Gregory Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate is well worth the read, even with the criticisms I’ll be making of it. Lukianoff is a self-declared liberal and atheist, but one who believes in free speech and works tirelessly for it through his Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). That makes his book all the more important for Christians—FIRE is not the ACLU. Lukianioff and FIRE are actually working for free speech, rather than, with the ACLU, attacking Christianity at every turn and trying to establish secularism and atheism.
Lukianoff wants fairness, and that brought him to a very interesting realization about who is actually getting treated unfairly on our campuses today. “If you told me twelve years ago,” Lukianoff confides, “that I, a liberal atheist, would devote a sizable portion of my career to defending Christian groups, I might have been surprised. But almost from my first day at FIRE, I was shocked to realize how badly Christian groups were often treated.”
As Lukianoff amply documents, on campuses across the nation persecution is directed at Christians by secular liberals intent upon imposing uniformity in the name of diversity, complete intolerance in the name of tolerance, liberal absolutism in the name of relativism—and all this with identifiably religious zeal in inculcating the far Left’s beliefs as orthodoxy.
I know whereof he speaks. Twenty-five years ago I saw it firsthand during my graduate school experience earning my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. Even mild disagreement with the “politically correct” party line was met with hysterical accusations and verbal attacks. Not arguments, mind you. I was informed by one well-indoctrinated young woman that rationality and logic were instruments of male domination, and that she would have no part of them. She was good to her vow, as were her mentors. It was very clear what one was allowed and not allowed to say, and which moral and political positions were considered clean and unclean, and the unclean were not permitted to speak.
My experience was not unusual. The combination of liberal dogmatism backed up by institutional authority is still the rule, not the exception, in academia. And in fact, it has gotten far worse, both on the graduate and even more on the undergraduate level, since I was in school.
Today, for example, incoming students routinely undergo intensive indoctrination during freshman orientation week, and it continues for the rest of the year, administered in regular doses by heavy-handed propagandists in the administration, among the faculty, and through converted students (especially the RA’s that oversee dorm life).
Orientation has become the cleansing doctrinal gate of entry. The goal of such “orientation,” reports Lukianoff, is quite literally “thought reform.” For example, at the University of Delaware the Office of Residence Life introduces incoming students to an imposed speech code forbidding “any instance that is perceived by those involved as being racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive.”
Note: it’s clear that Christians are not among those whom the U of D is concerned might be offended by anyone else’s speech. That’s because Christians are the ones implicitly charged with being (among other things) sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic.
As Lukianoff points out, the goal of the orientation program in which students are indoctrinated into the worldview behind the speech code is “the interior transformation of the beliefs of all seven thousand students in the University of Delaware dormitories on issues as varied as moral philosophy, environmentalism, tolerance, human rights, and social policy, to make those beliefs conform to a specific political agenda.”
In one of the many excesses of the orientation program, students were forced to engage in a little “exercise,” where they had to “stand along one wall if they supported various social causes, including the right to gay marriage or abortion, and along the other wall if they didn’t.” Quite obviously, this exercise “functioned as a state-sponsored public shaming of students with the ‘wrong’ beliefs.” If a Christian dares to say that she opposes gay marriage, she will most definitely be “perceived” as “homophobic” and therefore “oppressive.” The “speech” code is violated, and sanctions begin.
As Lukianoff reveals, the University of Delaware program is considered a model for similar programs at other schools. Thus, these kinds of exercises are not confined to a mere handful of way Left universities, but occur all across the nation. Lukianoff lists similar imposed “speech codes” at (among others) Colorado State, Drexel University, Ohio State, Saginaw, Bryn Mawr, DePauw, University of Wisconsin, California State.
And just so we are aware of how high the problem reaches, he devotes a whole chapter to Harvard and Yale.
Another popular “exercise” at many of these institutions during the mandated (re)orientation is “The Tunnel of Oppression.” As Lukianoff reports, Georgetown, Clemson, UNC Chapel Hill, Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan all boast one, but as I found out by typing “Tunnel of Oppression” into Google, there are countless others. Students are typically led through a succession of rooms where they are made to witness mini-dramas—often with student activist-actors screaming at them—all of which is meant to cleanse them of the sins of their heterodox views. The orthodoxy forming the mini-dramas is patently defined by the Left.
