Eric Posner, a U. of Chicago law professor (and son of Judge Richard Posner), has been on a roll lately with a series of reductio ad absurdum articles, such as last year’s Open Borders classic in The New Republic, “A Radical Solution to Global Income Inequality: Make the U.S. More Like Qatar.” Whether Professor Posner gets his own jokes is another question, though.
Universities Are Right—and Within Their Rights—to Crack Down on Speech and Behavior
Students today are more like children than adults and need protection.
By Eric Posner
Lately, a moral panic about speech and sexual activity in universities has reached a crescendo. Universities have strengthened rules prohibiting offensive speech typically targeted at racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; taken it upon themselves to issue “trigger warnings” to students when courses offer content that might upset them; banned sexual acts that fall short of rape under criminal law but are on the borderline of coercion; and limited due process protections of students accused of violating these rules.
Most liberals celebrate these developments, yet with a certain uneasiness. Few of them want to apply these protections to society at large. Conservatives and libertarians are up in arms. They see these rules as an assault on free speech and individual liberty. They think universities are treating students like children. And they are right. But they have also not considered that the justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults. …
That’s why the contretemps about a recent incident at Marquette University is far less alarming than libertarians think. An inexperienced instructor was teaching a class on the philosophy of John Rawls, and a student in the class argued that same-sex marriage was consistent with Rawls’ philosophy. When another student told the teacher outside of class that he disagreed, the teacher responded that she would not permit a student to oppose same-sex marriage in class because that might offend gay students.Posner is completely leaving out that the real issue is that a different professor at Marquette, John McAdams, [right] is being stripped of tenure for blogging in criticism of the first professor in Posner’s example.
While I believe that the teacher mishandled the student’s complaint, she was justified in dismissing it. The purpose of the class was to teach Rawls’ theory of justice, not to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. The fact that a student injected same-sex marriage into the discussion does not mean that the class was required to discuss it. The professor might reasonably have believed that the students would gain a better understanding of Rawls’ theory if they thought about how it applied to issues less divisive and hence less likely to distract students from the academic merits of the theory.
… Most of the debate about speech codes, which frequently prohibit students from making offensive comments to one another, concerns speech outside of class. Two points should be made. First, students who are unhappy with the codes and values on campus can take their views to forums outside of campus—to the town square, for example. The campus is an extension of the classroom, and so while the restrictions in the classroom are enforced less vigorously, the underlying pedagogical objective of avoiding intimidation remains intactHe’s just trolling now: “offended or raped” … Not exactly the same things.
Second, and more important—at least for libertarians partisans of the free market—the universities are simply catering to demand in the marketplace for education. While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want. If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they?
… And this brings me to the most important overlooked fact about speech and sex code debates. Society seems to be moving the age of majority from 18 to 21 or 22. We are increasingly treating college-age students as quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities while they complete the larval stage of their lives. Many critics of these codes discern this transformation but misinterpret it. They complain that universities are treating adults like children. The problem is that universities have been treating children like adults.This explains examples such as the dean of Harvard Law School Martha Minow denouncing a third year Harvard Law School student Stephanie Grace for writing in a private email to two other HLS friends an intelligent, cautious assessment of why she can’t be as confident as they are that the origin of the Bell Curve Gap is genetic, but she can’t rule it out either: “Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,” she concluded. Later, owing to a catfight over a beau, the female recipient leaked Grace’s email to the black student union so Grace would be nationally shamed.
A lot of the controversies about campus life become clearer from this perspective. Youngsters do dumb things. They suffer from impulse control. They fail to say no to a sexual encounter they do not want, or they misinterpret a no as yes, or in public debate they undermine their own arguments by being needlessly offensive. Scientific research confirms that brain development continues well into a person’s 20s. High schools are accustomed to dealing with the cognitive limitations of their charges. They see their mission as advancing the autonomy of students rather than assuming that it is already in place. They socialize as well as educate children to act civilly by punishing them if they don’t. Universities have gradually realized that they must take the same approach to college students.
Oh wait, Grace was a third year law student and was being denounced by her dean for having a mature approach to thinking about a central question of the American social sciences.
Donald Sterling was so old that to legalize his punishment by the NBA he had to be found senile, which raised the question why was everybody so upset over what a senile old man said in private, but that’s not the point, now is it?
So maybe political correctness isn’t about controlling children, now is it?
Yet college students have not always enjoyed so much autonomy. The modern freedoms of college students date back only to the 1960s, when a wave of anti-authoritarianism, inspired by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, swept away strict campus codes in an era of single-sex dorms. The modern speech and sex codes have surfaced as those waters recede back to sea. What is most interesting is that this reaction comes not from parents and administrators, but from students themselves, who, apparently recognizing that their parents and schools have not fully prepared them for independence, want universities to resume their traditional role in loco parentis.Another theory is that the people who were the rebels in the 1960s are the now the Establishment and they’re not about to let anybody do to them what they did to the old Establishment.
Vaclav Havel had some insights into how this kind of system works.