Longtime author, first-time novelist, UCLA grad, and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has harsh words for college students trying to slap trigger warnings and micro-aggression labels on everything they enounter. Writing in Time, Abdul-Jabbar says:
These students' public attacks on required reading aren't merely a hold-their-breath tantrum while they refuse to eat their vegetables, they are a reflection of a larger hostility in American society against education—and against educated experts.
That may seem like an odd statement about a country that in 2015 has a federal budget of nearly $70 billion for education. Clearly we are serious when it comes to educating our young, but how we do so and what we teach them are problems.
For Abdul-Jabbar, the reason why political correctness on campus is so poisonous is that it goes to the heart of liberals arts and the critical thinking he rightly presumes to be central to a flourishing open society.
The attack on education…[is]…on teaching them [students] to think logically in order to form opinions based on facts rather than on familial and social influences. This part of one's education is about finding out who you are. It's about becoming a happier person. It's about being a responsible citizen. If you end up with all the same opinions you had before, then at least you can be confident that they are good ones because you've fairly examined all the options, not because you were too lazy or scared to question them. But you—all of us—need the process. Otherwise, you're basically a zombie who wants to eat brains because you don't want anyone else to think either.
That's all a wind-up to a pretty interesting pitch at the end of the essay. Political correctness and a feelings-first sensibility on campus is typically (and understandably) characterized as left-wing. Most of the fanatics who are pushing the most extreme versions of policing language at colleges and universities are indeed progressives. But Abdul-Jabbar contends that much of the attack on critical thinking in and of itself comes not simply from the left but from the conservative right, which rarely misses an opportunity to mock and denigrate liberals arts and humanities professors who research and teach what conservatives consider trivial subject areas and topics. Abdul-Jabbar cites recent examples of conservative students at University of North Carolina rejecting readings in a class on "the literature of 9/11" because it supposedly sympathized with terrorists and Christian students at Duke objecting to a non-required summer reading selection because it explored homsexuality. Such populist anti-intellectualism is nothing less than
a war on reason. And the generals leading the attack are mostly conservative politicians and pundits who have characterized our greatest thinkers as "elitists" who look down on everyone else. Uber-conservative William F. Buckley once said that he'd rather entrust the government to the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than to the faculty of Harvard University (he graduated from Yale).
That's a great sound bite that many would applaud as the triumph of street-level common sense over the egghead experts who are often viewed as impractical and removed, as if they didn't share experiences in love and grief and raising children and paying mortgages. Were he alive today, would Buckley say that after reading a 2014 poll by Alex Theodoridis of the University of California, Merced, in which 54% of Republicans polled think President Obama is a Muslim "deep down" (10% of Democrats and 25% of Independents agreed)? Yet Obama has always been publicly affiliated with Christianity and there is not one fact to suggest he's Muslim. Or what about the recent Iowa poll in which 57% of Republicans said they would trust the top candidate to "figure it out" once in office….
When I think of some of the beliefs I had when I was 19 and how different they are now that I have had more experience and education (both formal and self-induced), I'm astounded by how rigid I was. The joy of college is arguing with others who are equally passionate and informed but disagree. It develops empathy for others and humility in yourself because you now will look upon your opponents not as evil idiots but as good people who want the same thing as you: a safe, loving, moral community.