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In Defense of My Students
The idea of the campus as a stronghold of leftwing extremism and authoritarian censoriousness stands in stark contrast to what’s happening inside the classroom
Cover illustration: iStock / Credit: Jorm Sangsorn
Last week, I taught a class at Georgetown on the current struggle over how the Holocaust should be remembered, memorialized, and taught in Germany. It’s a topic that touches on the very foundations of Germany’s national identity. This has always been an eminently politicized issue – and even more so now, as Germany is wrestling with the question of how, exactly, the Nazi past should shape the country’s perspective on the Israel-Hamas war.
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It may seem like a daunting task, tackling this topic now, right as the political discourse has become so toxic, as we have been warned for weeks by mainstream reporters and pundits that campuses across America are experiencing a wave of extremism that makes rational debate and serious learning utterly impossible.
Here is what actually happened in class: We had a calm, nuanced, and deeply serious discussion. That’ it. That’s the everyday normal on college campuses. But if you read the nation’s major newspapers and political magazines, you would not know that. You might even think I was lying.
“Free speech crisis” and leftwing extremism dominating the campus?
America’s leading mainstream papers are mesmerized by what supposedly happens on college campuses. The reporting is almost always concerned with just a small number of elite schools. And an industry of very concerned pundits has been laser-focused for years on what they have presented as a “free speech crisis” on campus – and the university as the incubator and accelerator of an intolerant climate that is threatening freedom in all spheres of American life: Cancel culture!
The “free speech crisis” discourse doesn’t simply warn that unfair “cancellations” happen. It diagnoses a national emergency: an acutely dangerous situation in which radical “woke” leftists are succeeding at undermining free speech by imposing an ever-more restrictive culture of censoriousness on the country, with dramatic consequences for anyone who dares to speak up. And nowhere, so the story goes, is this more extreme and more obvious than on the campus.
Since October 7, the political discourse and most areas of public life in America have been dominated by the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, the ensuing Israel-Hamas war, the situation of the Palestinian people in Gaza, and the questions of how it all got to this point and what the path forward might be. College campuses across the country are no exception. And for those who have been cultivating the narrative of a free speech crisis on campus, everything that’s happened over the past few weeks, everything students have done and said, serves as undeniable proof of how dangerously illiberal and extreme the situation at America’s universities has become.
Last week, for instance, on the Bulwark podcast, host Charlie Sykes had Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) on to talk about “The Canceling of the American Mind,” which is the title of Lukianoff’s latest book. Since Trump’s ascension, the Bulwark has emerged as arguably the premier home for Never-Trump conservatives and the flagship for a center-Right that remains convinced that not just MAGA, but also leftwing extremism constitutes an acute threat. The episode description reads: “When Gen Z began attending college and demanding protection from speech, the left argued that cancel culture was a myth. But now that the anti-Zionism bias on campus is clear, consequence culture suddenly feels very real.”
Sykes wasted no time and opened the interview by declaring “leftwing illiberalism” a cancer threatening the life of American democracy – not quite as acute perhaps as what he called the MAGA heart attack, but no less dangerous. Lukianoff agreed, describing the free speech situation on college campuses as the worst it’s been in at least 50 years, arguing that things have been deteriorating rapidly since 2014, when the aggressively censorious Gen Z entered the institutions.
Just stop for a second and think about the argument presented here: The 1970s and 80s as a time of significantly *more* freedom of speech and expression in society at large and on the campus specifically? That might be plausible if we are talking exclusively about straight white man holding political and ideological positions that were acccepted as mainstream; for anyone else, though, this is a remarkably ahistorical claim. And the generational explanation… Young people in their twenties are supposed to be less accepting of diversity and pluralism than people in their sixties and older? Hm.
And what does any of this have to do with whatever has happened on the campus in relation to the Israel-Hamas war? Here as elsewhere in the current mainstream discourse, the “cancel culture/free speech crisis” diagnosis is declared proven beyond reasonable doubt in light of the developments on “the Left” over the past few weeks – but that connection is never actually established, only ever insinuated. “The Left,” we are invited to believe, is responsible for both the cancel culture threat as well as the pervasive extremism. And in this interpretation, the true, ugly face of the Left’s political project has now been revealed: An authoritarian vision of suppressing all those who disagree in service of a fundamentally antisemitic ideology – leftwing identity discourses are just a cudgel used to silence and assert dominance over dissenters.
