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What Happens to Truth

What Happens to Truth in an Age of Delusion? (part 5) Capitulation in the Academy: When Mob Rule Takes Over


August, 2013


About the sixties it is now fashionable to say that although there were indeed excesses, many good things resulted. But, so far as universities are concerned, I know of nothing positive coming from that period; it was an unmitigated disaster for them. (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987, p.320)


The universities …were the scenes of the most violent confrontations and abject betrayal of principle…. What we had witnessed was the spectacle of wholesale capitulation – a liberal capitulation to the grim yet smirking radicalism whose goal was the destruction of an intellectual tradition and, ultimately, a way of life. (Kimball, TLM, p. 99) 

This series is about what has been called the long march through the institutions. The reason this is a significant topic has to do with the fact that institutions are the skeleton, or the framework, that provide the space for a private sphere of society – in distinction from the political realm. In fact, the private/public distinction is indispensable for a wholesome, that is, a free and civilized society. These institutions include the churches, the family, schools/universities, the arts, the media, science, medicine, the economy, politics, and a host of voluntary organizations. 

Capitulation in the Academy: When Mob Rule Takes Over

Of course, institutions do not come from nowhere. They derive their existence from the minds and hearts of people. This inevitably involves beliefs or worldviews, also called religion.  Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which people adopt a particular worldview; it is either a product of the human mind (humanism), or it comes to us from a source outside of ourselves, that is, the Creator God who has revealed himself in the Bible of the Old and New Testaments. All of mankind has in common that we face three questions: Who are we? What are we here for? What is truth? The reality is that we give different answers to these fundamental questions of human existence. 

However, these different starting points do not mean that Christians should not concern themselves with those who have a different worldview. On the contrary, they are called to love all mankind and to seek the welfare of all people.  One way to do that is to be very much aware of the signs of our times.  One such epic sign is that among the elite of Western society there is a determined effort to eliminate the institutions that are the backbone of a free society.  This is exactly what the march through the institutions is all about.  

 In the following I will discuss how this march through the American universities has fundamentally changed the purpose of higher education.  I will be relying extensively on Roger Kimball’s The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America.  The same process is happening in Canada, though here it does not have the starkly racial dimension of the U.S. This is what the author/columnist Barbara Kay had to say about the Canadian university scene:

 The counter-culture of the 1960s drew a bright line between all past understandings and the present understanding of what universities were for…. In a word, the universities, formerly independent custodians of objective knowledge governed by the rubric of free academic inquiry, have become politicized engines of social change. Intellectual investigation has been subordinated to non-intellectual and even anti-intellectual imperatives. (Barbara Kay, Acknowledgements: A Cultural Memoir and Other Essays, 2013, p.73) 

Kimball writes that “perhaps no phenomenon more vividly epitomizes the long march of America’s cultural revolution than the student uprisings that swept across college and university campuses from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s.” He writes that the fury and suddenness of these outbreaks amounted to a serious attack on “the intellectual and moral foundations of the entire humanistic enterprise.”  (TLM, p.102) 

On many campuses across the land, students seized buildings, smashed property, and acted like thugs for whom the ordinary rules of civil behavior did not apply.  University officials were humiliated and sometimes held hostage, their offices were ransacked, and files were stolen or destroyed. In nearly all situations (with very few exceptions) university administrators and faculty were intimidated and prepared to surrender to the most outrageous demands. A review of events at Cornell University in 1969 and at Yale University in 1970, tells a depressing story.  

Dysfunction at Cornell University

The turmoil at Cornell started in 1968 when black students charged a visiting professor of economics with racism because he had judged African nations by “Western” criteria. The administration cravenly required an apology, which the professor provided. But the students were not satisfied and took over the office of the economics department while holding the chairman and his secretary “prisoner” for eighteen hours. 

The students were not punished; an investigating dean “exonerated” the professor, but nonetheless charged Cornell with “institutional racism.”  The authorities clearly signalled that they did not have the conviction to defend the integrity of their institution by punishing the students’ criminal behaviour. Not surprisingly, this sign of the university administration’s cowardice was all the students needed to step up their thuggish behaviour. 

They escalated a pattern of demands and violence, as well as the occupation of buildings and hostage taking. In February 1969, at a symposium, president Perkins attempted to defend Cornell’s investments in South African companies.  A black student jumped onto the stage, grabbed Perkins and took his microphone. When a security agent rushed to help Perkins, another black student wielding a two-by-four kept the agent at bay. Meanwhile, blacks in the audience were beating on the bongo drums the university had recently bought for the students, while Perkins was heard to whisper, “You better let go of me.”  

In April 1969, during parents’ weekend one hundred black students took over the Willard Straight Hall before 6 a.m. and gave the occupants ten minutes to leave.  Several doors were broken down with crow bars. Parents and college staff were forcibly ejected from the building. While University officials stood by passively, black students armed themselves with knives, rifles and ammunition.  Militant members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) stood guard outside, while the students settled down for what became a thirty-five hour occupation of the building.  

A student radio broadcast reported that the protest had taken place because of Cornell’s “racist attitudes” and because it “lacked a program relevant to the black students.” Some white students broke into the building and got into a scuffle with the occupiers.  One black student shouted that “if any more whites come in… you’re gonna die here.”  

Crime Without Punishment

The aftermath of this student uprising displayed even more of the cowardice and lack of conviction among the university’s administration and faculty. The perpetrators of the lawless behaviour demanded that the disciplinary action against three of the black students involved in the turmoil be dropped.  The vice-president for public affairs promised to recommend to the faculty to drop the penalties. An agreement was worked out and the black students vacated the building clutching rifles and ammunition belts, their clenched fists raised in victory.  

