Trigger Warnings in Annapolis

Review: Joanna Williams, ‘Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity’

Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy / National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy / National Museum of the U.S. Navy


The immediate subject of Joanna Williams’s depressing but compellingly written chronicle of the threats to Anglo-American academia over the last several decades is the concerted attack, first by the professors themselves and now by students, against the academic freedom of the title. Academic freedom is the ability of the professorate to express, explore, and teach even those ideas that don’t happen to be cut to this decade’s fashions.

Thus academic freedom and its enemies may seem initially to be a narrow issue, of interest to few outside the now dwindling number of tenured professors who thought they were free to follow truth, and who discover instead that they can be shouted down by colleagues or students who feel that what the professor is saying “supports oppression.” Even worse, in Williams’s view, are those who self-censor to get their writing published and gain advancement while avoiding disapproval.

However, the issues Williams addresses are of far wider importance than the professional interests of academics. First of all, most of the people reading a review like this will have been students at such institutions, and now may well have children going to them or hoping to do so. Indeed many readers may themselves be associated with such institutions—so central to our national economic health that President Obama suggests that virtually all young people should, for their own benefit and that of the country, go to college. Universities matter to the nation.

Williams suggests that these vital institutions have rejected reasoned discourse and become free-for-alls where individuals don’t take turns at the microphone but instead grab it, or shout down those they disagree with. In Williams’s hair-raising account, those who shout the loudest and are the most destructive are most likely to get what they want.

The more powerless you claim you are, in short, the more powerful you are on today’s campuses. Any group that sees itself as marginalized can literally shout down professors whose views they disagree with and demand that speakers whose views they disapprove of be banned. Faculty and administrators, wringing their hands in agony at having been so awful as to produce this reaction, typically fold. Have we gotten it right this time? Is this what you wanted? Please reassure us! Do you now feel safe?

It’s really all about power, although it’s sold as liberation. This might seem ironic, but it isn’t. When the guerillas come down from the hills, what they preach is death to dictators, but all they really want is to take over the presidential palace for themselves.

But in the present case, radicals can only take the power they demand if the rest of us give in to their tantrums. Of course we must refuse to give in if there is to be anything left of the university as we know it. The system of universities, like the system of democracy, is based on everyone agreeing to ground rules. In the case of democracy, this is our agreement to use the ballot box rather than coups d’état. In the case of universities it is to use rational argument rather than throwing bombs or offering intellectual rationalization for emotional outrage, as Williams shows feminist professors have taught students to do.

The landscape is pretty grim, with every week’s newspapers bringing another story of offended sensibilities, demands for “trigger warnings,” and personal offense used as a reason for banning books, professors, and points of view. Mouthy professors are always going to get on the nerves of some political party, whether right or left—as Williams admits—and there are a few points of light. The University of Chicago’s recent Statement on the Principles of Free Expression, now adopted by other universities, notes succinctly that “freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal.” Let’s hope that a counter-revolution, which is to say a re-affirmation of the radical nature of the modern university, can be successful.

But the problem right now is acute. From my perspective as a tenured English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, now in my 29th year of teaching, I find Williams’ pessimism to be plausible. For the service academies are the perfect storm of a right-wing, traditional structure of power ruling in conjunction with, rather than opposing, an extreme left-wing agenda. Academic freedom presupposes rationality rather than the exercise of power, and most people like power. Worse, extremes of absolute power meet and join—which is why rationality has to be an alternative to both. Navy is the only one of the service academies (the others are West Point, Air Force, and Coast Guard) where civilian professors have long been part of the faculty, and where we can get tenure. The situation is even worse at the others, where they don’t even offer the pretense of academic freedom.

At Annapolis, certainly neither students nor faculty enjoy the freedom to pursue truth. Students (and as I have learned, faculty) at Annapolis have to parrot what the brass hand down from on high. What they hand down changes from year to year, decade to decade. In the old days, the party line was anti-gay and misogynistic. Now the winds have shifted and (voila!) we are per diktat just as enthusiastically for the inclusion of out gays and soon, clearly, transgendered individuals, as we were against it before. What civilian schools call “hate speech” (jokes about women, say) is punished at Annapolis with the full force of the military “justice” system. Being able to pursue a radical left-wing agenda with radical right-wing power is a dream of progressive politicians, and at Annapolis it has become a reality. The left wing says it wants to liberate you, but actually it wants to tell you what to do just the way the right wing does.

Hence the need for academic freedom. Once we were racist—our newest gym is named for the first African-American graduate, ruthlessly hazed in his time. Now Annapolis runs a race-based admissions program that offers taxpayer-supported slots to sub-par applicants because they have checked a box assuring the Admissions Board, on which I served, that they self-identify as any one of a number of non-white racial categories. And in recent years, we’re relentlessly pursuing, at the behest of politicians convinced we are part of the war on women, any hint of what is painted broadly as “sexual assault,” a category that according to the military justice system includes both rape and an unwanted touch.

The use of Title IX, which has become a tool of the Obama administration to police the men on civilian campuses, takes an even more sinister form at Annapolis: relentless mandatory “training sessions,” the military-mandated use of the term “victim” to describe someone who believes he or she has been assaulted rather than “alleged victim” or “complainant,” and a system in which complaints, however ill justified, are seen as good in themselves, whatever the outcome.

Midshipmen can’t protest against any of this: they’re in the military and have to follow this year’s orders. Nor can civilian professors, apparently: when I spoke out in class against the legal horror of the system’s presupposition of guilt, two women complained to the brass, and I was removed from the classroom as a “danger” to my students, then slapped with two investigations into the same incident—because the first one exonerated me. The military didn’t mess around with the second, a “Command Investigation” led by a Marine colonel that resulted in a “Letter of Reprimand” and the refusal of a pay increase. I’m currently suing the Department of the Navy for infringement of my First Amendment rights: remember that all members of the military swear to uphold the Constitution.

This is what a world looks like where the free marketplace of ideas is attacked or abandoned. But military officers need to be able to think for themselves and come to conclusions their higher-ups might not want to hear. So does everybody else. That’s why the picture Williams paints so convincingly is so distressing.

Bruce Fleming

Bruce Fleming   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987; his books and articles are noted on his Web site

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