At Harvard, the university president , a former high-profile member of the Clinton administration , raises the possibility that genetic gender differences in part account for the performance disparity of men and women in math and science , and all hell breaks loose.
At the University of Colorado, a professor throws out the provocative idea that the impulse for the tragic Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in part came from people who regarded some of the financial wizards in the World Trade Center towers as “Adolf Eichmann”-like exploiters of the weak and vulnerable. There, the governor of the state calls for the professor to be sacked.
And here at my very own beloved UCLA, a law professor , noted for championing liberal causes , submits a scholarly study to the respected Stanford Law Review that raises serious questions about the efficacy of aggressive affirmative action for black law school students. And the mild-mannered professor is practically denounced as a racist.
Each of these huge American controversies , separate and distinct as they are can be seen to form a troubling trend of enormous emerging significance. Call it the PC-ing of America into intellectual narcolepsy (where PC stands for political correctness , the disease of denying reality when it clashes with accepted wisdom). Or call it the homogenization of heterodoxy (i.e., we don’t want everyone to think alike but please don’t come forward with any new ideas).
Or call it the beginning of the end of the open American university.
This is serious business. Please, listen up!
In most parts of the world, the American university is one of this country’s most admired assets. Students from all over would willingly crawl over broken glass for the chance to study at Stanford, UCLA, Harvard, Princeton and Duke. Why is that?
Part of the attraction, to be sure, derives from the nation’s stupendous technological advancements. From battlefield missiles to hospital lasers to food-store checkout counter gizmos, America is second to none in the technology department.
For young scholars eager to excel in science and math at the highest earthly level, a school like the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology or California Institute of Technology is their mecca.
But that’s not the only reason America’s universities are magnetically appealing to students from afar. Another is their open spirit of inquiry , embodying the intellectual self-confidence to entertain and evaluate, systematically and objectively, almost any idea, however foreign or even noxious.
That air of intellectual freedom is, for many foreign students, intoxicating, almost spiritually so. It is, perhaps, America’s best argument for being. It is not for nothing that something like 60,000 students a year from China decide to study in America. And, in fact, we are very glad to have them. We (even us professors!) learn from them, too.
I can personally testify to the attraction. A few years back I taught a course to 50 students here at UCLA and 50 students from Japan; we were interconnected live and instantaneously via a TV-cable hookup. The Japanese students were from Kyoto University, one of the great universities of the world, and were they ever whip-smart!
At first they were flummoxed by my bizarre teaching technique: That is, I insisted that I wanted to know what they think. In many classes in Japan, though of course not all, only what the teacher thinks is valued.
It took me weeks to shake that intimidating tradition. In the end they came intellectually alive in wondrous ways; and I learned much from them.
Tragically, America puts this ferociously valuable quality of open intellectual pursuit and vigor at risk when public opinion seeks to silence with misplaced scorn the deviant, the unexpected, the counterintuitive and/or the politically incorrect idea. Better to have a thousand bad ideas spring up and get knocked down, in order to give birth to a few good ones, than to have everyone in academia watch their words and thoughts in some goose-stepping Orwellian fashion.
Maybe gender differences in math and science are wholly environmental and not genetic. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe no single person in the World Trade Center towers had ever done anything to hurt anyone else abroad, and thus did not deserve that vicious “blowback” 9/11 moment of retribution.
Or maybe there were a few. Maybe blacks actually are helped by the affirmative-action push-ups of the country’s premier law schools. Or maybe they’re being unintentionally harmed.
Who knows for sure? But one thing we do know is that we’ll never know anything if those who raise the hard questions are shouted down by those who are only comfortable with the soft, acceptable answers.
That’s one reason universities offer their best professors tenure , so that they are well anchored to survive when the polar winds blow at them. The moment when speech most needs protection is not when the speaker is uttering that which everyone likes to hear; but when he or she is not.
America will become second-rate unless it insists that almost every idea needs to be heard, understood and well considered. If as a nation we’re not secure and self-confident enough for that, we are in a whole world of serious trouble.
Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the
Los Angeles Times
and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.