A Williams College professor decries his “comfort college”

Last week there were two back-to-back essasy in Bloomberg Opinion, both by Steven B. Gerrard, a professor of philosophy at Williams College (thanks to the several readers who sent me the links). Gerrard got both his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and I attribute that, at least in part, to his incisive critique of the increasing authoritarian leftism on America’s “elite” college campuses—a trend that he sees as inimical to the very mission of colleges.

Both pieces are behind paywalls, but judicious inquiry can yield you copies.

Of the two, the first is better because it is less theoretical and has more real-world incidents, including some from Williams College that I’ve reported on previously (see a list of posts here). I’ve written about Williams for several reasons. While Evergreen State and Oberlin have melted down, and both colleges are losing enrollment, Williams is poised to do so as well, depending on how the college administrators behave in the next few months. That’s because the College is about to formulate and put in place a free-speech policy, one that pretends that Chicago-style free speech on campus is perfectly consistent with a culture of “diversity and inclusion” (D&I).

Those are just soothing words to placate the anger and offense seething in the student body, for while free speech and D&I are often compatible, the hard decisions come when they are not—precisely when meaningful speech is offensive to some students. And someone who’s offended is clearly not “included”.  Discussions worth having guaranteed to offend people include those about abortion, affirmative action, Israel and Palestine, Republican politics, segregated dormitories (in the offing at Williams), equity versus gender feminism, the status of transgender people, statues and buildings named after people who weren’t perfect, cultural appropriation, and so on. No, D&I and liberal free speech are not always compatible, and become incompatible just when the discussion gets interesting. After all, a difference of opinion, particularly if identity politics are involved, is going to lead to some people being offended—hence “excluded.”

None of those topics constitute “hate speech”, but all are guaranteed to produce rancor and, at Williams, student revolt. FIRE has given Williams’s speech code a yellow rating, in part because it’s sufficiently ambiguous to invite “administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” Remember, too, that for 17 years Williams has been the #1 rated undergraduate liberal arts college in America. It has enormous financial resources, which will be endangered if the administration doesn’t play its cards properly.

Gerrard, as someone in favor of free speech, has faced his share of opprobrium. The first essay details some of the obstacles he faced, and also floats the notion of a “comfort college”.

A few excerpts:

A small group of faculty at Williams College in Massachusetts, where I teach philosophy, had circulated a petition to have our institution sign a national pledge of allegiance to principles of free expression that originated at the University of Chicago. Over 50 colleges and universities, including Princeton and the Citadel, had already adopted the mainstream liberal principles, protecting both speakers and protesters.

I was cautiously optimistic. Like many liberal arts colleges, Williams had gone through a free-speech crisis — and survived. In 2016, our then-president canceled a talk from a conservative writer (the first presidential cancellation since 1865, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barred from speaking on campus); he also ordered that a mural of the school’s founderbe temporarily boarded over because of objections to its depiction of Native Americans.

. . . So it was with all this in mind that I went into a faculty meeting to present the free-expression “pledge” with the idea that we would have a productive discussion. Then reality hit.

As I stepped up to the lectern in one of the college’s elegant Federal-style halls, students marched into the room, bearing a letter naming me an “Enemy of the People.”

In the spirit of liberal openness, I read their letter aloud. This is what it said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” The letter reserved special scorn for liberalism: “Liberal ideology asserts that morality is logical — that dehumanizing ideas can be fixed with logic and therefore need to be debated.” But, it added, “dehumanization cannot be discussed away.”

The letter finished, I started to reply. But a group of younger faculty in the front row demanded that I be quiet and let the students speak. And the students did. They had almost nothing to say about free speech; instead, they testified to the indignities they suffered at Williams. The dean of the college, who was in attendance, praised the students for their passion.

And so began Williams College’s annus horribilis, a year marked by protests, marches, threats and demands — everything but rational argument. A significant number of faculty not only supported this, but also instigated it. And the administration? Its response was to appoint a committee consisting of faculty, staff and students. Since “free speech” was now a dirty phrase, it was called “the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion.”

The year pretty much went downhill from there.

I wrote about a lot of the trouble in the posts I’ve linked to above. My prediction: after the new free-speech proposal that pretends to comport D&I with Chicago-style free speech is approved, things will go even further downhill. Those who want curbs on free speech will be enraged, and will test any policy that will punish students for censoring, deplatforming, or interrupting speakers. But I’d be glad to be wrong.

And here’s the “comfort college”—one of many neologisms which, in this case, seems only marginally different from what people like Haidt and Lukianoff have written about previously.