When data guru Nate Silver declares free speech “in trouble” because “young liberals are abandoning it,” and paints a picture of an incredibly intolerant leftwing student body; and the next day, the New York Times publishes a guest essay that presents the most extreme – and to be very clear: despicable and horrifying! – antisemitic instances and attacks as characteristic of what college campuses are like in America today, a mainstream audience is clearly instructed to see those issues as not only connected, but as evidence that freedom of speech, free inquiry, and higher learning have mostly been extinguished from America’s universities. What’s left is a nasty, terrifying place that is about to “succumb to mob rule by their most radical voices.” In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf – one of America’s leading “free speech” pundits – even declared that a sizable portion of students was simply *not* on board with the idea that “it is always wrong to deliberately target and slaughter civilians and it is always wrong to abduct, let alone kill, children.” Instead, “they were endorsing, validating, or standing in solidarity with war crimes.” Not all students, of course. But enough of them to dominate the campus – “the left’s most radical elements,” as Friedersdorf put it, exerting “influence disproportionate to their numbers.”
A few months ago, I wrote two long pieces on why the narrative of a “free speech crisis” on campus and a worsening national emergency caused by “wokeism” running amok doesn’t hold up to serious empirical scrutiny (I even focused on exactly the same pseudo-evidence that Nate Silver just used as the basis for his grandiose claims about “young liberals” endangering free speech, the deeply flawed and extremely tendentious “College Free Speech Rankings” conducted by FIRE); and I tried to outline why we are indeed in the midst of a profound renegotiation of speech norms, which can be a messy process at times – but it’s not “cancel culture.” Is there something else I – a college professor who does not recognize the place where I work or the students with whom I interact in that ugly picture emerging in the mainstream discourse – can do to push back against this extremism incubator narrative that outlets like the New York Times and The Atlantic are constantly pushing?
Tales from inside the classroom
I very much do not agree with everything that’s happened, everything that’s been said on college campuses since October 7. Is intellectually implausible, politically extreme, and morally abhorrent stuff being said on college campuses? Absolutely. We are talking about millions of people, all coming together in an extremely diverse environment.
But that does not mean that campuses are dominated by dangerous (leftwing) extremism.
About two weeks ago, I had dinner with current and former colleagues at Georgetown. One colleague who is not teaching this semester wanted to know if “the situation in Israel” had “entered the classroom”? He was concerned: Based on the impression he had gotten from reading the nation’s leading papers, he fully – and reasonably – expected that there could have been no routine teaching since October 7, that normal learning had to have been disrupted. He was relieved and also stunned to hear that none of those present – historians, political scientists, cultural scholars, economists – had encountered any trouble in the classroom.
Usually, what happens in the classroom should stay in the classroom. Teachers and students deserve a space where they can explore topics, problems, and ideas and be sure that what they say will not land on social media in some decontextualized fashion. This, however, has left the “free speech crisis” and “campus extremism” narrative largely unopposed in the broader public discourse. Countless op-eds and guest essays on how bad leftwing censoriousness has gotten, how terribly oppressive the atmosphere in the classroom is. How many pieces from students talking about how they liked their courses and learned a lot have you read? From professors who just came home from a nice meeting or an utterly uneventful lecture?
This brings me back to the class I just taught on the current Holocaust discourse in Germany. It was Week 12 of my graduate seminar on “Why We Fight Over the Past.” Not just in the United States, but on either side of the Atlantic, we are witnessing intense conflicts over questions of cultural hegemony and national identity that have catapulted debates over “history” to the top of the political agenda. These are struggles over who gets to define the national story and what place the legacies of racism, slavery, colonialism, and imperialism should occupy in it – with serious implications for the political, social, and cultural order in the present. These “history wars” provide an excellent window into current conflicts over multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
We started with a deep dive into past and present history wars in the United States: From the long tradition of fighting over the high school history curriculum, especially the National History Standards in the 1990s, to the current flurry of reactionary education bills on the state level, from the 1619 Project to the conflict over Confederate monuments. We are also exploring the inter- and transnational context: It was the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 that led to a transatlantic wave of protests, acting as catalysts for broader debates over the past and present of empire, colonialism, and racism in several Western European countries.
The overall goal of this course is to gain a better understanding of the ways in which “history” shapes the present, who gets to define the national story and what role historians, politicians, activists play in that process. We want to examine why such conflicts over “history” come to the forefront of the political, social, and cultural debate at specific moments in time, and explore them as reflections on national identity.
The course is fairly small, which gives us ample time for discussion. It’s still, as best I can tell, a pretty diverse group of students: They range from undergrads to PhD students; they come from a bunch of different disciplines and from at least three different continents; some of them are really young (members of that notorious Gen Z!), while others have a lot of work experience away from college and have either returned to the academic world (one of my students is an ex-marine) or are taking just a leave of absence to acquire a degree (another student is an active duty officer who will return to his military career after finishing their master’s.) Finally, while I can’t tell you how, exactly, they identify, I think it’s fair to describe the course as majority, but not entirely white. About gender, sexual, or religious identities, I will not speculate.
