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Bonfire of the Humanities
Daniel Henninger
May 15, 2014
It's been a long time coming, but America's colleges and universities have finally descended into lunacy.

Last month, Brandeis University banned Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as its commencement speaker, purporting that "Ms. Hirsi Ali's record of anti-Islam statements" violates Brandeis's "core values."

This week higher education's ritualistic burning of college-commencement heretics spread to Smith College and Haverford College.

On Monday, Smith announced the withdrawal of Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund. And what might the problem be with Madame Lagarde, considered one of the world's most accomplished women? An online petition signed by some 480 offended Smithies said the IMF is associated with "imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide." With unmistakable French irony, Ms. Lagarde withdrew "to preserve the celebratory spirit" of Smith's commencement.

On Tuesday, Haverford College's graduating intellectuals forced commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau to withdraw. Get this: Mr. Birgeneau is the former chancellor of UC Berkeley, the big bang of political correctness. It gets better.

Berkeley's Mr. Birgeneau is famous as an ardent defender of minority students, the LGBT community and undocumented illegal immigrants. What could possibly be wrong with this guy speaking at Haverford??? Haverfordians were upset that in 2011 the Berkeley police used "force" against Occupy protesters in Sproul Plaza. They said Mr. Birgeneau could speak at Haverford if he agreed to nine conditions, including his support for reparations for the victims of Berkeley's violence.

In a letter, Mr. Birgeneau replied, "As a longtime civil rights activist and firm supporter of nonviolence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks."

Smith president Kathleen McCartney felt obliged to assert that she is "committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect." And Haverford's president, Daniel Weiss, wrote to the students that their demands "read more like a jury issuing a verdict than as an invitation to a discussion or a request for shared learning."

Mr. Birgeneau, Ms. McCartney, Mr. Weiss and indeed many others in American academe must wonder what is happening to their world this chilled spring.

Here's the short explanation: You're all conservatives now.

Years ago, when the academic left began to ostracize professors identified as "conservative," university administrators stood aside or were complicit. The academic left adopted a notion espoused back then by a "New Left" German philosopher—who taught at Brandeis, not coincidentally—that many conservative ideas were immoral and deserved to be suppressed. And so they were.

This shunning and isolation of "conservative" teachers by their left-wing colleagues (with many liberals silent in acquiescence) weakened the foundational ideas of American universities—freedom of inquiry and the speech rights in the First Amendment.

No matter. University presidents, deans, department heads and boards of trustees watched or approved the erosion of their original intellectual framework. The ability of aggrieved professors and their students to concoct behavior, ideas and words that violated political correctness got so loopy that the phrase itself became satirical—though not so funny to profs denied tenure on suspicion of incorrectness. Offensive books were banned and history texts rewritten to conform.

No one could possibly count the compromises of intellectual honesty made on American campuses to reach this point. It is fantastic that the liberal former head of Berkeley should have to sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America's Red Guards.

These students at Brandeis, Smith, Haverford and hundreds of other U.S. colleges didn't discover illiberal intolerance on their own. It is fed to them three times a week by professors of mental conformity. After Brandeis banned Ms. Hirsi Ali, the Harvard Crimson's editors wrote a rationalizing editorial, "A Rightful Revocation." The legendary liberal Louis Brandeis (Harvard Law, First Amendment icon) must be spinning in his grave.

Years ago, today's middle-aged liberals embraced in good faith ideas such as that the Western canon in literature or history should be expanded to include Africa, Asia, Native Americans and such. Fair enough. The activist academic left then grabbed the liberals' good faith and wrecked it, allowing the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.

The slow disintegration of the humanities into what is virtually agitprop on many campuses is no secret. Professors of economics and the hard sciences roll their eyes in embarrassment at what has happened to once respectable liberal-arts departments at their institutions. Like some Gresham's Law for Ph.D.s, the bad professors drove out many good, untenured professors, and that includes smart young liberals. Most conservatives were wiped out long ago.

One might conclude: Who cares? Parents are beginning to see that this is a $65,000-a-year scam that won't get their kids a job in an economy that wants quantification skills. Parents and students increasingly will flee the politicized nut-houses for apolitical MOOCs—massive open online courses.

Still, it's a tragedy. The loonies are becoming the public face of some once-revered repositories of the humanities. Sic transit whatever.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His weekly column, "Wonder Land," appears in The Wall Street Journal each Thursday. Mr. Henninger was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing in 1987 and 1996, and shared in the Journal's Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper's coverage of the attacks on September 11.

This article was originally featured in The Wall Street Journal. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.








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