In 1984, the late Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, his devastating critique of the intellectual and ideological conformity that then reigned on American campuses. In the thirty years since, the mind of the typical college professor and student has been padlocked, dead-bolted, sealed against threatening winds by the caulking guns of political correctness, shuttered against the light and shade of argument, and gone permanently on vacation. Today, the academic mind is so impervious to anything but progressive ideology that not even a team of world-champion oyster shuckers could pry it open.
How did we “progress” so quickly from the idea of the university as a bastion in which freedom of thought and speech were given sanctuary from the violence of repressive political or religious orthodoxies, to its symmetrical opposite: a bastion of political and ideological orthodoxy, from which non-conforming thought and speech are ostracized as dangerous and “offensive”?
It is bracing to remember that in the twelfth century, when the oldest universities of Europe were being founded, the regnant pedagogical method was the so-called “Sic et Non”: faculty members and students, that is, would stand up before the class to propose and defend often controversial philosophical and theological opinions, before other faculty members or students would affirm their antitheses.
Now, in the Middle Ages, Christian doctrine was a rather more sensitive subject than even transgendered bathrooms, Halloween costumes, or “cultural appropriations” are today, so that when one interlocutor argued for the truth of the Transubstantiation of the Eternal Word under the species of ordinary bread and wine, and another denied it as a rational impossibility, a great many people on campus were bound to be offended. Come to think of it, affirming and negating the same proposition is the perfect recipe for offending everyone.
In the fifteenth century, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola proposed the presentation at the University of Florence of his nine hundred “conclusions”, drawn from the Cabala, the occult pagan doctrines of Zoroastrianism, Orphism, Hermeticism, late-antique mystery religion, and Chaldaean magic, thus mightily offending orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims, not to mention Aristotelian rationalists, scientific empiricists, Epicureans, and atheists, all at the same time. The event was not cancelled by the administration because they could not guarantee the safety of those who attended; no one threatened to shout Pico down; and the student council did not rescind funding for the U of F’s Pro Paganism Club. In the matter of academic freedom, the Middle Ages were rather more enlightened, and the modern more medieval, than we care to think. Today, the Inquisitors have set up shop within the walls of the academy, and the ideologically heterodox have been forced to seek refuge as far away as possible.*
The latest and most risible manifestation of academic closed-mindedness is the “safe zone” into which campuses have recently been turned by the emotional hemophiliacs who inhabit them. Their purpose is to hermetically seal their occupants against opinions that might bruise their self-esteem or make them otherwise “uncomfortable”; which is to say that students and faculty are now forbidden to say, read, or refer to anything vaguely critical of women, homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, blacks, browns, Hispanics, Native Americans (i.e., everyone but Caucasian males, who are invited to confess, ask forgiveness, and do penance for the sins of “white privilege”), the poor, the working class (save for those low-brow xenophobes who vote Conservative or Republican), feminism, wiccan, “equity”, “diversity”, multiculturalism, affirmative action, “social justice”, the welfare state, abortion, moral relativism, deconstructionism, or any of the other client groups, faddish theories, or malodorous sacrosanctities of the Church of Progress. The safe zone has thus done for a vast array of topics (discussion of which has always been the university’s raison d’etre) what the fatwa and truck bomb have only partially succeeded in doing for the Prophet Mohamed.
University safe zones are, of course, the projections and perfect emblems of the imperviously closed minds that invented them; but then the student and faculty on today’s campuses do not evidently possess the education to understand the metaphorical irradiations of their desiderata. Having never studied history, they are unaware that the freedom to offend, and the obligation to endure offensive speech or thought without diabolizing the thinker or criminalizing his ideas, are the foundational rights and duties of modern democratic liberty.
*That Pico’s 900 Conclusions were published in the same century as the Inquisition, in fact, merely illustrates the relative impotence of medieval Christian thought-control. Fewer than two thousand heretics were executed during the three-century-long history of that institution, paltry by comparison to the tens of millions murdered in the twentieth century by the enlightened, post-religious governments of the Soviet Union, Mao, and Pol Pot.