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All it takes for liberalism to fail is for its proponents to do nothing.

As Timothy W. Ryback observes in Takeover, his brand new study of Hitler’s rise to power, in the summer of 1932, membership in the Nazi party hemorrhaged, key financial backers withdrew support and Hitler spoke of suicide. The Nazis then proceeded to lose three elections in a row.

The New York Times declared he was finished. Yet somehow, in a few brief weeks, he was chancellor of Germany.”

Ryback’s theme is that “The Nazi leader didn’t seize power; he was given it.”

Ryback shows that “the popular picture of the decline of the Weimar Republic—in which hyperinflation produced mass unemployment, which produced an unstoppable wave of fascism—is far from the truth.”

As Adam Gopnik remarks in his New Yorker review of the Ryback book: German voters in 1932 “weren’t wild-eyed nationalists voting for a millennial authoritarian regime that would rule forever and restore Germany to glory, and, certainly, they weren’t voting for an apocalyptic nightmare that would leave tens of millions of people dead and the cities of Germany destroyed.”

Ryback’s argument is that the conservative political and business class and media magnates thought that they could “use Hitler as a stalking horse for their own ambitions.” Meanwhile, proceduralists, institutionalists and parliamentarians, including many center-left Social Democrats, Catholic centrists and those fearful of Communists, trusted that constitutional processes offered sufficient protection against Nazi excesses.

As Joseph Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist, put it: “The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction.”

Which brings me to today. If you are to read just one piece on the impact of the Gaza-Israeli war on elite campuses, I’d recommend Theo Baker’s account of “the war” at Stanford in The Atlantic. It’s scary.

Theo Baker, you’ll recall, is the Stanford sophomore whose reporting in the student newspaper brought down the campus’s former president Marc Tessier-Lavigne by exposing examples of data manipulation in published research papers and the president’s failure to respond to these concerns forthrightly.

Baker’s “The War at Stanford” essay offers some really frightening examples of campus illiberalism that you may well be familiar with:

  • A teaching assistant (TA) in a computer science class calling for President Biden to be killed.
  • A lecturer at a mandatory freshman seminar telling students “that the actions of the Palestinian ‘military force’ had been justified, that Israelis were colonizers, and that the Holocaust had been overemphasized,” and instructing Jewish students to identify themselves and face the classroom window.

The essay lists a litany of ominous incidents: Students spat on, yelled at and targeted with derogatory epithets. Religious symbols ripped down. The president’s residence vandalized.

The problem, Baker concludes, is not dithering administrators and radical student activists; that’s nothing new. It’s a change in the elite university’s undergraduate student body. In his words:

“Today’s students grew up in the Trump era, in which violent rhetoric has become a normal part of political discourse and activism is as easy as reposting an infographic. Many young people have come to feel that being angry is enough to foment change.”

I’d go further.

Students at elite universities differ in many ways from those a generation ago, demographically, but also in their perspectives, political engagement and attentiveness to issues of inequality, diversity and privilege.

Among the factors that have encouraged these shifts is increased diversity through admissions policies, bringing in students from a wider range of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, as well as a broader array of perspectives on social issues. Social media has also had a profound impact on students’ political and social awareness and made it much easier to organize protests. Movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and various climate change initiatives have mobilized students to become more politically active. Meanwhile, faculty have become more likely to actively promote discussions on privilege, inequality and social justice in their classrooms. More faculty than in the past explicitly support protest.

To this laundry list I’d also add, very cautiously, some other contributors, even at the risk of oversimplification:

  1. Guilt

Without minimizing student activists’ genuine commitment to social justice, solidarity with marginalized communities and desire to effect meaningful change, it’s also the case that some students at elite institutions are motivated by feelings of guilt over their privileged position and their sense that they are “special” and have a right or even a duty to speak out.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with guilt driving reform. In his classic study of The New Radicalism in America 1889–1963, Christopher Lasch argued that the reforms of the Progressive era are best understood as reformers’ way to deal with a host of psychological issues. That’s what Jane Addams meant when she spoke of “the subjective necessity for social settlements.”

But unless guilt is channeled constructively, it can become simply performative. Shouldn’t campuses do more to channel students’ commitment to social justice and equality in more positive and efficacious directions?

  1. Identity Formation

For some students, activism serves as a means of identity formation and differentiation. The embrace of a distinctive cause or vocabulary can offer a sense of belonging and purpose within the campus community. That’s, of course, not to claim that activism is primarily or largely about identity establishment. Students mainly engage in activism in response to global, national, or local issues, seeking to address inequalities, injustices or environmental concerns.

But it’s also the case that many students at elite institutions are looking for a higher sense of purpose, and aren’t finding that in their academic studies.

