Lux et Veritas
In many ways, the early forms of the great universities of the world would be unrecognisable to us today. Founded in medieval Europe and colonial America, they were founded to make young Christians (Catholic, then Protestant) into doctors of their religion. The curriculum was one of esoteric dogma and training in the logical gymnastics needed to bend a complex reality into exact conformity with the doctrine of the Church. The atmosphere of rigid intellectual conformity upheld by coercion both external and internalised, in which students could be fined or expelled for heresies uttered due to incomplete mastery of convoluted doctrines, seems stifling and ridiculous and alien to us today. It shouldn’t.
In important ways, modern universities have come full circle. After a difficult and even violent process of prying them from the clutches of medieval Christianity and rebuilding them as acropolises of free inquiry, today’s universities are once again slipping into the comforting embrace of intellectual self-assurance, backed by rigorous doctrinairism defending the one true faith.
Despite our breathless, insatiable obsession with “diversity,” real diversity is rare on today’s campuses. Positive discrimination for underrepresented demographic groups ostensibly opens students’ minds to new ideas and perspectives. Ironically, the most aggressive champions of “diversity” are the most hostile to those who might actually challenge others’ beliefs or assumptions. No matter how much superficial diversity we can plaster on our admissions brochures, no one will enjoy the supposed benefits of new ideas and perspectives if none of the students have (or are allowed to share) them.
But of course, challenging discourse and new ideas are not the point. Just as like our medieval forebears, we know there is but one true doctrine, and the challenge is just to comprehend it in all its bizarre complexity. Modern leftism is not quite so straightforward as medieval Catholicism, but it works in the same way. There are certain precepts, for example perfect equality of outcome for all people and groups, that we believe based on a faith no one ever thinks to question. Where reality contradicts our beliefs, we learn to bend over backward to justify them. One introductory ethnic studies course I took at an elite American university felt more like the interrogation of Winston Smith- I knew in my heart most of what I was learning was insane, but clever ideologues had manipulated the philosophical foundations and even the language of the course such that it was impossible to articulate a counterargument. Of course, I could have tried. But the self-censorship of citizens of totalitarian societies was so deeply rooted in me by my second undergraduate year that I never thought to do so.
Defenders of orthodoxy dismiss criticism of this culture as melodramatic. To be fair, many critics are. After all, although the farcical concept of “hate speech” has gained much currency, explicit bans on speech on campus are rare. But it is worth bearing in mind that in the Middle Ages, very few of the most inveterate, outspoken heretics ever faced legal retribution. The Dark Ages lasted so long because censorship was internalised. And of course, even if one were so disposed, it is hard to even develop contrary opinions when starved of material. Just as the Classics were anathematised due to their pagan roots, much of the Western canon is today discarded as the depraved rantings of “dead white men.” It is amusing to read St. Augustine musing about the utility of works penned by pagans, and to imagine how he would have felt about being consigned to the dustbin of history due to his own works being indelibly tainted (though, as few social justice crusaders bother to learn, he was of mixed North African Berber and Roman descent). But again, even if a 12th or 21st Century Oxford student were to develop contrary ideas against all odds, voicing them was and is just not worth the social cost.
It takes a potent ideology to claim such totalising control over the hearts and minds of clever young people. Like Christianity, leftism offers a teleological view of history, with light ultimately triumphant over the forces of darkness. Of course, with that triumph, partisans of either side will be vindicated and rewarded, or humiliated and damned. The ideology is universal, striving toward the salvation of all mankind. We would not say it today in so many words, but both medieval and modern students dreamed of disabusing Saracens and other pagans of their backward, wicked ways. Even more so than Christianity, leftism is an archetype of Nietzschean slave morality. “Social justice” entails perfect equality of outcome. Therefore any person or group performing above the mean must have acquired their position of privilege by oppressing others.
The most impressive victory of an ideology is that it is so universally and implicitly accepted that even those not entirely on board do not question its goodness. Few people enjoy it when pampered university students who cannot keep their rooms clean organise protests and Twitter campaigns to anathematise cherished traditions or convolute them into miserable lessons about historical injustice. Yet we all go along with it because everyone knows their hearts are in the right place. Modern people who wonder why people accepted Oliver Cromwell banning Christmas, or Puritan mobs smashing religious art, need only look at America’s agonising over Columbus Day or disruptive or destructive protests over racial injustice. Conservatives (meant with a small c) may think their opponents misguided, but generally accept that they are good people. The righteous, on the other hand, know for a fact that their opponents are driven by a combination of ignorance and malice to support objectively evil ideas. Given the discrepancy, is it any wonder that one side always wins the debate?
Of course, some people are doomed to step afoul of such an exacting ideology. Public figures or even random people unfortunate enough to “go viral” for some real or, far more often, entirely unmalicious heresy face exile from Christian society. To escape the Twitter lynch mob, they must do a penitential walk to Canossa, with a melodramatic apology for some preposterous non-offence that is often just as melodramatically rejected by their supposed victims.
Once internalised, these ideas can have really pernicious social effects. Medieval Christians assumed they brought epidemics on themselves by being so sinful, and thus devoted their energies to repentance and scourging themselves, rather than searching for a medical cure. Likewise, when crime and terrorism are the fault of their victims, we cannot deal with those problems effectively. It is an unpleasant quirk of human nature that we are prone to doing irrational things that make us miserable because we think God wants us to. Today the New York Times prints articles defending genocidal dictators, so long as they were leftist, or advocating wiping humanity out entirely for the sake of the environment. Of course, it is difficult to see, much less articulate, the folly of this when the best and brightest in society spend their formative years in seminaries of doctrinaire solipsism.
When the Enlightenment turned universities into open fora for vigorous discourse, the West clomb out of medieval mire and transformed the world, freeing billions from tyranny, disease, and poverty. We have gone from a society in which subjects swallow convoluted, esoteric dogma without question, to one in which citizens are free to contribute their unique passion and ability to improving the world. But now we are going back again. Whether you believe that the future is made by those who control the past, or those who control the youth, it is no wonder.