George Orwell wrote: “The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.”[1] Though that may have been the case in 1946, the enemies of intellectual liberty on Western campuses today have little need to formulate reasoned defenses of their actions, due to the intellectual self-containment in the university today. Simply raise the banner of multicultural safety and diversity, and the free expression of dissenting viewpoints may be curtailed, or even prohibited altogether.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has a term— “disinvitation season”— for the situation in which students and faculty band together to demand that an invited speaker (e.g. a commencement speaker) be prohibited to present at the given university. FIRE documents in a 2014 report the dramatic rise of disinvitations from 2000 to 2014 and concludes that the institutions “that have seen the highest number of disinvitation incidents also maintain severely speech-restrictive policies.”[2] The universities that restrict speech are prone to feature students who voluntarily demand someone not be allowed to speak. Recently, one conservative Muslim student at the University of Michigan was fired from the campus paper, and the paper had its door vandalized (allegedly by other students) for penning a satirical piece on “social justice warriors.”[3] The teachers are not so much the thought police here; it is the students themselves who insist on enforcement of speech codes. Consider the similar situation across the pond: A planned debate on abortion at Oxford University was canceled due to a possible student protest, and the University College London banned a student group that studied Nietzsche and Heidegger due to student complaints. As one British writer put it in regard to these two British cases, “Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the ‘right to be comfortable.’” There is a growing consensus on campuses that preserving a “safe space” for students to be unchallenged in their political views is the paramount role of college administrators.

It can be argued that the reason for this situation, as Sol Stern (having “played a small part in the Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley) writes, is that “the Free Speech Movement’s fight for free speech was always a charade. The struggle was really about using the campus as a base for radical politics.”[4] It seems the culture of “tenured radicals”[5] has trickled down to the student body. To put the point more forcefully, one undergraduate writing in The Harvard Crimson declared that “academic justice” should replace “the doctrine of academic freedom.”[6] The sad thing is that there is little need to make that official change. It is already the de facto consensus, or at least the forced consensus of the students, by the students, and for the students.

It should not be surprising that this culture of “making space” for everyone by silencing those who could be perceived as upsetting the consensus has taken hold in the West. Changes in college curriculums reflect a clear message about what constitutes the political orthodoxy of the subject. For instance, Heather MacDonald notes that in 2011 the University of California at Los Angeles instituted a major change in requirements for an English degree,  replacing three requirements in the foundations of English literature with a mandate for all English majors to take a total of three courses in four areas: “Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.”[7] Instead of UCLA English majors being required to read Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, then, they are required to be exposed (via the course catalogue) to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”[8] These radical changes were caused by a revolt by the junior faculty.

Indeed, the few conservative professors on college campuses often fear to express their opinions amid a political environment hostile to their views. For example, The New Yorker reports on a study of eight hundred social psychologists and their politics: most, especially on social issues, were, unsurprisingly, liberal. When asked about how they felt about the environment in their field—whether it was hostile to them and whether they felt free to express their political ideas—“as the degree of conservatism rose, so, too, did the hostility that people experienced. Conservatives really were significantly more afraid to speak out.” The reaction that self-identified liberals articulated was telling when it came to discrimination of “conservative” ideas:

Over all, close to nineteen per cent reported that they would have a bias against a conservative-leaning paper; twenty-four per cent, against a conservative-leaning grant application; fourteen per cent, against inviting a conservative to a symposium; and thirty-seven and a half per cent, against choosing a conservative as a future colleague.[9]

Such a finding is probably not surprising to any academic who has questioned political orthodoxy or who believes in free inquiry. This political orthodoxy of the faculty has over time fused with the intolerance of the student body. As historian Alan Charles Kors writes, under the spirit of the academic 1960s, the zeitgeist of the tenured radicals moved from campus to campus, beginning the students’ “self-proclaimed dreams” of social integration “to their ever more balkanized campuses organized on principles of group characteristics and group responsibility,” and “from their right to define themselves as individuals” to the “official, imposed and politically orthodox notions of identity.”[10]

