Philosophy Chair Inadvertently Shows What’s Wrong with Higher Education

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Small incidents can reveal great truths about educational institutions. That is the case with an encounter last year at the University of Texas – San Antonio (UTSA) between a graduate student and the chair of the school’s philosophy department.

The student’s name is Alfred MacDonald and in the fall of 2016 he was enrolled as a grad student in UTSA’s philosophy department. After class one day, he was speaking with another student and she mentioned that she was engaged to a man of the Islamic faith. MacDonald, who is bisexual, blurted out, “I could be killed in ten Muslim countries.”

It wasn’t a nice or relevant thing to say, even though it’s true.

In almost any other setting, that would have been the end of the matter, but it occurred at an American university, where hypersensitivity to every politically incorrect remark is the new normal. MacDonald was reported to the chair of the philosophy department, Professor Eve Browning, who promptly summoned him to her office for a talk.

Fortunately, MacDonald made a recording of that meeting; a transcript is available here.

After making an initial observation about MacDonald’s poor attendance, Browning got into her real reason for wanting to speak to him. She informed him, “That kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department,” meaning statements that “make others feel terrible.”

A comment on decorum wasn’t enough for Browning, though.

She continued, telling MacDonald that if he should again make such a transgression, he would be referred to UTSA’s “Behavior Intervention Team.” That’s no idle threat, Browning makes clear, since the Team could recommend his dismissal from the university. Many colleges and universities now have such PC enforcement arms, usually called “Bias Response Teams.” (For a report on this ugly phenomenon, see this study by FIRE.) Their function is to suppress and punish statements that are said to show “bias,” which invariably means something that bothers a leftist student, faculty member, or administrator.

As the discussion between Browning and MacDonald proceeds, we see that the philosophy student has much the better grasp of logic and argumentation than does the supposed expert. For example, Browning says to him, “Doesn’t it trouble you at all that three faculty members now have talked to you about these issues, and you’re responding in an extremely resistant and negative manner?” To which MacDonald offers this sharp rejoinder: “That would be ad populum reasoning,” meaning the logical fallacy of contending that something must be true simply because many other people believe it.

Nicely done, Mr. MacDonald!

Later, Browning admonishes the student, saying “Confrontational interaction with other graduate students is objectionable and unprofessional.” Coming from any academic, that’s a strange notion, since truth in any field depends on confrontational interactions – but coming from a philosophy professor, it’s especially jarring. Philosophy is supposed to be about intellectual challenge. Whether anyone’s feelings are hurt should not matter.

Finally, Browning clinches her “argument” by telling MacDonald, “We have not designed our program to tolerate these behaviors. We’re not going to let you damage the program.”

Rather than continue in a program where he’d have to walk on eggshells for fear of upsetting anyone again, MacDonald decided to transfer out of UTSA.

In an interview with The College Fix, MacDonald said, “In the philosophy department, there was an overwhelming sense that everyone wasn’t saying everything they were thinking. Very few people – students or faculty – were direct with their complains about virtually anything. The graduate students were reserved to an unusual degree. It felt like I was in high school again….”

College students, especially grad students, ought to be mature enough to tolerate statements that are upsetting, impolite, or even downright offensive. Unfortunately, the institutional culture on most campuses is now one of extreme sensitivity. Speaking your mind is apt to lead to unpleasant and threatening meetings with the enforcers of politically correct thinking.

Federalist writer Robert Tracinski nails the problem we face in this piece. “During the Middle Ages,” he writes, “it was said that philosophy was ‘the handmaiden of theology,’ that philosophical discussion was useful only so long as it supported the predetermined dogmas of the Church. The Renaissance didn’t really take off until philosophy moved beyond this idea and viewed rational inquiry as an independently valid source of truth that was not bound by obedience to dogma. Today, we’ve gone full circle back to a new Secular Scholasticism in which philosophy is the handmaiden of Political Correctness.”

So true.

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