As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, institutions of higher education in the United States face an existential threat. Even if they can survive their current budget crisis, what kind of institutions will American universities and colleges be in a decade’s time?
One crucial front in the war over the university pits defenders of the free-ranging pursuit of truth against those who would put political limits on such inquiries. For most of higher education’s history, this dispute was between advocates of academic freedom inside the universities and skeptics of it who were outside. On behalf of conventional mores or the community’s political and economic interests, politicians, or donors, took the position that the pursuit of knowledge is all well and good…until it threatens vital orthodoxies. The example of Socrates has always been both an inspiration and a warning. Heterodox gadflies tend to get swatted.
In the 21st century, however, academic freedom’s most determined adversaries are inside rather than outside academia. A growing army on college campuses would like to restrict the scope of intellectual debate by subjecting academic inquiry to political litmus tests. Over the 20th century, American universities’ students and faculty pushed to make them havens for heretics, dissenters, iconoclasts, and nonconformists. In the wake of their success, many scholars now demand that campuses adhere to their own orthodoxies. Until recently I would have said that many students and faculty want the range of intellectual debate on a college campus to be narrower than the offerings in the New York Times’s op-ed pages. But now, of course, the college graduates hired by the Times are scrubbing its op-ed pages of heresies as well.