Today, multiculturalism is this politically orthodox notion of identity. At its center, multiculturalism mainly concerns the “inclusion of cultural differences over and above the formal admittance of individuals from diverse social groups” through fundamental changes in institutions. In education, multiculturalism took “the form of advocating the replacement of certain classic or canonical literary texts with texts that represented hitherto excluded identity groups.”[11] In a previous essay, I mentioned curriculum changes at Stanford University: In the 1980s some Stanford students and faculty held protests against the distribution requirement to take one course from a selected group of courses under the umbrella term, “Western Culture.” Jesse Jackson and the Black Student Union at the time chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go.”[12] In defense of the changes, Stanford’s then-assistant undergraduate dean, Charles Junkerman, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “50 years ago John Locke seemed indispensable in answering a question like “What is social justice?” In 1989…it may be that someone like Frantz Fanon, a black Algerian psychoanalyst, will get us closer to the answer we need.”[13] Mr. Fanon was included in one of the classes that replaced Western Culture at Stanford, and advocates a particularly dangerous verison of multiculturalism. He infamously wrote, “When the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife—or at least makes sure it is within reach.”[14]

The growth of multiculturalism coincided with the development of anti-colonialism during the 1960s and 70s. Political theorist Joshua Muravchik calls it “the new paradigm of racial, national and ethnic struggle,” which “grew out of the anti-colonial movements which reverberated” in Europe and in the United States in recent decades: “as [it] is sometimes put, the ‘Rest against the West’.” Mr. Muravchik notes that this progressive Leftist framework for analysis of general political issues has replaced the older Marxist paradigm of class struggle, in which the proletariat (led of course by its enlightened student revolutionaries) revolts against the exploitive, decadent, bourgeois-capitalist order. But the main background philosophy still remains—the march of history. As Mr. Muravchik says, “It doesn’t matter what the details of any episode are: History tells you that one side are the ‘good guys’ and the forces of the future while the other side are the forces of the past which need to be swept away.”[15] The latter comment of the forces of history still inherits the Marxist notion of the historical dialectic—that history has a certain inevitability leading to greater social progress through revolutionary means. This anti-colonialist “Rest against the West” mentality is seen in the above Stanford and UCLA examples.

A problem of multiculturalist studies is that it does not actually study much of substance. The fact is that multiculturalism is very superficial, as evidenced by the case of cultural studies. For example, one introduction to a Cultural Studies textbook includes this note: “Although there is no prohibition against textual readings in cultural studies, they are also not required.”[16] The point is rather that in the new studies one’s “own intellectual work is supposed to” politically “make a difference.”[17] Consider the new UCLA English curriculum: One still can study the three authors who form the foundation of English literature, but they are not considered necessary. Since the new requirements institutionally teach that these authors are dispensable to the study of English literature, they thereby teach the authors are dispensable to English literature itself. This multicultural paradigm actually marks a weakness in the quality of education being given. The repudiation of the past underlies multicultural studies and precludes providing students something substantive to learn. Compare the current state of higher education with how universities used to be run. As Roger Scruton puts it,

Our ancestors studied—and I mean really studied—cultures that were entirely strange to them: They learned the languages and literature of Greece and Rome, came to understand, love, and even worship the pagan gods; studied and translated from Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic, and roamed the world with insatiable curiosity, believing, on the best of grounds, that nothing human would be alien to them.[18]

The scholarship of contemporary studies is what David Bromwich calls “a new academic understanding of scholarship as social action.”[19] A study is political if it is at least a tacitly prescriptive venture actively seeking transformation of the social order; the university becomes an institution not for the disinterested pursuit of truth, but for political “reform.” If that is the case, and if all liberal studies are political in nature, then detachment becomes impossible in inquiry.

