As a new academic year begins, universities are redoubling their efforts to keep the peace in higher education—between the sexes, between ethnicities, between old and young, liberals and conservatives, scholars and athletes, and any other identity-categories that students might claim. A report in the New York Times documents administrators’ latest attempts to combat campus sexual assault and de-escalate racial tensions—by immersing incoming freshmen in the psychotherapeutic jargon of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “consent,” at mandatory “diversity sessions” and “sexual-assault trainings.” Among the new directives: Never ask an Asian student for help on math homework, or ask a black student whether he plays basketball; never say “you guys”; if you’re white, never sing along to music that uses the N-word; above all, never suggest to a “student of color” that his or her race is somehow insignificant ... or too significant.
Ironically, these new directives are reviving an older way of keeping the peace on campus. For nearly a century, the Supreme Court held that colleges wield authority over their students by virtue of standing in loco parentis, “in the place of a parent.” This authority gave administrators the right to segregate students by sex, institute curfews, ban drinking, forbid membership in secret societies, and prohibit exchange at local businesses, among other rules and regulations, on pain of expulsion. In the 1960s, however—with universities embattled by campus protests—the Court overturned precedent and granted students a right to due process and free speech. The old rules’ stiff moralism gave way to new secular freedoms: sexual liberation and civil rights, free love and free expression. According to the Baby Boomer consensus, cultivating minds was one thing, but regulating behavior was quite another; not only were the old policies unjust, they were unnecessary. But with this latest wave of PC-policing, in loco parentis is back.
Of course, there were always similarities between the in loco parentis model and the more laissez-faire model of the 1960s. Whether explicitly codified in statute or implicit in social practice, every community and every institution assumes some set of rules and regulations—more precisely, first principles—that govern its public conduct and set the parameters of its public discourse. The “rules” are what make an institution the institution that it is, rather than something else. There is not now, nor has there ever been, some totally deregulated, morally “neutral” ground for university administrators to occupy. As Ross Douthat has written, the upending of in loco parentis in the 1960s was not so much a liberalization as a “remoralization” of the university. The only question, then and now, is which morality to endorse, and which rules to carve in stone.
Yet we should observe a serious difference between contemporary diversity culture and in loco parentis. True, both the humanistic mores of liberal education and the categories of postmodern identity politics imply certain behavioral and discursive norms. But the premises from which these two sets of norms are derived are fundamentally incompatible.
Political correctness and campus diversity culture treat the self—our identities, feelings, appetites, and desires—as sacred, and accordingly demand affirmation of the self in all circumstances. The supreme virtue in this cult of the self is niceness, which is not the traditional Christian virtue of love or charity, but rather utter passivity and complete deference in the face of any appeal to a person’s inner being. Microaggressions and “unsafe” speech aren’t just verbal insults, they’re threats against everything that nice people know to be inviolably true: the subject, the Cartesian mind-in-body. The exhortative “Don’t judge,” the supportive “You do you,” and the dismissive “Haters gonna hate,” are just a few of the diversity-cult’s favorite incantations—all variations on the motto of that old fool Polonius, “To thine own self be true.” Religious vocabulary is appropriate here, because secular progressivism is at its core a religious enterprise. It’s no coincidence, as Matthew Rose has shown, that liberal Protestantism and the post–World War II progressive movement were bedfellows from the beginning.
The old rules of in loco parentis, by contrast, took little interest in the self. By proscribing drinking and carousing, sexual relations and social impropriety, they located the truth somewhere beyond the student’s subjectivity—in the objective world beyond our heads, sure enough, but more precisely in the mind of another, divine subject. If ultimate reality is known by the intellect, but is not itself the intellect, then anyone who pursues truth must acquire self-discipline, abandon all selfish desires, and faithfully form the mind in the shape of what it ultimately seeks. The old moralizing regulations were designed to encourage, so far as possible, the rational self-governance of the soul. Perhaps they only rarely had the desired effect, or were on occasion counterproductive—higher education was by no means perfect in the nineteenth century, or ever—but if a university must adopt some rules, it seems reasonable that at least a few of them should point the way toward the highest things by discouraging participation in the lowest.
This last point—that the pursuit of a truth beyond us requires the cultivation of both mind and body, intellect and will, thought and behavior—should be equally troubling to liberal and conservative defenders of the secular university in its current form, as an institution of “unbiased research” and “free inquiry.” Yet the argument stands on a sure footing, an insight as ancient as Plato: Whenever a person takes some action x rather than y, she has already committed herself to a certain hierarchical ordering of her desires, according to the dictates of her intellect. This is so because desires, in themselves, are incommensurable. You cannot “just choose” between food and drink, or wealth and honor, by relying on desire to pull you one way or the other—you have to discriminate rationally between them (however well or poorly), before making a free choice of the will. Every action contains a sort of truth-claim, an expression of one’s beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality. Philosophy is less a cognitive activity than it is a way of life.
But this continuity between act and intellect also works in reverse. When campus diversity officers micromanage student speech and conduct, they’re also constraining the imagination—the sum total of what can be thought and said—by endorsing a certain perspectivist conception of the human condition. The enforcement of PC virtues tethers unsuspecting young minds to an idea of truth that disdains the basic assumptions behind liberal education. Is it any wonder that the most passionate student-activists usually have little to say in the classroom, where their identity-categories and self-affirming norms can do little to illuminate Machiavelli’s Prince, Rousseau’s Discourse, or Augustine’s Confessions? Eventually, the wall that 1960s-era administrators tried to erect between behavior and belief must collapse into a confused heap of unexamined ideologies and factious anarchy.
Unfortunately, most conservative rejoinders to the encroachments of diversity culture simply beg the question. Proponents of political correctness and secular progressivism are presenting a mostly coherent, profoundly religious vision of the good life, which defines freedom as self-esteem. Conservatives’ response has been to defend free speech—as if anyone were disputing its value in the first place. As I have written elsewhere, invoking constitutional freedoms without providing reasonable grounds for their interpretation will never be sufficient to prove that they have been violated. What critics of today’s campus culture really mean to defend is an alternative idea of the good, in which freedom is said to consist in “faith seeking understanding.” The question is not what makes free speech, but what makes good speech.
This is a question Christians are prepared to answer.
Connor Grubaugh is a junior fellow at First Things.