College Leaders Must Get at the Roots of Student Intolerance

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The displays of student intolerance on college campuses – most recently the ugly attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury – have brought America a “teachable moment.” It’s clear that substantial numbers of students have been imbued with a close-minded fanaticism that’s reminiscent of the Hitler Youth and Mao’s Red Brigades. They aren’t in college to learn, but to use it as a platform for pushing their “progressive” ideology.

These young Americans have been taught that it is actually bad to listen respectfully to any ideas that run counter to theirs. We commonly hear them declare that such ideas should never be heard and must be opposed by any and all means – disinvitation, shouting down, rioting . They haven’t actually ever studied those ideas and often misrepresent them, but they just know they’re bad.

This shows a grave educational failure throughout our system. How should college leaders respond?

Following the mobbing at Middlebury (which I wrote about here), a large number of faculty members put forth a statement on the principles of free speech. This is good.

Unfortunately, publishing such a statement will do almost nothing to change the minds of our intolerant young zealots. They’re no more apt to read and contemplate it than they were to read any of Charles Murray’s books before deciding that he is a “white supremacist” who had to be shouted down and physically attacked. The problem lies deep in the primitive, tribal “our side good, your side bad” mentality of the students.

That is what educational leaders at all levels and especially college should tackle. It is evident that the college curriculum needs to include a course that covers the need for free speech, intellectual tolerance, and rational debate. Such a course is vastly more important than most of the mandatory courses (often on “diversity”) that now litter the curriculum.

Students must be taught that there can be no progress in society if some people can use force to silence those who challenge the conventional wisdom. They must be taught that their own freedom of speech and that of everyone else depends on tolerance and mutual respect.

They should have to read and discuss Mill’s On Liberty, especially his point that “He who understands only his own side of a case usually understands little of that.” They should have to read about how throughout history, tyrants have gained and kept power by fomenting hatred by demonizing individuals and groups. They should learn that emotion is never a substitute for reason.

Of course, students must be told that if they disrupt free speech, they will be subject to punishments up to expulsion, but that isn’t enough. The roots of their intolerance must be pulled out. Only proper education can do that.

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