by Bruce Thornton
The grim antithesis to liberal education.
Encumbered with a fossilized illiberal ideology, progressives must rely on what Robert Conquest called “thought-blockers”––empty words and phrases that comfort and rouse the party faithful, and camouflage the lack of coherent argument, consistent principles, and empirical evidence. More important, these empty words and phrases that lie at the heart of progressivism are the tools for increasing the progressives’ political power and influence, at the expense of everybody else’s freedom.
Here’s a quick catalogue of a handful of such verbal evasions: “Imperialism,” “colonialism,” “racism,” “black lives matter,” “sexism,” “war on women,” “income inequality,” “one percent,” “fair share,” “Islamophobia,” “nothing to do with Islam,” “climate change consensus,” “microagressions,” and “diversity.” Most lack any specific content or connection to historical evidence, and are devoid of consistent principle. They are ideological spells either chanted by the dim-witted or manipulated by the clever who lust for power and influence.
Take “diversity,” an important pseudo-concept that has lain at the heart of race-based college admissions and preferences since the 1978 Bakke vs. University of California Supreme Court case. In that decision, Justice Lewis Powell asserted that an undefined “diversity” could allow taking account of race in college admissions, for it was a “compelling state interest” that justified an exception to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on discrimination by race. In 2003, in Grutter vs. Bollinger the Supreme Court reaffirmed the “compelling state interest” of diversity since it provided, as Justice Sandra Day O’Conner argued, “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
The Supreme Court this term is revisiting the Fischer vs. University of Texas case of 2013, which instructed the university to practice “strict scrutiny” of its use of race in admissions. But that case also left in place the dubious rationale of diversity. So once again there will be a chance for the Court finally to discard this fraudulent idea. For in the nearly 40 years since Bakke, no one has been able to demonstrate specifically and empirically the alleged “education benefits” of a diverse student body, or even to precisely define “diversity.” As the ideological uniformity of most college campuses shows, today there is little genuine diversity in higher education. This year’s outbreak of protest movements demanding adherence to a rigid racial orthodoxy at Yale, the University of Missouri, and other universities shows how that lack of intellectual and political diversity produces students intolerant of alternative points of view and free speech.
Nor is it surprising that a “commitment to diversity” ends up institutionalizing an oppressive uniformity. The “diversity” most colleges are concerned with is the superficial variety of race or ethnicity, an old Jim Crow-assumption that one member of a minority is pretty much the same as another. Thus even the extensive diversity within a racial or ethnic category––regional or socio-economic or confessional differences, for example––is ignored. Worse yet, not all diverse groups get the same preferential treatment. Asians, in fact, are punished for their superior work ethic by having the bar of admission raised significantly. Less privileged white applicants get little credit for their difficult circumstances. On the contrary, during the Fisher oral arguments the lawyer for the university argued that an affluent black applicant increased “diversity,” with the implication that a white working class applicant would not.
But as the book Mismatch documents, racial preferences often harm minority candidates by putting them into academic environments for which they have not been adequately prepared, thus ensuring they do poorly, drop out, have to take extra time to graduate, or switch from lucrative majors in the sciences to puff disciplines like Communication or Black Studies, for which there are few job opportunities. And if “diversity” has such important “educational benefits,” why do we allow 107 historically black colleges to ignore “diversity”? Why are those students being deprived of all those boons that follow a “diverse student body”? Are those schools “inferior,” as Reid implied in his attack on Scalia, because they lack such diversity?
Verbal imprecision and the abuse of language have been staples of democratic discourse since the sophists and demagogues of ancient Athens, who as Socrates put it, manipulated language to “make the worse argument the better,” to transform the bad, false, and unjust into the good, true, and just. As such, these “thought-blockers” are not so much the product of laziness or ignorance, as they are a weapon of political power. Superficially, a word like “diversity” is attractive, a mere reaffirmation of the “pluribus” from which our “unum” derives. It conjures up the Ellis Island ideal of America comprising a vast variety of races, ethnic groups, nationalities, and religions; a diversity that finds common ground in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, ideas that are not limited to blood or creed.
That common feel-good notion of diversity, however, is the “bait” in the ideological “bait and switch” of politicized diversity. The latter is not about the wondrous variety of Americans, especially their political diversity. It is instead the old Marxiste fable of American crime and tyranny, enhanced with multicultural identity politics, the clichéd melodrama of white neo-imperialist, neocolonialist oppression of carefully selected innocent “victims” and their superior “cultures.” This diversity, then, is a mechanism for increasing the power and influence of certain ideological factions in society, especially the schools, at the expense of others.
The result has been the ridiculous spectacles we have been witnessing on college campuses, where craven administrators have appeased and apologized to callow undergraduates who violate every canon of civilized discourse and free speech. More important, they represent the grim antithesis to liberal education. Rather than the “free play of the mind on all subjects,” as Matthew Arnold famously put it––the search for truth and coherent argument uninhibited by restraints, whether formal censorship or informal subject notions of offense––today’s campuses are rigidly orthodox, intolerant of dissent, and willing to use or threaten force to impose their ideology on others. They evoke philosopher Karl Popper’s attempt to argue with a Nazi Party member, who responded, “What, you want to argue? I don’t argue, I shoot.”
And thus does the abuse of language sow the seeds of intolerance and tyranny.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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