As Mr. Scruton points out, the study of Western culture once helped inform the study of other cultures. Old university virtues were intercultural-enhancing. The new multicultural paradigm of Western progressive education inhibits the appreciation of what were the treasures of Western Civilization. The purpose of education should be to give students something to be affirmed: This is our treasure and our heritage. This form of disinterested study does not entail a lack of openness to other cultures; there is an openness to other cultures, but also a happiness to claim one culture as one’s own—to be rooted with a sense that, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, “This is my own, my native land!”[20] One may feel at home in many other parts of the world, but one has a cultural home because of one’s own cultural inheritance. If one feels a part of something larger than oneself, then it is possible to become a part of that intergenerational, cultural “we,” and from there to learn about the other. However, the multicultural agenda threatens this project on multiple levels.

The university used to be an institution autonomous from political interests and practical affairs. Certainly scholarship presupposes certain value judgments—the very setting of a curriculum assumes judgments concerning what is worthy of study. But the pre-revolutionized setting of the curriculum did not depend upon X’s relevance to the “the political, cultural, economic, postcolonial, and race-and-gender-studies mill.”[21] This classical view involves a value judgment of what is best without immediate, practical interests that would instrumentalize the humanities. For example, when the Morrill Land Act of 1862 declared that the money from land sales to be used for the maintenance of colleges, it made the distinction between “liberal and practical education.”[22] As the late philosopher Kenneth Minogue explains, classical universities “had no direct concern for justice, and no one was ever sent to a university to make him courageous. Their excellence was to be found in their limits. Academia dealt in the virtues of truth and exactitude.”[23] The virtues of truth and exactitude were based on a methodological demarcation between the practical concerns of civic life and the purpose of a university—to learn to think disinterestedly. Now, the university is no longer autonomous from ideology.

Given that classical study and free inquiry seem to be told, “You don’t belong here,” the advice that Edmund Burke gave to the French Revolutionaries is now more necessary than ever for today’s students and their tenured, radical sojourners:

Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom beyond the vulgar practice of the hour; and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.[24]

Only with a greater respect for our encounter with our cultural inheritance can any difference begin being made. That, however, requires dispensing with a multiculturalist paradigm.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature” (1946).

[2] “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend,” FIRE, 28 May 2014.

[3] See Maxim Lott, “Campus Turns on Muslim Conservative Student,”, 15 December 2014.

[4] Sol Stern, “The Unfree Speech Movement,” The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, 24 September 2014, page A15.

[5] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1990, 2008).

[6] Sandra Y.L. Corn, “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” The Harvard Crimson, 18 February 2014.

[7] Heather MacDonald, “The Humanities and Us” in City Journal (Winter, 2014). This article was adapted from her 2013 Wriston Lecture by the author.

[8] Quoted in MacDonald, ibid.

[9] Maria Konikova, “Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans?”, The New Yorker, 30 October 2014.

[10] Alan Charles Kors, “On the Sadness of Higher Education,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 May 2008.

[11] Pushkala Prasad, “Multiculturalism” in International Encyclopedia of Organizational Studies, ed. Stewart R. Klegg and James R. Bailey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2008): 927-930, 927-928.

[12] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 55.

[13] Charles Junkerman, “Stanford’s Philosophy is an Open Book,” Wall Street Journal, Letters to the Editor, 6 January 1989, A11.

[14] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Constance Farrington (NY: Grove Press, 1963), 43.

[15] Quoted in Joshua Muravchik, “How the World Turned Against Israel: an interview with Joshua Muravchik,” Part 3: The ‘New Paradigm of Progressive Thought,’ Fathom Journal, Autumn 2014.

[16] Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.

[17] Cultural Studies, 4.

[18] Roger Scruton, “On Humane Education,” a lecture presented at Boston University in December 1992 (Boston: Boston University, 1993), 11.

[19] David Bromwich, “Scholarship as Social Action” in What Happened to the Humanities?, ed. Alvin Kernan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997): 220-243, 223.

[20] Sir Walter Scott, “547. Patriotism 1. Innominatus,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900, ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1919).

[21] Marjorie Perloff, “The Decay of a Discipline: Reflections on the English Department Today,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2011: 153-167, 161.

[22] “Morrill Act,” Chap. CXXX, Sect. 4, 1862.

[23] Kenneth Minogue, The Concept of a University (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2005), xv.

[24] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

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