College or activist camp?(Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

September 5, 2022   10 mins

In 1993, I began my first teaching job at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla in newly independent Ukraine. I had been hired to teach Hobbes, Locke, and the Federalist to the sons and daughters of communist apparatchiks who had come to recognise the corrupt character of the Soviet regime and university system, and to introduce institutional reforms that would support the kind of liberal arts approach to education then typical on American campuses.

Thirty years later, the tables have turned. I am now a tenured professor at Claremont McKenna College, an elite institution that aggressively markets itself as the number-one ranked college for promoting freedom of speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. I don’t blame FIRE. But the administration here has built a Potemkin village. My real job today is to re-introduce something of the spirit of Ukraine into American education.

How did this come to happen on my own and other campuses in the United States? The responsibility of a Dean of Students office used to be to handle student discipline. Today it seems to maintain student comfort by disciplining faculty who threaten their repose. Gadflies, out; massage chairs and comfort puppies, in. There are also institutional structures for climate control. On my campus there is a programme called CMCListens, the tip of an enormous bureaucracy to eliminate any student unease. It encourages them to submit anonymous reports “to senior staff” about anything “they find troubling at CMC in just a few easy steps”. The programme sets a tone that conditions students to think of themselves as minders and informants, not students. The effect in the classroom is to destroy the possibility of education.

On October, 4, 2021, discussion in my “Introduction to Political Philosophy” class was devoted to Book III of Plato’s Republic and his views about the necessity for censorship in political communities. A very intelligent student objected that Plato was mistaken, a point proven by the fact that in the United States there is no censorship. Someone brought up the example of Huckleberry Finn. She replied, quite correctly, that removing a book from curriculums doesn’t constitute censorship.

I suggested that the case of Huckleberry Finn was perhaps more complicated. The book had also been removed from libraries and published in expurgated editions. At this point, an international student who had never even heard of Huckleberry Finn asked me why the book had been banned. I told her, in plain English, using the precise term written by the author.

This caused the first student, somewhat grudgingly but honestly, to acknowledge that censorship did exist in America. Far from being harmed by the discussion, she was benefitted. It shocked her into seeing something about her own society that she had missed. She also understood that Plato’s views were not simply outdated or wrong, but perhaps merited more serious consideration. This liberation from her initial prejudice bore fruit. Later in the semester she raised a very thoughtful question about Socrates’ criticisms of the poets and the strange role they play in the Allegory of the Cave: “But isn’t Plato himself a poet?” Her world was no longer flat. This is what good books can do. A rare success.

Another student, well-trained as an informant, reported me to the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. An associate dean then requested a meeting to discuss “serious concerns raised about one of your courses”. I requested to be informed of the concerns in writing. The associate dean refused. I insisted. This went on for a couple of weeks. Finally, the dean of faculty emailed a summary of the informant’s (inaccurate) account and demanded to know “why it was important to use the n* expressly as contrasted with simply saying the ‘n-word?’” What could possibly be the “pedagogic rationale” that justified my approach?

This was my reply:

“I do think that when a student asks me a direct question that I am able to answer, good “pedagogy” requires that I tell him the truth. Do you disagree? Similarly, when a student makes a false statement, I think my job requires me to confront that student with facts that contradict him. Do you think I am wrong to do so? I also hold the view that before criticizing or praising an author, one should first attempt to understand that author as he understood himself, something that requires reading and discussing exactly what he wrote. Do you think I am mistaken in this approach?”

The dean never responded, at least not with an argument. Sometime after I failed to toe the line by later reading aloud in a different class from Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass — its most powerful passage contains the n-word — she undertook to ban me from teaching future introductory classes. She did this without any investigation into the accuracy of student complaints, without following formal procedures, and even without the courtesy of informing me what she had done.

By chance, I discovered my case was not unique. This spring, an untenured adjunct, Eva Revesz, read aloud and asked students to discuss a passage from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that contained the n-word. They complained. The dean’s office summoned the adjunct. She apologised and agreed to undergo the recommended counseling. She met the dean. She submitted to re-education and on-line training in critical race theory. Despite all this — and a glowing recommendation by the faculty member who observed and evaluated her teaching — Ms Revesz’s contract was not renewed.

