Culture War

Penn Law Prof. Amy Wax on Her Controversial 'Return to Cultural Norms' Editorial

"People believe that the elite academy is destroying our country, and what's good about it."


University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax argued in an editorial that many of the problems plaguing American society—opioid abuse, unemployment, inner-city violence—can be traced to "the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture."

Wax and her co-author suggested the "re-embrace" of cultural norms such as education, marriage before children, and respect for authority by Americans would "significantly reduce society's pathologies."

The firestorm that followed the editorial's publication culminated in 33 members of the Penn Law faculty publicly denouncing Wax in an open letter published in The Daily Pennsylvanian. The professors did not engage Wax's arguments on the merits, but instead spoke of their concern for an ideal educational experience in which people "respect one another without bias or stereotype."

The letter concluded with a thinly veiled invitation to students to report Wax or anyone else who doesn't toe the company line when it comes to matters of diversity: "To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it."

Wax told me she viewed the letter's closing line as "an invitation to squeal and complain." She said "the invitation feeds into and reinforces the current mode of shutting down controversial speech, which is to evoke hurt feelings or offense." Wax also said that in the wake of the open letter, Penn Law students have been discussing "establishing their own complaint committee to which students can tattle when a professor or fellow student says something they don't like"—an institution one student called the "Stasi Committee."

Sadly, this kind of committee is par for the course on campus nowadays—while Penn does not currently have a formal bias reporting system, a recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) found that hundreds of colleges and universities around the country maintain formal bias reporting systems, most of which actively solicit reports of offensive but protected speech from students and faculty.

In our conversation, Wax also lamented the effect this rat-out-your-neighbor atmosphere is having on campus, noting that "lately students have been complaining to me about peer pressure, name-calling and intimidation on the part of other students," and about "the oppressive atmosphere of political correctness." Although Penn has strong free-speech protections in place, "most students are fairly cynical about the readiness of the university to defend them from censure or sanction if they say 'the wrong thing,'" she told me.

There has been one silver lining for Wax: support has poured in from people around the country. She has received quiet whispers of support at Penn, but the real show of support "has come from ordinary citizens, from the forgotten man, and many have been quite thoughtful and intelligent. I have learned—although I already knew—the progressive professoriat really is despised by a good part of the citizenry. People believe that the elite academy is destroying our country, and what's good about it."