I’m a proponent of academic freedom. But what we need today is a home and an inheritance, not exhortations to defend academic freedom (or other freedoms, for that matter).
Last year at Yale, Erika Christakis authored an altogether sensible email advising students that an overly censorious approach to Halloween costumes defeats the spirit of rebellion and transgression that makes that evening high spirited and fun. This message triggered an uproar. Student mobs launched a public campaign of shaming.
My initial response was to censure the witch-hunting spirit of this politically correct censorship. And I thought the weak-kneed Yale administration contemptible. It failed to defend faculty members whose “crimes” amounted to telling students to grow up. Aren’t colleges and universities places for free and open debate?
I haven’t lost confidence in the ideal of free inquiry. But it pays to pay attention to what people say. In an emotional encounter with Christakis’s husband, a Yale faculty member who argued that a university should provide a context for discussion and civil, reasoned debate, one student shouted, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”
The desire for a “home” chimes with calls for “safe spaces,” another image of security and refuge, as well as with the notion of “cultural appropriation.” The latter reflects the fear that the historical and communal roots of one’s identity will be cut away. This fear is not limited to black or Hispanic artists who see their solidarity undermined by mainstream uses of their history. White nationalists protest against “cultural appropriation,” as well.
This convergence demands our attention. Both Puerto Rican multimedia artists studying at the Rhode Island School of Design and alt-right sympathizers blogging anonymously seem increasingly concerned that they will be deprived of their inheritances. To be shorn of anything noble or precious that we can call our own—this, too, is a powerful fear.
I find myself brought up short. How has it come about that high-achieving students at fancy-pants universities fear homelessness, so much so that they are driven into a fury, denouncing mild-mannered, middle-aged professors and hapless administrators who agree with them about almost everything? How is it that a surprisingly wide range of people fear losing their inheritances?
There has been no lack of explanations. Young people are over-coddled “snowflakes.” The cultural Marxists have made their long march through the institutions. Political correctness runs amok. It’s all driven by a cynical play for victim status and the perquisites that brings these days. No doubt these are factors. But, again, it pays to pay attention to the words. These young people are telling the truth. Today, we oversee a culture that makes people homeless and deprives them of an inheritance.
In 1951, Albert Camus wrote, “Disaster is today our common fatherland.” Others did not put it so bluntly. Nevertheless, in the West, the unspoken imperative of the last seventy years has been “Never again!” Given the carnage of World War II, that was an understandable consensus for Europeans. In the United States, it was racism that polluted our inheritance. Over time, we too adopted the presumption that our fatherland—our home and inheritance—has been ruined by disaster.
We did not just adopt this presumption; we promoted and required it. Howard Zinn’s influential American history textbook for high-school students follows Camus down to every last massacre, lynching, oppression, exclusion, and injustice. Black history and the histories of other minorities might be cordoned off. But those inheritances enjoy but a fragile existence in the larger atmosphere of disaster and negation.
Is it any wonder, then, that Ta-Nehisi Coates promotes a mental redlining that protects the black experience from defilement by the white inheritance? God forbid that disaster should become his fatherland as well. He has my sympathy, not least because he plays the fool’s game of buttressing his inheritance by denigrating America’s. You can’t preserve your home by setting fire to the neighborhood.
Homelessness and disinheritance have been reinforced and exacerbated by our celebration of “upward mobility,” “innovation,” and “creative destruction.” These images of rapid motion and change run against stability and security. Dynamism may be good in the aggregate, at least as far as our personal net worth and society’s GDP is concerned. But it provides us with no place to stand. We should not be surprised that the young people calling for “safe spaces” are also attracted to Bernie Sanders. His message is one of security and refuge.
It’s foolish to emphasize freedom today. A great deal has been dissolved. Our society does not commend to us a noble, trustworthy inheritance. Our institutions are weakened. The growing fragmentation of families deprives many of a stable home. With neither a father at home nor a Father in heaven, young people today are vulnerable—and they know it.
Freedom is not sui generis. It requires a firm place to stand against the principalities and powers that claim to rule the world. Thus, when home and inheritance become more ephemeral and less trustworthy, freedom withers. Which is what we saw at Yale. Students can’t endure even the mildest threats to their pieties. Most faculty and nearly all administrators are captive to their fear of being on the “wrong side of history” and are swept away by Progressivism 4.0.
In this environment, we should not simply reiterate our defenses of freedom, academic and otherwise. In 2017, we need to restore stability and trustworthiness to marriage, social institutions such as universities, and civic life more broadly. We need a home and an inheritance. Only then can freedom return to its rightful reign.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.