There is mounting evidence that academic demands have declined at elite institutions, that grading has grown less rigorous and that reading requirements and classroom attendance have declined. The answer is not to institute more demanding coursework, but, rather, to ensure that the classes go far beyond content transmission and even discussion but are deeply impactful, involve more active and experiential learning, and result in meaningful outcomes.

  1. Campus Support for Activism

Campus activism today has very different roots and dynamics than in the 1960s, when many of the protests were directed against college and university administrators. The flourishing of activism on elite campuses in recent years is at least partly about the resources available, including supportive faculty and staff, access to networks, and institutional resources that facilitate activism. A supportive ecosystem enables students to transform their passions and concerns into actionable campaigns and movements.

I think it’s fair to say that most activists feel invulnerable to punishment, and even when faced with criticism, simply respond that they are exercising their right to free speech. In making that claim, they can marshal much more support from faculty than they could six decades ago.

Here’s how Baker put this:

“The real story at Stanford is not about the malicious actors who endorse sexual assault and murder as forms of resistance, but about those who passively enable them because they believe their side can do no wrong.”

He goes on:

“Across the many conversations and hours of formal interviews I conducted for this article, I’ve encountered a persistent anti-intellectual streak. I’ve watched many of my classmates treat death so cavalierly that they can protest as a pregame to a party … As a friend emailed me not long ago: ‘A place that was supposed to be a sanctuary from such unreason has become a factory for it.’”

Baker’s essay raises tough questions about diversity and inclusion, free speech, and academic freedom. It points not only to the refusal of senior administrators to enforce established policies, but the failure of many leading faculty members to articulate standards of appropriate professional conduct.

I see only limited evidence of leading faculty members openly standing up for academic norms that I consider essential elements of a liberal campus:

  • Open dialogue and debate resting on reasoned argument and evidence.
  • A classroom environment in which students are welcomed to express alternate perspectives without fear of retaliation from an instructor.
  • A clear commitment on all instructors’ part to grade fairly without regard to students’ identity or political beliefs.

Campuses must strive to balance conflicting sets of values. On one side, students have a legal and moral right to a learning environment that is safe, inclusive, supportive and fair. On the other side, instructors have a right to challenge beliefs and introduce controversial or even offensive content.

Balancing those rights is a juggling act that requires faculty members to carefully consider their educational goals, respect diverse perspectives and commit themselves to fostering an inclusive and respectful classroom climate.

An essential first step is to set clear expectations about respectful discourse and the importance of engaging with challenging ideas. Make it clear that your classroom is a space where diverse perspectives are welcome and critical engagement is encouraged.

Next, develop a classroom contract in collaboration with your students that outlines mutual expectations for discussion, including respect for differing viewpoints and a commitment to maintaining a supportive learning environment.

Emphasize the educational value of engaging with controversial or challenging materials as a learning opportunity and a way to develop critical thinking skills, expand perspectives and understand complex issues more deeply. But also offer context and explain the relevance to the course objectives when introducing potentially controversial content. Clarify that the purpose is not to provoke or offend but to explore ideas critically and understand diverse viewpoints.

Also, make use of debates and Socratic dialogue to allow for controlled exploration of controversial topics while ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate and be heard. Be open to discussing students’ concerns privately.

Most important of all, model critical engagement. Demonstrate how to engage with controversial topics in a critical, analytical and respectful manner.

Let me be clear: When I call for faculty to reaffirm the importance of fostering an environment where liberal education can take place, I am certainly not supporting what some red state legislators demand: Investigating, evaluating and dismissing faculty members based on their perceived willingness to expose students to conflicting points of view.

But I do think those of us who care need to reaffirm certain professional principles—open inquiry, critical thinking, respect for diverse viewpoints, the campus as a space where the most contentious ideas can be explored and debated.

A liberal education should encourage students to critically engage with a wide array of perspectives and disciplines. The aim is to foster an environment in which academic freedom and free speech are not just theoretical concepts but lived practices, where students develop the ability to analyze, synthesize and articulate their own thoughts more effectively.

Among the goals of a liberal education is to create an informed and engaged citizenry. The open exchange of ideas within classrooms, without fear of reprisal, is essential in this process. A core tenet of liberal education is the value placed on diversity—not just in terms of demographics but also in ideas and perspectives. Students must learn to navigate the fine line between advocating for their own viewpoints and respecting the rights of others to express dissenting opinions. Liberal education also seeks to prepare students to engage with uncomfortable or challenging ideas without resorting to censorship or silencing tactics.

The values underlying a liberal education are not antithetical to academic freedom or free speech but are foundational to their effective exercise. These values ensure that higher education remains a space where ideas can be freely explored and debated, ultimately contributing to the development of informed, critical and engaged citizens.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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