Thought Reform U.

By Wendy Kaminer      

        Earlier this week, a smart, worldly civil libertarian queried me about an email reporting that Harvard Law School had expelled a student for indirectly citing a work by a Holocaust denier in a paper about the Nazi’s judicial regime. The report was easily exposed as satire; but serious people took it seriously enough to wonder if it were true, and that was telling.  The story of a law student expelled for a footnote including a reference to a Holocaust denier was surprising, even shocking, but to people familiar with the state of free thought on campus, it was not entirely implausible.

        Consider the latest outrage from the University of Delaware, reported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  (I serve on FIRE’s board of advisers, and Harvey Silverglate is its co-founder.)  U.D. requires all residential students to submit to a comprehensive thought reform program designed to exorcise any presumptively incorrect ideas they harbor about themselves, in particular, and about race, sex, sexuality, and politics, among other matters, in general; the program’s apparent goal is to replace these ideas with university approved self-images and ideologies.

        This indoctrination process is euphemistically called a “Curricular Approach to Residence Education;” (it’s located it in U.D. dorms, ensuring that for U.D. students, home is no safe haven.)  In their residence halls, students are subjected to mandatory group training sessions and one on one meetings with Resident Assistants (RA’s) who require them to answer personal questions about their sexual identities and to consider occasions on which they felt oppressed or offended someone else with their remarks.  (I wonder how many students think to themselves, “I feel oppressed right now by this program” and how many have the nerve to say so.)

        The RA’s themselves are required to undergo mandatory training before they’re allowed to train students.  The “diversity facilitation sessions” for example, teach RA’s that all white people are racists but “people of color cannot be racists” and that “there is no such thing as reverse racism:” that is simply a “term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege.” (Apparently, at U.D., affirmative action is not a subject about which reasonable people may disagree; people who question the virtues of affirmative action today are simply “in denial.”)

        What are the rights of students who have the misfortune to reside in U.D residence halls?  The university has promulgated a list of student rights and responsibilities.  Some of the rights are appropriate: a right to peace and quiet for sleeping and studying, a right to privacy (which apparently does not include the right not to discuss your sexual identity with your RA,) and the right to safety, (although you have to wonder if this right includes safety from “offensive” remarks, as well as physical safety.)  But what’s notable about the list of rights are its omissions:  Students have no stated right to freedom of conscience, speech, or thought, and, of course, no right to opt out of the university’s maoist re-education program, which appears, perversely, to be aimed at developing the “competencies” of good citizens. 

        If I characterized U.D’s vision of citizenship as un-American, I don't think I'd be exaggerating.  This is supposed to be a free country.  U.D. administrators obviously need a refresher course in civics, (as well as a remedial writing course for bureaucrats; try reading through this document.) The persistent disrespect for individual freedom shown by so many self-styled progressives today, especially on campus - their failure to include freedom in their notion of a virtuous society -- has been a confounding political calamity.  If some college students regard liberalism as authoritarian, liberals who refrain from promoting freedom (in the belief that it’s a right wing value) should not be surprised.

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