Published October 12, 2018
Fifty years ago this week, the Fall 1968 issue of the quarterly journal The Public Interest hit subscribers’ mailboxes. As its cover declared, it was a special issue dedicated to “The Universities” and the crisis that was then engulfing them. You can find it all online here.
The issue featured an amazing lineup of intellectual heavyweights writing about where things were headed on the campuses—in many cases the ones where they were teaching or learning. Nathan Glazer on Berkeley, Daniel Bell on Columbia, Nathan Tarcov (then just a student, now one of our wisest political theorists) on Cornell. Seymour Martin Lipset wrote a kind of sociological profile of the campus activists, Talcott Parsons did the same for the professors. John Bunzel wrote an extraordinarily prescient piece on the emergence of racial identity studies. And there were essays on where the academy was headed abroad too—in Britain, France, and Germany. Reading all this now, in the midst of what seems like yet another age of madness in the American academy, some similarities are striking, and some stark differences between their challenges and ours are telling too.
Then as now, for instance, the thinking of these (relatively) conservative observers of campus culture was shot through with a sense of decline—they perceived a loss of substantive seriousness and a rise of extreme specialization among the faculty. They also mourned the corruption of intellectual habits and norms of behavior and thought among students. And of course, politicization was a prime concern then, as it is today.
These writers were all trying to get their arms around the character and aims of student activism in the late 1960s, and were struck by its fundamentally performative character, which was, as Lipset put it, “inclined to be expressive, more oriented toward showing up the ‘immorality’ of the larger society than to securing attainable reforms.”
Not all the authors in that issue were harshly critical of student protesters. Tarcov, for instance, argued that their idea of the social responsibility of the university was connected to the ideal of liberal learning as preparation for citizenship. But all those who took up the question did suggest that the methods and tactics of the protesters were evidence of some significant breakdown in the culture that had formed them.
As we find today, the idea that these students were somehow overprotected or coddled was a prominent explanation of what had gone wrong. This was a case put most forthrightly in that era by the sociologist Robert Nisbet, to whom several of the Public Interest authors referred. In his brilliant book The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (published two years after this issue of The Public Interest, in 1970, but building on his writings throughout that era) Nisbet described what he took to be the type of student “who predominates on the American campus”:
The child is accustomed to being loved and, above all, he is accustomed to being listened to: at the dinner table, in the automobile when being driven to one or another of the multitude of dens, packs, and clubs middle-class Americans belong to. So great is the average middle-class child’s dependence upon both love and being listened to that going off to college can sometimes be a traumatic experience for him.
And in response, this kind of young American demands the same treatment on campus as at home, and so may be unwilling to take on the role of a genuine student. The university’s tendency to accommodate this neediness seemed to Nisbet and others like one of the factors enabling the rise of a destructive campus radicalism. This, too, is a common refrain these days, as the coddling of children is taken to result in a certain kind of personality among college students. (Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Coddling of the American Mind makes a particularly rich and sophisticated case on this front, and is well worth your while.)
The familiarity of these various concerns is striking, and it might cause us to wonder whether today’s complaints actually describe a new or distinct problem at all and whether the nostalgia in which they are rooted (which is more or less a nostalgia for the very time these Public Interestauthors were writing in and complaining about) is justified. Are the extraordinary similarities between our problems and theirs good news or bad news?
But there are also some very significant differences between the world these writers describe and the one today’s students and professors inhabit, which might help us better understand the contemporary campus too.
For one thing, it’s apparent from what all these writers have to say that the student activists of the late-60s were genuinely enemies of authority on campus. They saw the university as an extension of the American establishment, which they detested. Today’s student activists have a decidedly different attitude about authority—and about the establishment. Their activism is more often a call for the university to exercise its authority over what happens on campus than a rejection of such authority. They act as the possessors of the campus, demanding to exclude those who don’t belong or punish those who don’t conform. They perceive themselves more as wielders of authority, or at least as deserving to have it wielded on their behalf. And in fact, their political and cultural views—even when they are presented as critical of the larger society—are very much those of our broader elite culture. They predominate not only in academia but in much of corporate America, the media, the popular culture, the professions, and beyond. They are in this sense thoroughly conformist and hardly oppositional.
This also gestures toward what may be the most striking difference between the campus crisis of the 1960s and today: the great reversal of the free-speech debates. Those (again, relatively) conservative writers in 1968 generally took for granted the notion that “free speech” was a coded term employed by campus activists to argue for the eradication of academic standards and norms of behavior on campus. Implicitly or explicitly (and Tarcov, the only student among the writers, is the one who makes it most explicit) they suggest that free speech is the wrong way to understand the purpose of the university, and even of academic freedom, and that it is ultimately in tension with the core ideals of higher education. “Free speech in its extreme form of the right to advocacy of any action, and even to self-expression through any action that might be construed as protest,” Tarcov wrote, “implied a denial of any understanding of the university that claimed that education was necessarily prior to action, that an atmosphere of certain kinds of actions (such as passionate and partisan ones) was detrimental to education or even simply that students had to be quiet and listen or think.”
