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November 17, 2023

How Did We Get Here?

The transformation of American campuses into hotbeds of irrational and violent behavior did not happen overnight.

The pro-Hamas protests and marches keep expanding across our college and university campuses. Much to the dismay of Jewish students, alumni and donors (as well as non-Jewish Americans watching these events with alarm), those who claim to support the cause of the Arab population living in Gaza and the West Bank feel perfectly comfortable ratcheting up the antisemitic rhetoric, using threats and even resorting to violence. (This disturbing behavior has spilled into our cities, as well, including the nation’s capital. Demonstrations outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. earlier this week turned violent. Six Capitol Police officers were injured, and dozens of arrests were made.)

The transformation of American campuses into hotbeds of irrational and violent behavior did not happen overnight.

We can arguably trace this back to the 1960s. Widespread objection to the Vietnam War and outrage over the discrimination against Black Americans prompted much of the campus unrest at the time. But activists went further than simply calling for justice for minorities and demanding that the U.S. get out of the wars in Southeast Asia. The expression, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” attributed to University of California Berkeley student organizer Jack Weinberg (ironically, part of the “Free Speech Movement” there), became the rallying cry for the “baby boom” generation. The sexual revolution, happening at the same time, brought with it the abandonment of earlier societal standards of sexual modesty and social propriety.

In the blink of an eye, everything flipped. Respect for one’s elders, the pursuit of wisdom, prizing self-restraint and aspiring to societal stability were out. In their place came the worship of youth with all its passionate intensity, ignorance and inexperience; the celebration of vulgarity, and the promotion of constant “revolutions.”

Countless numbers of the “baby boomers” poured into graduate schools and then made their way into tenured faculty positions at American colleges and universities, where they have shaped not only the culture of higher education but grade school and high school curricula, government policies, legislative priorities and societal mores.

If one word could be said to characterize this generation and their progeny, it might be “hubris.” It’s understandable that groups of people who fought for righteous causes, defended marginalized members of society and broke down unjust barriers would repose great confidence in their own judgment. But being correct on any one issue does not mean that you will inevitably be correct about all issues, a realization that seems to have been lost. What we have observed over the decades since the 1960s is the gradual replacement of principles with people. In other words, the self-righteous protesters we are now witnessing have grown up (using the term loosely) certain of their moral superiority not because of what they believe in but because of who they are.

This explains — at least in part — the rampant philosophical inconsistencies: why the same people who insist that “silence is violence” shrug their shoulders at actual violence; why “think of the children” morphs into tearing down posters of kidnapped toddlers; why “the science is settled” can be used to deny research opportunities to scholars whose hypotheses challenge prevailing dogma; why so-called feminists scream obscenities at women who are defending the exclusion of biological males from women’s sports; why political protests on Jan. 6, 2021, were part of an “insurrection,” but burning neighborhoods to ash in city after city in 2020 was “peaceful protest”; why the ideological heirs of those who founded the “Free Speech Movement” and mistrusted large corporations 50 years ago now support government-corporate censorship and the weaponization of law enforcement against Americans whose political viewpoints differ from their own.

In academia, as well as journalism, the entertainment industry and even politics, traditional liberals are breaking with their “progressive” brethren over this abandonment of core principles that formed the basis for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Although many of the ideological movers and shakers from the Tom Hayden/Abbie Hoffman/Jerry Rubin generation have retired from academia, their legacy lives on, in the curricula of college and universities, in the hiring, research, publication and tenure decisions, and in the admissions policies, all of which tend to ensure that the next generations of incoming and graduating students either share their viewpoint on the way in or have been converted by the time they are on their way out.

To the extent that the problems American society is suffering from have their source on college campuses, it stands to reason that the solutions may be created — and implemented — there as well.

It starts, frankly, with a different attitude toward college admissions. The most exclusive academic institutions routinely look for (and admit) applicants who display a commitment to “changing the world,” articulate grandiose ambitions and have been encouraged to think highly of themselves. What should be sought instead are applicants who demonstrate character traits like integrity, modesty, collaboration, respect, and — the big one — humility. So much of the worst behavior we’ve witnessed is a function of unbridled ego and unquestioned viewpoints. Instead of rewarding those with admission to the most prestigious academic programs, we should be screening for them to weed them out.

Once at college, disruptive and deceitful behaviors — including academic dishonesty, violent protests and shouting down guests and invited speakers — should be discouraged, and those who engage in them should be disciplined and/or expelled. Freedom of speech does not extend to threats, nor should a self-defined sense of moral superiority be able to be used to bludgeon others into silence or submission.

Addressing the attitudes and actions of faculty and administration is admittedly quite different than tackling student conduct. That is a topic for another day. But we have to start somewhere. And we need to start now.


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