What about their ideological leanings? Believe it or not, I don’t know! Despite what is constantly suggested even in mainstream college campus discourse, there is actually no “ideological litmus test,” and since we are having intellectual, analytical discussions rather than political or ideological debates, it’s not like people are constantly stating their party preferences. Then again, when you work closely with students over the course of a 14-week semester, you obviously pick things up and develop a sense of how they might see the world – just as I am sure they have an idea of where I stand politically.
Here is what I can confidently say about the groups with which I have worked over the past three years since joining Georgetown: I’ve had students who very much believed in the power of the market and free enterprise – and some who were very skeptical of capitalism in general; there have been some who are very unlikely to object to me calling them proper lefties – and some who were visibly / audibly annoyed by “the Left”; I’ve encountered hawkish opinions on foreign policy – but also students quite critical of what they perceived as Western hypocrisy in the world. Finally, the biggest group of all, and one about which you’ll never hear in the mainstream papers, are the students who are really not all that political, are either disillusioned by and apathetic towards the political process or, frankly, are just not interested in defining their identity or student experience by politics.
The best way to describe the mix of students that shows up for my classes is probably just: It’s a normal bunch. I would be extremely surprised if there was anything “special,” in a statistical outlier sense, about my courses.
The Catechism Debate
We have entered the final block in this seminar on “Why We Fight Over the Past”: Three straight weeks on German “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” or “working through” the Nazi past since 1945. And last week, in Week 12, we reached the so-called Catechism Debate that erupted in 2021 – not coincidentally at the height of the “history wars” elsewhere in the “West.” These German debates are interesting from a U.S. perspective, in particular, as the idea that America should “learn from the Germans” is so widely held over here, that Germany has somehow found a more honest, more productive way of handling the “Memory of Evil” that could serve as a model. Just when the idea of “Learning from the Germans” has been so widely applauded in the U.S., voices in Germany have become louder calling for a critical re-assessment of the German way of “working through the past,” diagnosing some deep and disconcerting flaws.
I should tackle the Catechism Debate properly in a separate piece – it’s really a fascinating window into German politics and society, and it deserves proper attention. I’ll keep it brief here, just to make my general point about what is actually going on inside the classroom. The Catechism Debate erupted in early 2021 in response to the release of the German translation of Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Rothberg is a Jewish American literary scholar and professor at UCLA; his book originally came out in 2009 –but it wasn’t until it was available in German that certain circles in Germany identified it as an acute threat to the nation.
Rothberg’s book re-ignited academic debates that had been going on at least since the early 2000s and re-launched them into a broader public consciousness – about how to contextualize the Holocaust in German history as well as about whether or not there are continuities or even a causal relationship between German colonial atrocities in the early twentieth century and the murder of European Jews during the Second World War. The debate quickly moved beyond this academic dimension, however, and morphed into a frenzied fight over German national identity, politics, and society today. On one side, scholars like Rothberg, German historian Jürgen Zimmerer, and Australian historian Dirk Moses criticized what they saw as an established and aggressively upheld culture of remembrance that left insufficient room for identities, memories, and experiences of those living in Germany today who are not the descendants of the perpetrators. On the other side, a group of influential historians, journalists and intellectuals rejected this criticism and argued that it not only relativized the Holocaust, but was part of a much broader, dangerous leftwing radicalism that presented itself as anti-racist social justice activism, but was actually just anti-white, antisemitic, “postcolonial” extremism spilling over from America, determined to do away with Western civilization as such an all the good it had birthed.
If we take two steps back, the Cathechism Debate offers a fascinating window into a society’s ongoing struggle over what a more multiethnic, pluralistic Germany should look like, and whether it should accept and embrace the process of renegotiating German national identity – or reject that process in an effort to delineate the limits multicultural pluralization.
In last week’s class, this is what we set out to explore, understand, and situate within the larger, inter- and transnational context of the current “history wars.” And politics did indeed enter the classroom, if that’s the right way to put it: My students of course noticed and reflected on how this German debate connects to our current political discourse around the Israel-Hamas war – how could they not have? But I am proud to say they did so with great care and discipline, both in terms of what they argued and how they phrased their arguments, and we never lost our analytical focus. There was none of the extremism that, according to the current mainstream campus discourse, this discussion should have provoked. No ideological tirades. No one said anything that suggested sympathy for Hamas terror. No one said anything to deny that antisemitism was a massive problem. Absolutely no one said anything to relativize the Holocaust. And conversely, no one offered anything that minimized the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians.
How do those who are invested in presenting the campus as a stronghold of militant extremism explain this: Two-and-a-half hours of free-flowing discussion on a topic like this generated nothing even remotely extreme or disrespectful. They can’t have it both ways: Either things didn’t get contentious because there was just a bunch of lefties in the room who agreed on everything anyway – but then where was the extremism such a setting supposedly breeds? Or things remained “civil” precisely because those extremist lefties happened to not sit in this class – well, but then, evidently, those dangerous lefties aren’t quite as much of a pervasive problem, are they?