Elite private education in America is on the cusp of this new era. The controversies over free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like are symptoms of this shift. They are currently considered controversies because the colleges are in transition, and many do not realize that the old standards no longer hold. Once the transition is complete, the “correct” side of the controversies will become central to a school’s identity — just as faith was to the Christian college, self-confidence was to the gentlemen’s college, and alumni devotion and achievement were to the consumer’s college.

Some have suggested naming this new college “the therapeutic university” or “the woke college.” I prefer “the comfort college,” because it combines the emotional component of the first with the political elements of the second. Our students are comfortable in their opinions but uncomfortable with their lives, finding their world and the Williams campus a threatening place. Once Williams’ transition to comfort college is complete, the students will expect to find their college truly comfortable in all respects.

. . .What characterizes the comfort college? The slogan of the comfort college is “diversity and inclusion.” And just to be clear: The presence of previously underrepresented groups is vital, necessary and welcome. What’s more, insensitivity toward people’s identities should be self-censored, and social pressure to do so is a helpful tool.

But another agenda, an agenda that runs counter to true diversity and inclusion, has (often silently) accompanied these positive changes. At some point along the way, this laudable attention to the language of inclusion turned from a psychologically realistic sensitivity into a harsh and confrontational tribal marker. Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.

Finally:

Essayist William Deresiewicz gets it right when he says:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. … They possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. … Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation — if necessary, by censorship.

Well, this much we already know, but think of this essay as a cri de coeur from a professor who is bravely risking the disapprobation of the administration and student body as he watches his principles get trampled in the mud.

The second essay I found less useful, perhaps because it’s long on philosophy and short on remedies and descriptions of what Gerrard has faced. But it’s still worth reading (judicious inquiry. . . . etc.):

The one useful part of an essay that could have been much shorter is Gerrard’s argument that the comfort college’s very embracing of its goals prevents it from reaching them, for a main characteristic of such a college is the abandonment of reason in favor of emotion. And emotionality won’t get you to the truth, much less agreement.

If one adopts social justice as the primary goal of a college, there emerges a paradox that resembles what philosophers call the hedonistic paradox. It goes something like this: Many hold happiness as the goal or purpose of life. However, the surest way to make sure you never attain happiness is to always hold it as the goal and to ask yourself constantly, Is this making me happy?

As John Stuart Mill notes in his autobiography: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.” If you want to be happy, then immerse yourself in ballet or baseball or breaking the chains — if happiness is to come, it will follow from that. It turns out that sometimes the best way to pursue something is not to do it directly. For a college interested in training its students to fight for social justice, the paradox holds.

By raising the pursuit of justice over the pursuit of knowledge, the comfort college discards the very tools needed to achieve true justice.

. . .The comfort college’s acolytes make the figurative fallacy literal. It is the arguer’s genes that determine truth and validity, not facts or reason. That is why, in the comfort college, testimony has come to substitute for rational argument. When students (and more and more faculty) demand a new policy, their arguments often begin as (and rarely go beyond) accounts of victimization; the account is justification enough.

This ritual institutionalizes the denial of rational justification. It corrupts the healthy multicultural idea, built on Enlightenment universalism and cosmopolitanism, that different perspectives matter, and that what one sees often depends on where one stands — and that we are all better off from listening to those who stand in different places, who see the part of the truth that is blocked from our particular vision. The liberal ideal of the pursuit of knowledge is that by cooperating we all can see and understand better. But identity politicians reject the Enlightenment’s hope of mutual understanding and reason’s path to get us there. In the fragmented comfort college, the only tool is power — the power to enforce the dogma.

That, the heart of the essay, could have been conveyed in less than half the space. But I carp too much: even to get an essay like this published in Bloomberg is an accomplishment. However, the essay is too heavy on Plato, Mill, and Thrasymachus, and light on instantiation of his thesis. It’s stuff like this that really educates me:

When a Williams College department is given permission to create a new teaching position, the dean of the faculty assigns the search committee to read, among other works, “‘We Are All for Diversity, But …’: How Faculty Hiring Committees Reproduce Whiteness and Practical Suggestions for How They Can Change.” The authors say:

Another unnamed logic of Whiteness is the presumed neutrality of White European enlightenment epistemology. The modern university — in its knowledge generation, research, and social and material sciences and with its “experts” and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom) — has played a key role in the spreading of colonial empire. In this way, the university has validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous, and non-European knowledges.

