Colleges have educated students by teaching them to think critically and evaluate alternating viewpoints. More recently, they have also promoted diversity and inclusion for that purpose and to foster social mobility. Universities that neglect conservative perspectives, however, ultimately fail on both ends.
Educational institutions are prone to groupthink, a process by which members of a group strive for consensus by suppressing dissent. Dissenters may face retaliation or remain silent while external input is ignored.
When faculty and students withhold or unfairly dismiss conservative outlooks, campus administrators — among whom only 6% identify as conservative — insist on teaching about concepts such as microaggressions and privilege, or alleged social advantages conferred at the expense of marginalized communities.
Stony Brook University requires freshmen to attend orientation lectures, seminars and, as of this semester, a Stony Brook Curriculum course on those subjects for the purpose of advancing diversity and inclusion.
While such goals are respectable, colleges undermine them by emphasizing the concepts of privilege and microaggression. They tend to rely on scientifically flawed evidence or stigmatize groups of people that they would otherwise protect, including people with mental illnesses and socio-economic disadvantage.
After reviewing scientific research on microaggressions for “Perspectives on Psychological Science,” Emory psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld found negligible support for suppositions that they are well-defined, implicitly prejudicial, offensive to minorities, or adversely impactful on their mental health.
Concurring with Lilienfeld’s analysis, NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt delivered a harsher critique of the concept, arguing that it teaches students to perceive themselves unjustly as victims and treat dissent as offensive.
“It is the end of the open environment we prize in the academy,” he wrote, “where students feel free to speak up and challenge each other, their professors, and orthodox ideas.”
Meanwhile, people with social anxiety and autism spectrum disorders may find themselves subject to committing supposed microaggressions by making subtle blunders in communication, such as avoiding eye contact and overlooking social tension. Equating such slips to “everyday racism,” as Oxford University once did, only makes it harder for autistic people to fit into society. People with social anxiety are already too afraid of accidentally offending people.
Colgate University psychologist Erin Cooley conducted a study for the “Journal of Experimental Psychology,” finding that lessons on white privilege do not raise sympathy for poor black people. “Instead,” she wrote in an op-ed for Vice, “these lessons decreased liberals’ sympathy for poor white people, which led them to blame white people for their own poverty.”
Participants in the study read about a poor man who was raised by a single mother, faced a lifetime of poverty and depended on public welfare assistance. Cooley describes in her Vice article that those with socially liberal views who received lessons on white privilege — relative to those who did not — expressed less sympathy for that man if he was white.
“They seemed to think that if a person is poor despite all the privileges of being white, there must really be something wrong with them,” Cooley wrote in her op-ed.
I’ve personally observed people citing the concept to dismiss poor employment prospects and rising mortality rates among the white working class. “They should’ve gone to college,” I hear, “they just can’t do the work.”
Collegiate insistence on teaching the concept of white privilege backfires on the underlying motive of social justice by using race to marginalize the poor. As Cooley’s study demonstrates, it doesn’t uplift black people in poverty — it only degrades white people in poverty.
Universities are deviating from their educational mission by teaching students to accept progressive narratives dogmatically rather than analyze them critically. Opposition, in turn, becomes unthinkable.
The College Republicans, for example, had to field accusations of fascism and white supremacy for bringing Ben Shapiro — a conservative activist known for his criticism of identity politics — to the Charles B. Wang Center in 2016. Befitting my previous explanation for groupthink, students were unaccustomed to criticism of their progressive-influenced worldviews and reacted to it with hostility.
Members of the general American public are losing confidence in higher learning, which a Gallup poll found to have declined from 57% in 2015 to 48% in 2018. Respondents to the poll — many of whom are Republicans — perceived that colleges promote a liberal political agenda rather than a balanced and unbiased educational environment.
“To students who are in their first semester at school, I urge you not to accept unthinkingly what your campus administrators are telling you,” political scientist Samuel J. Abrams wrote in a New York Times article. “Their ideological imbalance, coupled with their agenda-setting power, threatens free speech and open exchange of ideas, which is precisely what we need to protect in higher education in these politically polarized times.”
Universities play a crucial role in public life and cannot survive without public support. It is important that educational institutions reaffirm their role in fostering the mutual, intellectual discourse that makes an education and can be used to illuminate what makes a just society, if such can be done.
Discourse, in turn, requires more than one participant.