The Censorship of Skepticism
A BRILLIANT acquaintance of mine posted this video concerning censorship and education. In a nutshell, the video notes the alarming rate at which American universities impose honor code regulations or student body seminars called “treatment” (I’m not kidding) in order to prevent intolerant or hateful speech. The most potent example the video furnishes is one in which a student was reading a historical book about the Ku Klux Klan’s demise which unfortunately had picture of some Klansmen on the cover. Although the content of the book was unquestionably against racism, the student was disciplined for racist activity by reading the book in public because passers-by were offended. Such activity, the video concludes, proves that “Students and campus administrators are losing sight of the important role that the skeptical, questioning mind—aware of its own failings—has played in every act of human progress.”
As a matter of policy, I couldn’t agree more with the video. Censorship, especially censorship in order to eradicate intolerance, is patently absurd (see my previous post). I must, however, point out an interesting assumption underlying the sentence I quoted. That is, that skepticism is the friend of tolerance and the enemy of censorship.
There is no doubt that censorship and intolerance were common fare in institutions prior to the rise of skepticism in academia. I am not suggesting here that the state should burn heretics or that the university should expel dissenters. Clearly, institutionalized orthodoxy can be a tool of suppression, and a “skeptical, questioning mind” has indeed produced much fruit in academic, scientific, and even artistic endeavors.
Nor would anyone suggest that state universities attempt to indoctrinate the “intolerant” in the name of “tolerance” on account of their explicit commitment to positive moral truths. No, the contemporary rise of university censorship should be attributed to the inverse of the previous error. The university is now so dominated by the skeptical mind that it treats all claims to moral truth as a threat to the educational environment. While the “skeptical, questioning mind” was once celebrated as a means for reaching positive conclusions, it is now regarded as an ideal state of being from which only the intolerant depart. As soon as a student takes a positive position which places him in conflict with other students or the administration, he risks being painted as intolerant or hateful. State university administrators, after rightly discarding the forceful imposition of orthodoxy, have raised the banner of anti-orthodoxy and lead a charge against university attendees who willingly adopt an orthodoxy.
Once upon a time, the purpose of education was to lead students to an understanding of the truth. Because a public university in a liberal state may no longer proclaim that which is true beyond question, it became necessary to accept a degree of skepticism and hope that students might, through exposure to different views and ways of thinking, arrive at the truth through their use of reason. Now, however, the university mistakenly interprets its mandate to be silent on matters of ultimate truth as a mandate to silence those students on its campus who presume to have learned something in the university’s classroom. This is troubling, indeed (especially for those of us that actually pay tuition).