Will: Higher education in U.S. a house divided
Although he is just 22, Andrew Zeller is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Purdue University. He is one reason the school is an exception to the rule of unreason on American campuses, where freedom of speech is under siege. He and Purdue are evidence that freedom of speech is most reliably defended by those in whose intellectual pursuits the truth is most rigorously tested by reality.
While in high school, Zeller completed three years of college undergraduate courses. He arrived at Purdue when its incoming president, Indiana’s former Gov. Mitch Daniels, wanted the university to receive the top “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which combats campus restrictions on speech and rates institutions.
Zeller, president of Purdue’s graduate student government, and some undergraduate leaders urged Daniels to do what he was eager to do: Purdue became the second university (after Princeton) to embrace the core of the statement from the University of Chicago affirming the principle that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” The statement says “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”
Why is Purdue one of just six universities aligned with the spirit of that policy? Partly because Purdue is true to the 1862 Morrill Act’s emphasis on applied learning. It graduates more engineers than any U.S. university other than Georgia Tech. It awards more STEM undergraduate diplomas than all but two public research universities (Penn State and Texas A&M).
Scientists and engineers live lives governed by the reality principle: Get the variables wrong, the experiment will fail, even if this seems insensitive; do the math wrong, the equation will tell you, even if that hurts your feelings. Reality does not similarly regulate the production of turgid monographs on the false consciousness of Parisian street sweepers in 1714.
In the 2007 book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case,” Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson argue that Duke’s disgrace — a fictional rape — was driven by a faculty Group of 88. Signatories included “only two professors in math, just one in the hard sciences, and zero in law. ... More than 84 percent described their research interests as related to race, class or gender (or all three). The group was concentrated in the humanities and some social science departments.”
Higher education is increasingly a house divided. In the sciences and even the humanities, actual scholars maintain the high standards of their noble calling. But in the humanities, especially, and elsewhere, faux scholars representing specious disciplines exploit academia as a jobs program for otherwise unemployable propagandists hostile to freedom of expression.
This is some good news: For the first time in FIRE’s 16 years of monitoring academia’s authoritarianism, fewer than half have what FIRE considers egregiously unconstitutional speech policies. Purdue is one of six universities that eliminated speech codes.
George Will is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group