After publicly addressing liberal taboos and free speech on American college campuses, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor received a condemnatory “open letter” signed by 33 of her colleagues denouncing her views.
Some time after the publication of the open letter attacking Professor Amy Wax, who is UPenn’s Robert Mundheim Professor of Law, the dean of the law school asked her to take a leave of absence next year and to stop teaching a mandatory first-year course, saying he was getting “pressure” to banish the professor for her conservative views.
Professor Wax’s crime consisted in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last August in which she and a colleague from the University of San Diego Law School dared to suggest that many of the “bourgeois” values that reigned in America prior to the 1960s were actually good for society and “a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains and social coherence of that period.”
The two professors laid out the “cultural script” embraced during that period in the following terms:
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
The breakdown of this “bourgeois culture,” they contended, underlies many of today’s social pathologies, while a return to that culture would go a long way toward addressing them.
What critics deemed most offensive about the original op-ed, it would seem, was the suggestion that some cultures are truly superior to others and more suited to human thriving. Such an assertion is apparently taboo in today’s academia, which bends over backwards to appear impartial in its assessment of what makes a society good.
In a Feb. 16 essay in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Wax chronicles the adventure of becoming a target of liberal academia as well as the surprising amount of support (much of it private) from people who are fed up with the illiberal hegemony of politically correct academia.
Importantly, Wax relates how virtually none of the criticism of her views actually engaged the arguments, but instead consisted in “hurling” insults and labels meant to shut down—rather than stimulate—academic debate.
The aptly titled essay—“What Can’t Be Debated on Campus”— explores how the abstract talk about free speech talk on American college campuses translates into action when confronting unpopular ideas. “It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them,” Wax writes.
Academic institutions should be “places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy,” she laments.
“What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification and mindless labeling,” she adds, but slinging labels “doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.”
As a follow-up article to the original controversy noted: “Every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.”
The signers of the “open letter” sent a very destructive message to students, Wax observed in her Wall Street Journal piece.
“My 33 colleagues might have believed they were protecting students from being injured by harmful opinions, but they were doing those students no favors,” she writes. “Students need the opposite of protection from diverse arguments and points of view. They need exposure to them. This exposure will teach them how to think.”
Offense and upset go with the territory and are part and parcel of an open, democratic society. “We should be teaching our young people to get used to these things, but instead we are teaching them the opposite,” she added.
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