Unprecedented Two-Front Assault on Academia

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The United States has the best higher education system in the world. That isn’t a statement of flag-waving patriotism; it’s simply a matter of fact. According to Times Higher Education, 39 of the top 100 schools in the world are located in the United States. There are many reasons for that.

First, the British bequeathed to us (and the world) a strong tradition in higher education. It is no accident that 69 of the top 100 universities in the world are in former British colonies (United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong). Second, U.S. education, including its decidedly mediocre K-12 education system, has focused on encouraging creativity among students. Third, despite all the political grandstanding and endless griping by teachers, U.S. education is incredibly well-funded. Americans spend more per student than any other country in the world. Finally, the U.S. eagerly accepts the world’s best and brightest, including foreigners, into universities.

Yet, despite these advantages, there is no reason to believe that U.S. dominance of higher education will continue indefinitely. A frightening and unprecedented two-front assault on academia could topple the American juggernaut.

The first assault comes from outside academia. Scientists are being harassed by political activists who are abusing FOIA requests. Instead of using the law to hold public officials accountable, activists are using it to dig through private emails to fabricate controversies and concoct self-incriminating statements, often crafted from passages taken entirely out of context. Both climate and GMO researchers have been targeted.

The second assualt is far more disturbing because it originates within academia itself. A long-standing tradition in academia is the rigorous defense of the freedom of thought. Over the last several years, however, this freedom has eroded. An era of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces” has led to a mass silencing of dissent. Some professors have grown afraid of teaching classes for fear of offending students. (An anonymous article in Vox titled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” ought to be read in its entirety.)

Alarmingly, professors themselves sometimes enthusiastically participate in the mass silencing, as did a communications instructor at the University of Missouri who tried to intimidate a student journalist covering campus protests. Such behavior is not simply intolerant; instead, it is intended to exterminate any deviation from majoritarian orthodoxy.

This is toxic and dangerous. Research cannot thrive in the face of anti-intellectual aggression.

The ultimate impact of the two-front assault on higher education will be to jeopardize America’s lead position in the world. If free speech, free press, and free thought continue to be attacked — from both inside and outside academia — then we should not be surprised if the world’s best and brightest choose to go elsewhere.