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Bad Faith IX

By David Thompson.

What to Think, Not How

During Evan Coyne Maloney’s 90-minute documentary, Indoctrinate U, the historian Daniel Pipes shares his impression of the modern American university: “It’s like joining a church; you have to be a believer. You have to have the right set of views.” The nature of those views and how they’re enforced is ably documented, as example after example prompts both hilarity and alarm. During the opening titles, Professor David Clemens of Monterey Peninsula College reads out a directive regarding new course proposals: “Include a description of how course topics are treated to develop a knowledge and understanding of race, class and gender issues.” We learn that this directive isn’t confined to courses in, say, sociology or politics, but is expected of all subjects, including mathematics and ornamental horticulture. Failure to comply is not a trivial matter and, as Clemens later points out, “They’re quite ruthless about their desire for a kinder, gentler world.”

Maloney’s film begins with the campus free speech activism of the 1960s and 70s, in which his own parents took part, before highlighting how dramatically those principles have now been discarded, even upended, in many of the same universities. We see conservative speakers being shouted down, intimidated and howled off stage, unable even to start an exchange of ideas. We hear students’ accounts of incongruous political sermons being shoehorned onto lessons. (“I’ve been learning in geography class that gender is socially constructed.”) We also see a procession of academics voicing their dismay at the belligerent orthodoxy of campus politics. One psychology professor, Laura Freberg, recounts being told, “We never would have hired you if we knew you were a Republican.”

Freberg’s story is among the film’s more disturbing revelations, in that it shows how the most innocuous of details can identify someone as incompatible with orthodoxy and a target for punishment. Freberg explains how despite her excellent performance she was labelled a “problem” by her colleagues and subjected to a campaign of harassment until finally, and successfully, she sought legal remedy. Freberg’s students later admitted they’d known she was a “closet Republican” precisely because she didn’t use the classroom to air her political views.

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Despite Maloney’s own right-of-centre leanings, Indoctrinate U is surprisingly non-party political and, as FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff explains, many mainstream Democrats could well be shocked by how a supposed marketplace of ideas has become so intolerant and congealed. Indeed, one wonders how many liberal parents would regard Bucknell’s Professor Geoff Schneider, who confidently asserts, “A lot of our students are unconsciously racist”, and who defines as harassment “anything that offends.” Or Professor Noel Ignatiev of the Massachusetts School of Art, who echoes the sentiments of Dr Shakti Butler and Peggy McIntosh, and says, “My concern is doing away with whiteness. Whiteness is a form of racial oppression… Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” (Schneider and Ignatiev are, of course, both white.) At Tufts and Brown universities we see how a fixation with identity politics and leftwing grievance theatre has resulted in racially segregated student orientations. Elsewhere, students are offered racially segregated housing, even segregated graduation ceremonies, and all in the name of multicultural “diversity”.

Maloney also highlights the spread of “speech codes” on hundreds of campuses, the particulars of which include, at Brown, the “banning of verbal behaviour” that “produces feelings of impotence, anger or disenfranchisement.” The University of Connecticut prohibits “inappropriately directed laughter”, while other campuses, including Colby College, have outlawed any speech deemed to result in a loss of self-esteem. Also documented are the absurd and sinister travails of several students, among them Steve Hinkle, whose flyer – advertising a speech by a black conservative author and quoting the title of his book – led to police involvement, lengthy entanglement in campus judicial proceedings and suggestions that he should seek psychological “counselling”.

Other extraordinary moments include San Francisco State University’s vehemently “pacifist” anti-military protests; the banning of patriotic expressions and symbols, including the American flag and the pledge of allegiance; and a satirical “affirmative action bake sale”, with cupcakes sold at different prices according to a person’s colour. (Needless to say, this culinary satire isn’t received terribly well and threats of arrest ensue.)

A recurrent and revealing theme is just how readily these PC principles can be abandoned if the target is deemed politically deviant. Sukhmani Singh Khalsa, a conservative Sikh student critical of liberal bias, was unwittingly sent an email from the University of Tennessee’s Issues Committee, a student group responsible for inviting speakers to campus. Justin Rubenstein, an Issues Committee member, referred to Khalsa in less than edifying terms: “If you see one of those ragheads, shoot him right in the fucking face.” The University of Tennessee saw fit not to discipline Rubenstein or remove him from the committee. Yet when students at that same university arrived at an off-campus Halloween party dressed as the Jackson Five and complete with “black” makeup, this attention to detail resulted in the entire fraternity being suspended.

Maloney’s attempts to raise these concerns with university administrators are, alas, unsuccessful, and of course symbolic. Invariably polite and decidedly unthreatening, our hero nonetheless finds himself rebuffed, then escorted off campus by burly security guards. Maloney’s alma mater, Bucknell, proves no more accommodating. (Watching these encounters almost becomes a game – guessing exactly how little time will pass before spotting the Stare of Death™ and hearing the administrator say, “Call the campus police.”) Some viewers may wonder if many faculty members are bewitched by the homogeneity of their insulated fiefdoms and are thus unaccustomed to their assumptions being challenged. Others may suspect that some of these educators are less naïve and all too happy to do in private what they cannot defend in public. Either way, a question arises for supporters of identity politics and pretentious sensitivity: What happens when the most oppressive “hegemony” in town is, in fact, your own?

Those lucky enough to see Maloney’s film may differ in their views of exactly how this political lockstep became so pervasive and entrenched. Fixated by a Holy Trinity of race, class and gender, leftist ideologues have certainly played a pivotal role; as have squeamish administrators anxious to avoid controversy. Few, though, could deny that a serious problem exists. On the subject of an increasingly politicised classroom and the reluctance to voice unfashionable views, one student points out perhaps the greatest sin of all: “Education becomes a spectator sport.” Charming, alarming and not quite polished, Indoctrinate U is likely to amuse and enrage in more or less equal measure. If you can, see it. Then get angry.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 19th, 2008.