpage splash discussing apathy towards campus elections. ‘It’s pretty disappointing when the very people who are supposed to represent us as students try to hold us back and attempt to censor us in this way’, a spokeswoman for the paper told the Leicester Mercury. After the paper threatened to run a blank frontpage with the words ‘this article has been censored’, the union agreed to the publication of the original piece – in full and unedited.

I only wish that the University of Sussex Students’ Union had been so sage. When I was appointed editor of the Sussex paper, the Badger, we produced a news piece examining exactly the same problem that was then attacked by a union officer for having dared discuss what she demeaned as ‘unsubstantiated concerns’. I and my ‘band of phantom naysayers’ (thanks for that one, we put it on our t-shirts!) were heavily criticised for not having sung the praises of the election process from the rooftop of the university library.

It was one of many clashes between our paper and its proprietors. And, five months later, the union refused to let us print at all, citing a need to clarify ‘editorial oversight’, a step which subsequently saw USSU revoke our discretionary independence. Following that ‘process’, I was told by the union that, among other restrictions, I was no longer permitted to change the size of our font. It felt as though I was being manipulated to mask their covert agenda.

Some attacked the paper for daring to probe into the affairs of the union. They said that the Badger shouldn’t hold the union, a ‘democratic institution’, to the same standards of scrutiny as the university. Safe to say, these were comments from staff within the union.

Yes, universities and students’ unions foot the bill for print and office costs, but if they want to dictate what can and can’t be printed, then they should make this clear to student writers and readers. As long as unions and universities insist on championing campus media outlets as at least semi-editorially independent, they cannot expect editors happily to have story angles dictated to them or their stories spiked when there is a conflict of interest.

Fighting against this kind of censorship can feel lonely. But when I attended a conference last year, which brought together student journalists from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, I was amazed to hear about similar experiences from other editors, who were sick of having to pander to the whims of their proprietors so as to maintain a print-run. They gave me the courage to continue resisting the pressure to simply placate our proprietors. But it worries me that the future of student journalism as a whole has been put under threat by the creep of censorship.

Writing for a student paper is one of the most useful routes into a professional career in journalism. But if student editors are forbidden from fostering curiosity in aspiring reporters, or censored from revealing the results of their investigations, student journalists will never learn how to truly speak truth to power.


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