That didn’t mean that Tarcov or others were friendly to the exclusion of campus speakers or the like (Tarcov for instance notes with dismay how, on his campus, “lecturing on foreign policy, Ambassador Averell Harriman was interrupted, insulted, and deprived of the microphone as a defender of imperialism”). But they were careful not to couch objections to such violations of academic norms in terms of free speech. And they also ultimately did not take seriously the campus activists’ appeals to free speech as an end in itself.
Indeed these writers, unlike many contemporary conservatives, did not perceive the protesters as relativists or nihilists. They saw that the student activists were moralists, even if the morality that moved them may have been misguided or deformed.
That, too, stands out about this dispatch from the campus crisis of half a century ago: It generally did not interpret the situation on campus in the Germanic terms of nihilism and rationalism that crept into the public understanding of the university in later decades (with the help of Allan Bloom and other brilliant observers). For better or worse, these writers generally see the university wars in the more traditional Anglo-American terms of a struggle between radical egalitarianism and liberal-traditionalist norms. They were probably right to see it this way. It seems to me that mistaking the left’s radical egalitarianism for relativism or nihilism has been a characteristic error of the American right in the last half century, evident well beyond the university debates but rarely made explicit even in intra-conservative conversations—except perhaps occasionally among the Straussians, who disagree among themselves about it. It often keeps us from understanding the left in its own terms, and now stands in the way of our making better sense of the peculiar appeal of identity politics, and from seeing how it might be resisted and answered.
But the other powerful difference between the situation of these observers of the academy half a century ago and ours is the sheer physical intensity and danger of the campus radicalism they confronted. It was violent in a way that ours is not. Indeed, we easily forget how violent leftist social radicalism in general was in the late 1960s and early 70s, and in this sense how much more disordered and dangerous our public life seemed (and was) in that time, even compared to what we now think of as our era of discord and fragmentation. Our political culture is divided and polarized today, to be sure. But the United States experienced some 2,500 domestic bombings in an 18-month period in 1971-72. That is not the world we live in, thankfully.
But although the campus activism (and the broader social strife) of that era was more violent and dangerous, it was also to a far greater degree an expression of weakness. Today’s campus activists are much stronger, precisely because they speak for the cultural prejudices that dominate the academy, and so are enforced by the faculty and frequently by administrators. Campus conservatives generally aren’t in physical danger today (with a few prominent exceptions), but they are in constant danger of social ostracism and professional sabotage. The activists speak for the contemporary academy, not against it, so their targets and critics face a different sort of minefield.
Different as our circumstances are, though, I walked away from these 50-year-old essays most struck by what they suggested about both the conceptual and practical limits of the case for free speech on campus. It’s not that the case for free speech isn’t right, but that it isn’t enough, and that it understates the significance of what’s at stake in favor of procedural platitudes—like a case for religious liberty devoid of religious content.
Free speech and inquiry are essential prerequisites for academic life. But though they are necessary they are not sufficient. And the case against the most aggressive campus activists can’t really be just a case for the prerequisites, not only because there’s more to academic life but also because a case for free speech isn’t powerful or appealing enough to the persuadable broader public. The argument has to also, and above all, be a case for the good served by the university, and the good put at risk by the authoritarian thuggery of today’s most aggressive activists.
At the end of the day, free speech is not quite what the defenders of the academy are really defending. To assert that free speech is what’s at risk is to suggest that the university is just a platform for expression. But we have more than enough platforms for expression now, and that simply isn’t what the university is. The defense of academic integrity has to be a defense of the institutional purpose of the university in America, and that purpose is not expression but learning and teaching. It is the exploration, development, and dissemination of knowledge—above all knowledge of the true, and the good, and the beautiful.
That’s not only a more important but also a more attractive purpose than free speech. And it can help us draw distinctions between kinds of speech that advance learning and teaching and those that don’t. A defense of academic integrity that can’t distinguish between hearing from a virulent if entertaining troll and hearing from a distinguished if unorthodox social scientist—that argues the university must be equally an open platform for both—isn’t going to capture the essential purpose of academic integrity, or win the assent of the persuadable.
That greater purpose of academic life is what is now at stake in our campus debates, and it is what is always at stake in serious campus debates. It is well worth fighting for, still and again.
— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.