William Murchison / March 17, 2015

Trashing the Academic Mission

Maybe the question is, who’d want a degree from a university whose administration, on learning of a frat-boy incident on a bus, behaves as though God had personally dispatched the whole academic bureaucracy to wreak revenge. “P-o-o-o-o-or Okies,” as we Texas Longhorns used to chant from the Cotton Bowl stands. I mean, what else do they do at Oklahoma University besides act as though the future of civilization depended on humiliating a couple of undergrad pranksters on account of a racist song they sang; closing down SAE’s local chapter, even unto removing the Greek letters from the house and driving non-participants into the highways and byways? Does OU actually educate anyone? Or is extermination for incorrect viewpoint the school’s idea of modern education?

Maybe the question is, who’d want a degree from a university whose administration, on learning of a frat-boy incident on a bus, behaves as though God had personally dispatched the whole academic bureaucracy to wreak revenge.

“P-o-o-o-o-or Okies,” as we Texas Longhorns used to chant from the Cotton Bowl stands.

I mean, what else do they do at Oklahoma University besides act as though the future of civilization depended on humiliating a couple of undergrad pranksters on account of a racist song they sang; closing down SAE’s local chapter, even unto removing the Greek letters from the house and driving non-participants into the highways and byways? Does OU actually educate anyone? Or is extermination for incorrect viewpoint the school’s idea of modern education?

Somebody – whether the SAE’s are up to it or not remains to be seen – needs to sue the pants off OU and collect major damages for the suppression of free speech. As Prof. Eugene Volokh notes on his legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, it’s not constitutional for a public university to suppress free speech. What it is, if I might chime in, is oppressive.

Political correctness has its occasionally humorous side, as when feminists take offense at harmless linguistic concoctions that suggest the existence of distinctions between men and women. But coming unstuck over a brainless parody sung off campus and retaliating as if SAE’s were goose-stepping around campus, bellowing “Die Fahne Hoch!” – that’s another matter entirely. OU’s retaliatory moves are the equivalent of using an elephant gun on a mosquito.

And will it help? Will OU succeed in supplanting “hatred” with “brotherhood” – and sorry, sorry, “sisterhood,” too? The likelier prospect is the multiplication of local resentments against the sworn enemies of free speech. (Does anyone suppose for a moment the administration would have reacted in this fashion to a Muslim interest group putting down Christians in a sing-song?)

Alas, American academia isn’t as interested as it used to be in the large questions of life – the questions that universities are supposed to be in business to examine, think over, respond to, etc. – questions such as, what are we here for? What do we need to know, and to do, in consequence? What is civilization? What is the right course of action for moral men and women?

They used to ask such questions at universities, back before universities became, more than anything else, training centers for economic, sociological and political advancement.

The new role universities have adopted, as success factories, helps explain the anguish that OU and like institutions fall into when members of the university – also known as students – get out of line. In a success factory there are rules for success. Particular skills are required; particular attitudes are obligatory. The university markets these rules and attitudes for 30-50 thousand bucks a year. But we don’t get to do what we want to with the purchase.

Deviation from the rules, in activities or patterns considered eccentric – therefore Bad for Business – are unwelcome on campus. (Or, as in OU’s case, off campus.) Standards of belief and behavior come from the world outside the campus. Can’t thwart that world without incurring its hostility – disappearance of multi-million-dollar gifts and endowment; critical stories in the media; the flight of award-winning faculty!

The university success factory knows the world’s performance standards: which don’t include adolescent performances suggesting slavery wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Everyone will do as the success factory says – at least on matters considered Good for Business, and for success. What you get, upon the success factory’s discovery of your various misdeeds, is the back of the hand.

What might better serve better purposes? An academic mission, perhaps, heavier on the old norms, the permanent things, as T. S. Eliot called them, than on the aims and output of the success factory. What are we here for? What do the good man, the good woman do in consequence? That sort of thing. Over against pride and envy and malice, set the old virtues: wisdom, understanding, righteousness, even (dare I say it?) godly fear. Then see what happens.

Couldn’t be worse, could it?

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