When the social justice warrior dogs didn’t bark

The leftist domination of America’s elite campuses is so extensive that it has become notable when a speaker deemed controversial is not shouted down. If, wonder of wonders, a speech is delivered and an intelligent and probing discussion takes place with an exchange of views that is not merely civil but enlightening, it deserves note.

Such was the case when FBI Director James Comey delivered a talk at Kenyon College on April 7 (and made national news for his disclosure about the FBI’s method in breaking into the iPhone used by the San Bernardino jihad attackers). Benjamin Wittes, editor of the Lawfare Blog and the Brookings Institution and Hoover Institution, noticed:

Barely a day goes by where we don't read some story about students at elite institutions trying to silence one another's, or faculty's or visitors', points of view. So I think it's worth noting publicly the model of student engagement on a serious, difficult, emotionally-laden issue on display last [Wednesday] night at Kenyon College when FBI Director James Comey spoke at this institution in Ohio. 

At this event, Comey gave a speech laying out his views of encryption and the Going Dark problem. He then spent a protracted period of time taking questions from students and members of the community. A few notable things didn't happen at this event: Nobody tried to shout him down or disrupt the event; nobody denounced Comey or used disrespectful language. No epithets were spat out.  

A few other notable things, on the other hand, did happen: People listened; and people engaged. The house was very full, and a lot of people--many of whom certainly disagree with what Comey is saying and trying to do--posed serious questions and got answers to them. The student questions were remarkably sophisticated, and tough. One young woman asked Comey whether the United States would some day have to apologize for FBI activities the way it finally apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Another asked him to comment on Foucault's panopticism and recommend he read Foucault (Money quote: "Look him up. He's a cool guy!"). This is an important form of intelligence oversight. And it only works if the atmosphere is tolerant of debate and discussion.

Wittes wonders what it is that Kenyon College “is doing right that so many institutions of higher education are failing at so miserably these days?” It’s a good question, and deserves some thought. Here are some of my ideas, based on having attended Kenyon half a century ago and kept in touch with life on campus ever since.

A strong culture of engagement in serious discussion of ideas is essential. This is the classical goal of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, it is no longer trendy in academe, and this malign current must be resisted. Kenyon, although not explicitly conservative like Hillsdale College, has stuck to this goal resolutely. 

Kenyon has an unusually powerful local culture because it is relatively physically isolated, situated on a hilltop six miles from the nearest town. Its stunningly beautiful campus, which introduced the collegiate gothic architectural style to the United States, creates a slightly otherworldly atmosphere. When I was a student, we called it the "magic mountain," after Thomas Mann's great book of that title. It is always clear to students that they are at a distance from the broader society and culture, that they are on a four-year excursion into great ideas, an experience that is a rare privilege.

The faculty and administration have kept the faith in civil discussion in part because of mostly fortunate decisions in faculty and administrative hiring, in part because activist alumni have not hesitated to make their views known on preserving this culture, and because that is the nature of the setting. Faculty live within walking distance of the college, in the town of Gambier, which has nothing other than Kenyon sustaining it.  A lack of civility has immediate and lasting consequences.

Kenyon is not in New England, not in the Bay Area, not on the way to anywhere glamorous -- it is not acampus that generally attracts those interested in basking in status and prestige. Faculty and students are attracted to it because of the intellectual intensity of the place. There is a pride that develops about being not trendy, not attund to the latest curents, but rather centered around a community where everyone knows everyone else (no anonymity or isolation is possible) and where superficialities fall aside as people live and study and think together.

These qualities were apparent to me when I visited the campus as a high school student in 1964, and I fell in love with it.  And they continue to be apparent to me when I return for visits.

I conclude from all of this that these qualities were once dominant in higher education, but have been lost most places simply because of  conformism in the wake of the leftist takeover of academia. Resisting these trends is difficult but not impossible. Kenyon shows that it can be done.

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