Anyone who reads newspapers or follows current events on TV knows that civil debate on ideas is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule on American campuses.
But now two college professors are taking this further, declaring that civil debate is itself a form of patriarchal white privilege and arguing that “civility within higher education is a racialized, rather than universal, norm.”
Describing academia in America as "the land that irony forgot," Paul Salerno, an author and journalism professor, writes in today's Wall Street Journal about the two professors' paper, which is entitled "Civility and White Institutional Presence: An Exploration of White Students' Understanding of Race-Talk at a Traditionally White Institution."
Their thesis can be a tad hard to follow, unfolding as it does in that dense argot for which academia is universally beloved. But their core contention is twofold: One, that civility, as currently practiced in America, is a white construct.
Two, that in a campus setting, the “woke” white student’s endeavor to avoid microaggressions against black peers is itself a microaggression—a form of noblesse oblige whereby white students are in fact patronizing students of color. Not only that, but by treating black students with common courtesy and expecting the same in return, white students elide black grievances, bypassing the “race talk” that is supposed to occur in preamble to all other conversations. Got it?
Something similar is happening in collegiate debate, where historically high standards of decorum are under siege as manifestations of white patriarchal thinking. So are the factual and logical proofs that debaters are normally expected to offer in arguing their case.
Over the holidays the (London) Telegraph carried an article in which it was asserted that universities would be less able to make scientific breakthrough if the "safe-space" culture prevails on campuses. It is certainly easy to see how the decline of civil debate could contribute to the overall intellectual decline of colleges and universities (and subsequently of society at large).
Salerno continues that the proofs and facts normally associated with debate are being overthrown:
Some participants are challenging the format, goals and ground rules of debate itself, in some cases refusing even to stick to the topic at hand.
Again the driving theory is that all conversations must begin by addressing race. As one top black debater, Elijah J. Smith, writes, debate must, before all else, “acknowledge the reality of the oppressed.” He resists the attempt on the part of white debaters to “distance the conversation from the material reality that black debaters are forced to deal with every day.”
Mr. Smith and his think-alikes seek to transform debate into an ersatz course in Black Studies. In a major 2014 debate finals, two Towson University students sidestepped the nominal resolution, which had to do with restricting a president’s war powers, in order to argue that war “should not be waged against n—as.” Two other students decided that rather than debate aspects of U.S. policy in the Mideast, they’d discuss how the common practices of the debate community itself perpetuate racism. Other recent debates involving black participants have devolved into original rap music.
A few debates have featured profane outbursts and even the hurling of furniture. In one memorable case, when the clock ran out on a student during the championship round, he yelled, “F— the time!”
Increasingly at major competitions, there must be a pre-debate debate on the terms of engagement: whether students are required to cite proof or are free to argue wholly from their feelings and so-called lived experience. Far from being banned or even maligned by debate judges, such antics increasingly win converts and, not coincidentally, matches.
This is not exactly the pursuit of truth, is it?
There was another U.K. story over the holidays on a possible antidote to this development in education that was encouraging–up to a point.
It seems that leading co-educational school, Brighton College in East Sussex, is launching a course on the classical Greek philosophers aimed at helping students spot "fake" news on social media. If you can spot the fake, presumably you are looking for the true. Aristotle on truth is said to loom large in the curriculum. I wish I could embrace this wholeheartedly, but this gives me pause:
Ms Hamblett, a philosophy teacher, hope the children will learn how to tell the difference between "what is real and what is true".
She said: "I want to teach them to go looking at resources, looking at where your source comes from, are they respectable?
"If you're going to read something check it out on a few different platforms, don't necessarily think it's true because it's come through social media."
And here is the problem–respectable and true are not the same thing.
"Respectable" nowadays can mean automatic resistance to policies you don't bother to read up on. The two professors who posit that civility is racist are quite "respectable" in academic circles.
Aristotle is a good start but let's hope the quest is for truth and not merely to knock ideas that aren't "respectable" among elites.
But lively but civil debate over the Greek philosophers is a good way to begin a return to universities that pursue truth rather than trends.