The college knows the stigma attached to these kinds of complaints and the near impossibility of an academic finding a job with a scarlet “N” branded on their forehead. But if they counted on this to ensure Ms Revesz’s quiet departure, they misjudged her character. She went public, turning the tables on Claremont McKenna’s puritans. Perhaps some other college will enrich their institution and its students by hiring her. But I’m not holding my breath. Ms Revesz’s courage makes her my hero. She deserves to be yours.

A third case exists. Professor Robert Faggen, friendly with the CMC’s president and well-connected to its Board of Trustees, assigned Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”, a poem that contains the n-word. When he played a recording in class of Lowell himself reading the poem, a student exploded, excoriating both author and teacher as “old white dudes”. Now there’s a good “argument” for you. The Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion informed the professor by telephone, not in writing, that he was in the clear because he had not himself read the forbidden word aloud in class. A narrow escape based on an arbitrary distinction that the administration could and likely will deny ever having made. Ms Revesz was not so lucky.

I discussed my situation with several colleagues. This was disheartening. Almost all counseled submission. I’m just a guy sitting in a stuffy backroom of his house with a few sheets of paper and a pen, up against an institution with an endowment of $1.2 billion dollars (market value in June of 2020), lawyers by the bushel, and the ability to comb through all my emails for the past 15 years. One colleague warned me, “If you go public with this, the administration will smear you head to foot.” Another, who thought my actions just but likely imprudent, asked, “Is this really the hill you want to die on?” They had a point. They were correct.

After I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal detailing the College’s attempts to suppress speech in my and other classrooms, the president, Hiram Chodosh, replied by circulating a statement to the media and publishing a lengthy reply in the same newspaper. Rather than take the opportunity of a national audience to discuss an important issue on his and many other campuses, he leveled an ad hominem attack on me for being the bearer of bad news.

President Chodosh claimed that my op-ed contained damning and relevant omissions that explained my plight. “Low enrollment in his electives had a detrimental effect on his department. His upper-level elective fall course resulted in no students enrolled, and there is only one student enrolled in his major-required course this fall.”

In fact, the cancelled course was listed by the administration without consulting me at 8:10 am. No other elective course in political philosophy has ever been assigned this hour, and with good reason. It’s not good for enrollment. As for the required course with just one student, President Chodosh omitted the fact that it had been listed only at the end of this July, three months after registration had closed and before students were back on campus. Once students were actually in a position to sign up, enrollment was just fine. And discussion lively.

A fish rots from the head. In November of 2015, Mary Spellman, then Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna, was forced to resign over protests by minority students over her alleged lack of sensitivity for having emailed a Hispanic student that she would work hard to help those “who don’t fit the CMC mold”. Ms Spellman’s sincere and decent offer to help a struggling student was met with this response, “How dare you say we don’t fit the mold?” That was her crime. She resigned.

While this immediately affected the way Faculty dealt with the president, I failed to realise the effect this incident would have on students. I received a text this week from an intelligent, self-possessed and assertive woman, a CMC student here at the time of the Spellman fiasco. She feared I might now be next for the undercarriage and confessed, “I remember feeling quite scared to come out then as someone who even questioned what happened there.” Afraid to come out. Afraid. Even to question. I had no idea.

The situation of students today is bad. As many others have noted, they live in a world without much depth, dominated by digital communication and social media consumed on a flat screen that makes sustained reading difficult. They fear, and not without good cause, that any misstep will be engraved on the internet forever. They live under conditions of mob-rule. No one should blame them for being cautious.

Yet it is less the internet than the over-valuing of the genuine democratic virtues of kindness and sensitivity that poses the greater threat to education today. The lively exchange of view-points is discouraged in elementary and high schools as likely to injure someone’s feelings. The habit of arguing falls into disuse. Students are miserable at it, not for want of intelligence, but from lack of practice. This inability to argue makes them distrustful of reason. This distrust turns into a belief that reason gives no guidance at all on any important question. The principle of equality assures them that everyone else is in the same boat. Contentious issues can therefore be determined only by authority.

