There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows.
These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?
The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.
They’ve decided to hire Ayaan Hirsi Ali to teach there. Here is Hirsi Ali’s view of academic freedom, as captured in a famous 2007 interview with Reason magazine. I encourage you to read the whole thing. But this bit strikes me as particularly relevant.
Reason: In Holland, you wanted to introduce a special permit system for Islamic schools, correct?
Hirsi Ali: I wanted to get rid of them. I wanted to have them all closed, but my party said it wouldn’t fly. Top people in the party privately expressed that they agreed with me, but said, “We won’t get a majority to do that,” so it never went anywhere.
Reason: Well, your proposal went against Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which guarantees that religious movements may teach children in religious schools and says the government must pay for this if minimum standards are met. So it couldn’t be done. Would you in fact advocate that again?
Hirsi Ali: Oh, yeah.
Reason: Here in the United States, you’d advocate the abolition of—
Hirsi Ali: All Muslim schools. Close them down. Yeah, that sounds absolutist. I think 10 years ago things were different, but now the jihadi genie is out of the bottle. I’ve been saying this in Australia and in the U.K. and so on, and I get exactly the same arguments: The Constitution doesn’t allow it. But we need to ask where these constitutions came from to start with—what’s the history of Article 23 in the Netherlands, for instance? There were no Muslim schools when the constitution was written. There were no jihadists. They had no idea.
Reason: Do you believe that the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights—documents from more than 200 ago—ought to change?
Hirsi Ali: They’re not infallible. These Western constitutions are products of the Enlightenment. They’re products of reason, and reason dictates that you can only progress when you can analyze the circumstances and act accordingly. So now that we live under different conditions, the threat is different. Constitutions can be adapted, and they are, sometimes. The American Constitution has been amended a number of times. With the Dutch Constitution, I think the latest adaptation was in 1989. Constitutions are not like the Koran—nonnegotiable, never-changing.
Look, in a democracy, it’s like this: I suggest, “Let’s close Muslim schools.” You say, “No, we can’t do it.” The problem that I’m pointing out to you gets bigger and bigger. Then you say, “OK, let’s somehow discourage them,” and still the problem keeps on growing, and in another few years it gets so bad that I belatedly get what I wanted in the first place.
I respect that it needs to happen this way, but there’s a price for the fact that you and I didn’t share these insights earlier, and the longer we wait, the higher the price. In itself the whole process is not a bad thing. People and communities and societies learn through experience. The drawback is, in this case, that “let’s learn from experience” means other people’s lives will be taken.
In other words, UATX’s poster girl for Western-style liberalism and academic freedom regards “the West” as a “problem,” wants to amend the US Constitution to abolish the Bill of Rights, and wants to use the power of government to abolish Islamic schools. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone involved that her beliefs are an incoherent, illiberal mess, that her predictions were 100% wrong, and that her policy proposals, if followed, would have violated rights on a colossal scale but achieved less than nothing for public safety.
“A gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education.” They got that right.