Rarely accused of being conservative (big or small ‘c’), reading George Will is not my natural territory. Being in agreement with him is even more of a stretch. But being in the Land of the FGree just now, I found his recent syndicated column in the Washington Post exposed a litany of assaults on reason that challenges the role of higher education across the USA.
Now, it is very much the role of academia to provide fertile ground for the germination and development of ideas. By definition, some of these must appear to be dislocating when first posited. They may even be outrageous by contemporary standards. Yet, from Galileo to Einstein, many have proved to be right, despite inertial wisdom from the rest of the planet.
But George brings so much provocatively ill-informed (not to mention ill-expressed) political correctness to light that it seems he is right to challenge the non-rigorous scale of it. Freedom of speech and academic questioning is one thing. But when so many seem to slide into a dangerous half-light of dogmatic intolerance and virulent criticism of those who question, American academia may have slipped from illuminating the dark corners of knowledge to fortifying certain belief mantras into them.
Certainly, Will has overstepped the mark before, as when he questioned “the supposed campus epidemic of rape” and was pilloried by Diane Feinstein, among others: “It takes a particular kind of ignorance to argue that people who come forward to report being raped in college are afforded benefits of any kind.”
But censorship in any form deserves rigorous questioning, no matter how laudable the intent. The copyright on Mein Kampf runs out this year and the 70-year ban by the State of Bavaria on its publishing will run out. Various Jewish organisations are arguing against this. Florian Sepp, a historian at the Bavarian State Library says “This book is too dangerous for the general public.” But is it? Why not (if they existed) ban Ghengis Khan’s memoirs? Both are ancient history, providing lessons we all should learn.
And so, George Will raises the absolutely legitimate question whether political correctness may have gone so far as to undermine the objective integrity of further education. When the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee declares the phrase “politically correct” a microaggression or Mount Holyoke College cancels its annual production of “The Vagina Monologues” because it is insufficiently inclusive regarding women without vaginas and men who “self-identify” as women, then have things gone too far?
And, before we get too cosy mocking American campus naivety, there are debates and ill-tempered exchanges in Scotland when anyone questions the new received wisdom—already expressed by University of California sensitivity auditors who condemn as “hostile” and “derogatory” such perverse thoughts as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is the land of opportunity.”