Upset by something spoken in a classroom? Don’t make an argument. Run to the dean to make it stop. Someone, not themselves, needs to make and enforce the rules. The dean listens. It is stopped. This confirms in their minds that this is the way to get results, but without them even noticing the full extent and deepening of their dependence and the growth in the dean’s power. This is a school for politics, not, however, of a healthy democratic kind.

Fear and timidity, especially by those with university positions, are also a large part of the problem. Conformity is in all times and places a special danger to intellectuals. What is the point of assigning Frederick Douglass when those with tenure lack the courage even to read in class what is on the page? The liberating power of books, particularly those written in times and places distant from our own, is destroyed when they are bowdlerised and filtered through the sieve of contemporary sensibilities.

Foot soldiers rarely get to choose the hill on which they are stationed. They must deal with the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves. Frederick Douglass defended free speech over the course of his long career as a freeman. He had no choice. He understood that the cause of liberty for millions of blacks required unfettered discussion and criticism of slave power, the US Constitution, and even his fellow abolitionists. “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants.” He risked his life and liberty to write his Narrative. I stand for the original genius of his book, exactly as he published it. Frederick Douglass deserves that, and much, much more.  

Huck Finn wavered between winning praise as an informant or suffering social opprobrium and eternal damnation for helping to liberate a fellow man from slavery. Lacking the benefit of Claremont McKenna College training, he chose to tear up his letter to Miss Watson informing her of Jim’s whereabouts. “All right, then,” he concluded, “I’ll go to hell.” No wonder the reading and discussion of Mark Twain’s book is discouraged by authorities.

I owe a debt to Frederick Douglass and to Mark Twain for taking the trouble to educate me, or, at least, for having tried. So I lodged a formal grievance against the dean and went public. The grievance has yet to run its course. I can, however, report that two weeks after filing it, when it also became apparent to the administration that my, and other similar cases at Claremont McKenna, would be made public, the dean decided to allow me to teach Introduction to Political Philosophy this fall, a course I have offered 19 times in the past 15 years, and one that had originally been on my department’s master schedule.

To date, my success has been partial. The editor of a campus paper recently interviewed students from my courses. He found critics, but many more who profited from and appreciated my approach. Yet not one of the latter would go on the record. I’d like to think they are mistaken. But I’m not sure.

When I left Ukraine in 1994, I was pessimistic about the future of political liberty there. The people as a whole were so atomised and enervated by the Soviet system that it was hard to imagine them engaging in any collective action to defend their rights and liberties. But the young people I taught at Kyiv-Mohyla had not yet had their spirits crushed. Somehow, despite the horrific economic and political corruption of the Nineties, Ukraine avoided the descent into one-party, one-man rule. In the moment of greatest peril, my former students’ university became an important point of resistance to the puppet regime in 2014. Their generation went to the streets and overthrew a corrupt government during the Maidan Revolution. Their courage then and now leaves me shamefaced both for myself and my fellow academics who can no longer even stand up for reading historical texts as written.

I am much more pessimistic about the fate of liberal education in America than I ever was about political liberty in Ukraine. Many, perhaps most, professors and students oppose free speech and free inquiry as an obstacle to the creation of a more equitable world. Ukrainians know how that ends. Others favour free speech and free inquiry, but give increased devotion to conformity, too cowed and cowardly to secure their blessings. I hope I am as much mistaken about America as I was about Ukraine.

A classroom is not a public space, it does not have the same purposes and responsibilities as a political community. It therefore requires different rules to govern and preserve it, among the most important is civility. I am not a free speech absolutist. In the course that first got me in trouble, I tried to help a student see the power of Plato’s case for censorship. How then could I have come to utter the forbidden “n-word” in a class knowing full well the distress it might cause in some, or even most, of my students?

Civility in the classroom is not the end but a means that makes the discovery of truth more likely. Liberation from falsehoods and the discovery of truth is the most important purpose of any classroom, indeed, the highest end of liberal education — not comfort and safety. College is not a resort hotel. When the means obstruct the end, reason allows their modification.

If liberal education, that is, an education that makes us worthy of being free, is to have a future, it can only be secured by a movement from below, not by corrupt administrators who profit from and manipulate the current situation. As teachers, we need to take back our classrooms. We need to fight on whatever hill we find ourselves.

Christopher Nadon is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.