Judicious inquiry will yield the “We are all for diversity, but . . ” essay.  Don’t get me wrong: I see diversity as a social good on campuses, including ideological diversity (“D&I” always means gender and ethnic diversity). But at Williams, as far as I know, D&I is the primary criterion in hiring, at least in the social sciences: “How will this candidate increase our diversity?” When that, rather than scholarship, is the sine qua non for a hireable candidate, then a college is doomed.

 

17 Comments

  1. DrBrydon
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    “Neurodiverse” is a new one on me. I look forward to businesses’ new committment to hiring the neurodiverse. The implication, that no one should be disriminated against for being mentally ill, will pose some challenge to the idea of Red Flag laws for guns (not to mention mental health care).

    • yazikus
      Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      I’ve usually heard it mentioned regarding people on the autism spectrum. And I have heard employers talk about making the workplace inclusive to neurodiversity. So there is that.

    • TJR
      Posted September 16, 2019 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Ironically wokeness often explicitly penalises the neurodiverse, e.g. for failing to understand non-verbal cues as to what is allowable speech.

      • Posted September 17, 2019 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        There was a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog that said something to that effect after his run-in with feminists.

        -Ryan

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Gerrard got both his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and I attribute that, at least in part, to his incisive critique …

    Maroon chauvinism! 🙂

  3. Derek Freyberg
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I found that clicking on your first link gave me both of Gerrard’s essays, one after the other, although perhaps only because I had not recently read a Bloomberg News article – you apparently get two free.
    But I wonder how much a change in policy at Williams would make – how much a $70K/year school with 2000 students can influence the US as a whole, except perhaps provoke a reaction. If the University of California system, with its 200,000 undergrads, or any of the larger university systems, started behaving in the same way, then I would be more concerned. Williams students may find themselves in an echo chamber for four years, but the real world awaits when they leave.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 15, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      “But I wonder how much a change in policy at Williams would make – how much a $70K/year school . . . .”

      Makes me wonder if I am somehow cheating such universities/colleges out of tuition money by reading on my own books on course syllabi. (The spell check doesn’t like my plural of “syllabus.” But it likes “syllabuses.”)

  4. Peter
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Gerrard wrote in Bloomberg Opinion:
    “Over 50 colleges and universities, including Princeton and the Citadel, had already adopted the mainstream liberal principles, protecting both speakers and protesters.”

    What is “the Citadel”?

    • Historian
      Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      The Citadel is a military college in South Carolina.

  5. Steve Gerrard
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I would like this guy even more if he spelled his first name with a ‘ph’ instead of the ‘v’.

    Since he is a professor of philosophy, he can be forgiven for being a bit “long on philosophy” I would think. It’s what he does!

    “The comfort college’s acolytes make the figurative fallacy literal. It is the arguer’s genes that determine truth and validity, not facts or reason. That is why, in the comfort college, testimony has come to substitute for rational argument.”

    The argument against facts and reason, that they are just “one way” of looking at things, reminds me of the same ploy being used in discussions of evolution and other science topics.

    Facts and reason are the foundation of science, not just “one way” of looking at it. It is only because of that foundation that science is so broadly accepted across different cultures and societies around the world.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I knew I read that name here….

    • Filippo
      Posted September 15, 2019 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      “Facts and reason are the foundation of science, not just “one way” of looking at it.”

      I’m reminded of an Edward Snowden interview, when he said, “We live in a time when people care more about “feels” than facts.”

    • TJR
      Posted September 16, 2019 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      You must know plenty about real hate speech now that you are managing Glasgow Rangers!

      What? That’s yet another Steven Gerrard?

  6. J Cook
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Howinhell did all this happen?

  7. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    “In this way, the university has validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous, and non-European knowledges.” The authors of this article no doubt travel to their meetings of the Modern Language Association by Indigenous non-European means of transportation, such as running all the way, dugout canoe, or camel caravan. And it would be charming to learn whether their preferred treatment for their own medical complaints is the medicine wheel, reindeer entrails, burning sacred herbs in a bowl, or Vodou.

    • Deodand
      Posted September 16, 2019 at 3:19 am | Permalink

      When I see language like that I always think of the Alternative Medicine peddler claiming that their ‘cure all’ cannot be tested because it uses ‘means unknown’ to ‘Western Science’.

      Or indeed the 19th C excuse that Females and Non-Whites lacked the mental stamina to do well in the sciences.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 16, 2019 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      My guess is that there are plenty indigenous non European people of color who would think the claim that “knowledge generation, research, and social and material sciences … with its “experts” and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” is outside of the jurisdiction of their emotional, self-focused, primitive approach to the world is a pretty damn colonialist claim — not to mention insulting.


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