What Kimball describes as perhaps “the last show of spine by an academic body in the U.S.” was that the Cornell faculty voted 726 to 281 not to drop the penalties, also called reprimands. The response of the students was quick; now white and black radicals joined forces and occupied a faculty building. They soon attracted some twenty-five hundred students.  

Tom Jones, one of the gun-toting blacks involved in the previous occupation of Straight Hall, said on a local radio station that the faculty had voted for a ”showdown.” He warned that seven faculty members and administrators would be “dealt with,” then intimated that their lives might be at stake. Several professors then moved their families to motels for the night. 

The faculty met the next day to reconsider their vote on the three students’ penalties. The vast majority of the faculty had changed their minds and now voted by a voice vote of seven hundred to three hundred to dismiss the penalties. They all felt badly about changing their vote. Kimball gets right to the heart of what is at stake here: “The hand-wringing rationalizations of the Cornell faculty for this unconscionable collapse make for nauseating reading.”  

Tom Jones addressed a crowd of students after the vote and bragged: “That decision was made right here. They didn’t make any decision; they were told from this room what to do.” 

Not all members of the faculty were cowards. James J. John, professor of history, told his wavering colleagues: “if we had a good reason for not dismissing the charges on Monday,… we have a stronger reason for not doing so today…. This university, I believe, can survive the expulsion or departure of no matter what number of students and the destruction of buildings far better than it can survive the death of principle.” (TLM, p.117) 

Professor Allan Bloom who taught at Cornell, resigned in disgust about the cowardice of the administration and most of his colleagues. He said that the threats of the black students, some of whom were carrying guns, and the capitulation of the faculty, amounted to an abandonment of the university’s judicial system. In a conversation with a New York Times reporter about the violence at Cornell, Bloom said that “the resemblance on all levels to the first stages of a totalitarian take-over are almost unbelievable.” (TLM, p.115)  

In 1987, Bloom  published his famous lament about what he saw as the decomposition of the American universities, significantly entitled: The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished  the Souls of Today’s Students. 

Revolt at Yale

              While the mayhem at Cornell had racial overtones that were even more so at Yale University since it played out against the background of the Black Panthers’ radicalism. The occasion was the murder trial of Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, and eight other Panthers. They had been busy fomenting unrest in and outside Yale, while arguing that the Panthers would not get a fair trial.              

              At a Panther fund-raising event in one of the Yale buildings, Doug  Miranda, area caption of the Black Panthers, claimed that Yale is  “one of the biggest pig organizations” and  part of the “conspiracy” against the Panthers. He said: “Basically, what we are going to do is create conditions in which white folks are either going to have to kill pigs  or defend themselves against black folks….We’re going to turn Yale into a police state…. You have to create peace by destroying the people who don’t want peace.” 

At a meeting of the campus radicals In April 1970 ,  some outrageous proposals to help the  Panthers were considered, including kidnapping Yale president Kingman Brewster, shutting off  New Haven’s water supply, starting a student strike, and demanding that the Yale corporation donate  half a million dollars to the Panther defense fund. At a later meeting, Doug Miranda suggested that they hold a strike vote and call on Yale to demand that the Panthers be released. 

At all twelve of Yale’s residential colleges students met to discuss the Panthers’ demands and to vote on a student strike.  The few that tried to introduce a note of reality were ignored;  there was a lot of confusion about what to do. One female undergraduate at Jonathan Edwards College was reported to have said: “Why don’t we just vote to strike tonight, and we’ll decide tomorrow what we’re striking for.”  

Kimball writes that the two most prominent university spokespersons in this drama were Yale president  Kingman Brewster and the university chaplain the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. He described Coffin as “one of those self –infatuated radicals who poached on the authority of religion to bolster his sensation of righteousness.” Coffin delighted in organizing acts of civil disobedience, and stated that the “white oppressors” of the Panther Party should be treated as the American colonials treated George III.  He claimed that the trial was “legally right but morally wrong,” and that the Panthers should be set free. 

Yale president Kingman Brewster was cut of the same cloth as William Sloan Coffin. Kimball writes that Brewster was a model of “cunning equivocation. With a symmetry that connoisseurs of hypocrisy will admire for decades to come, he showed himself capable of the ultimate pliability.” When asked his opinion about Coffin’s support of the Panthers, he answered that the university chaplain was  ”worth three full professors.”  

Just before the faculty was scheduled to take a strike vote, Brewster declared his neutrality in the matter (of the Panthers’ trial). But a few days later at a faculty meeting, while some thousand students and Panthers had gathered outside, he had this to say: “ I am skeptical  of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve  a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” 

Eventually, some kind of strike took place. Classes were suspended, and the faculty  modified academic expectations for the term. A May Day demonstration attracted some 15, 000 people including  the heroes of the counter cultural revolution Tom Hayden, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman.  

Kimball reports that the entire nation was following the events at Yale, which amounted to an attack on the legitimacy of the U.S. justice system. Even more so, it involved very directly the independence and integrity of higher education.  Even The New York Times understood the seriousness of these events. In an editorial “Murdering Justice” it pointed out: “Those students and faculty members at Yale who are trying to stop a murder trial by calling a strike against the university have plunged the campus into new depth of irrationality.” 

Undoubtedly, the turmoil at Cornell and Yale in the sixties and seventies, replicated at many other campuses, took direct aim at two indispensable pillars of a free and civilized society. Unless this is understood and corrected, America will no longer be the home of the brave and the land of the free.