Politics in the classroom
If you are surprised by this, ask yourself what your preconceived notions about the college campus are, and who’s responsible for shaping those. I was not surprised. Every semester, in every course, I end the first meeting with some reflections on politics in the classroom. Everything I research and teach touches directly and explicitly on the defining political conflicts of our era: The crisis of democracy, history and national identity, the immediate (pre-) history of the present since the end of the Cold War. Our discussions inevitably reveal certain political leanings and affinities, and we certainly won’t agree on everything. Everyone has to accept that. We are not staging political debates. We analyze, examine, critique, contextualize. The goal is not to get everyone on the same page politically. What I insist on is that all arguments and opinions have to be presented respectfully – no personal attacks, no political attacks, no belittling of anyone’s faith or identity. In my classroom, I do not tolerate antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish / “globalist” plans for world domination or insinuations that all Muslims have sympathies for terrorists; any suggestions that Black people are inferior (old racism or “scientific” racism, makes no matter), or that women are incapable of leadership roles because they tend to be hysterical, or that there is something dangerous and deranged about queer people. I will not tolerate any insinuation that Jews – in Israel and across the world – do not have a right to live in peace, or that Palestinian lives are somehow less valuable.
I honestly hesitate to even spell this out here. Not because I worry about making these statements publicly – but because I don’t want to make it sound like I am engaged in a heroic struggle to hold the line against evil forces in the classroom. I don’t have to. There have basically never been any major problems – not in my perception, nor according to the anonymous student evaluations at the end of the semester.
That doesn’t mean it won’t get feisty. It often does. We discussed the 1619 Project earlier this semester, and while some of the students admired it as a journalistic project and a political intervention, others formulated significant objections. In previous semesters, students have pushed back hard against my criticism of the “populism” concept (which most of them tend to find very plausible, and I don’t) and my rejection of the “polarization” narrative (to which a lot of them are clinging as the central threat to democracy). All of this is exactly the way it should be. No debate club nonsense – real arguments, with real disagreements, in service not of “winning” the debate, but of making sense of the world.
I am not trying to sell you some bizarrely naïve utopia. A lot is wrong with America’s higher education system. From the perspective of the humanities, the system is extremely problematic; from the perspective of history, it’s a complete disaster threatening to kill the discipline. But this “free speech crisis” stuff… that’s not it. The college campus is, overall, a very tolerant place.
America vs the college campus
The “free speech crisis/college extremism” frenzy relies on presenting the most extreme cases as that which defines the whole – and on never asking if something is merely wrong / offensive / annoying or actually indicative of powerful forces that constitute an acute threat to society. It also completely ignores – even inverts – the actual power relations: student activists are presented as all-powerful, while university administration and leadership, which certainly aren’t bastions of “woke” leftism, are assumed to be cowering before them.
It is remarkable how closely the mainstream “campus crisis” discourse resembles the narrative reactionary crusaders want to advance about America’s institutions. On October 13, Christopher Rufo – who can always be counted on to blurt out the rightwing strategy, as he is so consistently proud of himself for coming up with something supposedly brilliant – posted on Twitter/X that “Conservatives need to create a strong association between Hamas, BLM, DSA, and academic ‘decolonization’ in the public mind. Connect the dots, then attack, delegitimize, and discredit. Make the center-left disavow them. Make them political untouchables.” This is the exact same playbook he used to manufacture the anti-“CRT” hysteria: Find a signifier that serves to conjure up all sorts of things people don’t like and fear, regardless of what it actually means, associate it with “the Left,” then keep pouncing. And once again, the center obliges and lends credibility. Just one day later, Conor Friedersdorf declared in The Atlantic that “flawed ideas informed the violence-endorsing statements” and that “concepts like ‘decolonization’” needed to be scrutinized (no attempt to unpack or engage with the vast and diverse body of thought that comes under such a label – just a signifier…).
Even if we assume it is not the attention to push people towards Trump: By constantly amplifying and playing up the idea that a radical “Left” constitutes an acute threat, mainstream voices are contributing to exactly the permission structure that allows people who do not think of themselves as MAGA to make common cause with the Far-Right. And there is something almost tragic about this constant “campus extremism” drumbeat: It conditions American society to fear and despise the younger generation, it amplifies and exacerbates inter-generational tension, it creates a hostile attitude towards institutions where young people learn, experiment, grow.
The idea of the campus as a stronghold of extremism and authoritarian censoriousness is bizarre: What other institution, what other sphere of American life is supposed to be *more* welcoming of pluralism, expression, and critical thought? There is none.
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