But it doesn’t stop with orientation. It goes right into the classrooms, and none too subtly. One Emily Brooker, an Evangelical Christian at Missouri State University, was given a mandatory assignment in class in her freshman year: go out in public and display homosexual behavior, and then write a paper about the experience. In her senior year she was required by a professor, as a class assignment, to write the state legislature advocating adoption for gay foster parents. She was subjected to a closed two-and-a-half-hour interrogation by seven professors when she was deemed irredeemably Christian.
Things get worse. Christians are singled out for persecution; Christianity is routinely profaned. At a Florida community college the Christian Student Fellowship was banned from showing The Passion of the Christ (allegedly because of its R rating), even while the administration smiled upon a production on campus that included a skit (with a title too blasphemous for me to include in print) in which the most solitary of sexual acts (to put it as delicately as I can) was aimed at an image of Jesus. Resident Assistants at the University of Wisconsin were barred from holding private Bible studies in their own room, even while other RAs were applauded for putting on the infamously vulgar Vagina Monologues. The Christian Legal Association was banned from the University of California and at Vanderbilt, and Christian sororities and fraternities are no longer allowed at San Diego State University
In reading Lukianoff’s various accounts of imposed political correctness, the totalitarian manipulations in George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind. College bureaucrats are in the forefront of imposing liberalism on campus, as the case of the Association for Student Conduct Administration (ASCA), the lead umbrella group for academic administrators overseeing discipline, demonstrates. ASCA has devised a model program that allows the meddlers from above to persecute infractions that were not previously punishable under university regulations. A vaguely accused student must sit one-on-one with an administrator for four sessions in order to learn to “take accountability” for what he’s done. The student must write down what he thinks he’s done, but the administrator won’t accept the student’s account until he gets it “right.” The student must draft and redraft until his will is broken and he admits the offense as defined by the administrator. The student, by the way, has to pay actual money for the privilege of these four sessions of humiliation.
Lukianoff exactly captures the spirit of the ASCA’s model program. “Like the famous scene in 1984 in which Winston is forced to say he sees five fingers when his interrogator is holding up four, you would complete the program only when you described your behavior using the exact (strained and strange) language the program wanted you to use.”
Lukianoff’s book is helpful for getting a full smack of what’s really going on at our universities, but the real problem, or at least the deepest problem, is not Unlearning Liberty but unlearning Christianity. As dual sign of this is both the deep anti-Christian bias pervading our universities and the evangelical zeal in promoting the entire secular liberal worldview. The deep bias against Christianity reveals an important historical truth: secularism is not neutral—the mere subtraction of religion—but, as we learn from its history, a worldview formed specifically against Christianity. The evangelical zeal of the secular liberals reveals that we are dealing with what really amounts to another religion.
We cannot comprehend what’s going on at our universities, or in our culture, without grasping this dual connection. The problem, for the Left, is not religion as such. As Lukianoff points out several times, students are continually drilled on the evils of anti-Semitism—and that is all to the good. But surprisingly, they also compelled to heartily affirm Islam (under the aegis of tolerance and diversity), even though Islam so often manifests a thoroughgoing anti-Semitism, is certainly more “sexist” than anything these students have experienced, and is most decidedly no friend of American-style gay rights. On cannot imagine, for example, a vulgar sexual send-up directed against Mohammed being tolerated. Jewish and Muslim groups are passionately protected—and again, that’s all to the good.
But Christianity? You can say anything against it, profane it in any way, and trace the evils of the world to its door.
So, it isn’t religion that bothers the reigning secular liberalism on campus, but Christianity. It isn’t liberty that is being unlearned, at least not directly. The curtailing of speech is largely directed specifically at Christianity—its worldview and its moral codes. But you are at liberty to say anything you want about Christianity. Further, there is the proper religious liberty offered to Jews and Muslims, the respectful protection that allows them to live according to their faith without attack or belittlement. But as Lukianoff shows, this same religious liberty is, more and more, denied to Christians.
It is Christianity that is being unlearned at our universities—not just removed, but ridiculed; not just ignored, but demonized. That is deeply ironic, given one very amazing fact: it was the Catholic Church that invented the university.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!