When Will They Ever Learn? The New Student Rebellion

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By Walter Donway

November 21, 2015



When trespassers invade private property and refuse to leave until their “demands” are met, you call the police to have them evicted by all necessary means and arrested.

That, of course, is what that Ivy League citadel of reasoned discourse, Princeton University should do, and do immediately, with the students who this week invaded the president’s office and settled in until their demands are met.

The trespassers who are enacting this drama are harking back, of course, to the tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s New Left “student movement.”

But that is not what Princeton has done. Its president and dean are “conducting discussions” with the students now camped on the floor, at the desk, on the sofa—their laptops and refuse littering the office. And so, Princeton has accepted the premise that only courtesy and discussion shall be employed—even in the face of naked force.

The students, from militant campus groups such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Justice League,” are demanding that the president order Princeton to efface from campus all mention of Woodrow Wilson, one of its most famous presidents—as well as President of the United States during WWI—because of his “racist legacy.” They are demanding that the heads of residential colleges no longer be called “masters, “a term—although used in the college and university context centuries before slavery—with hurtful implications for seventh-generation descendants of slaves—and the University has conceded that “easy” one. The trespassers demand that all faculty and staff receive “cultural competency training” in racial sensitivity. The president in his “heated discussion” with them has pleaded that this should be offered, but be voluntary. After all, Ivy League professors and staff are about as multiculturally sensitive as they can be, enforcing racial quotas for admission, special academic treatment of minority students, and censorship of lectures and discussions for upsetting topics.

The trespassers, mostly African-American, who are enacting this drama are harking back, of course, to the tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s New Left “student movement.” A tactic now famous was the “sit-in,” where students took over university buildings “peacefully” and, when police were finally called to evict them, cried “violence.” But the man who barges into my living room, or place of business, and refuses to leave is exerting as much force as I do in evicting him. The difference is that he is the classic provocateur, goading someone step by step into a forceful response, then crying, “He hit me”

The university presidents of today were the students of the later 1960’s and 1970’s, for whom the period all too often has an aura of heroic self-assertion. But it was not heroic. It was a blatant assault on the university’s defining characteristic: rational discussion and debate. The “protestors” were testing whether or not they could introduce force into the political equation—exactly as the Nazis early on introduced it into political discussion in Germany.

It is the introduction of force into the political discussion that we must fear most. When groups turn to force to back their political demands, we are in the dark years of the Weimar Republic when Nazis and Communists fought it out in the streets—a situation in which only the most ruthless, in this case the Nazis, could triumph politically. And they did.

The kind of demonstration at Princeton is occurring at other universities, but this is its first big, well-publicized show. By letting the students stay in the office—presumably the president is using someone else’s office—and conducting “ongoing” discussions with the students—Princeton is setting up other universities for a wave of nationwide militant protests by African-Americans and their supporters. The philosopher Ayn Rand, better than any other contemporary observer of the time, dissected the meaning of the 1960’s-70’s New Left protests and explained their exact implications. Someone should rush a copy of “The Cashing-In: The Student Rebellion” to the president of Princeton.

The student putsches ended on the campus of Ohio State University, when the National Guard opened fire on a group of student protestors. Ayn Rand had predicted this sort of event and had said that the student violence would end when it was met by genuine force. One of the most famous press photos of our time is of a young woman kneeling beside a falling fellow student, her whole face a cry of horror—at the real significance of force.

So why has the Princeton administration not called the police—not even expelled the students? The grim answer given is that since the protestors who seized the president’s office are making political demands, and are “peaceful,” force is not the proper response. But it is the introduction of force into the political discussion that we must fear most. When groups turn to force to back their political demands, we are in the dark years of the Weimar Republic when Nazis and Communists fought it out in the streets—a situation in which only the most ruthless, in this case the Nazis, could triumph politically. And they did.

Oh, but wait, this is just a few dozen students sitting in an office. But to quote the Washington Post, November 18:

“…[I]t’s a movement that has also generated opposition — as at Dartmouth, where some students reported being frightened by protesters screaming and swearing at them about being racists last week, at Yale where a debate about free speech clashed with demands from students angry about the racial climate on campus, at Claremont McKenna College where some students said protests turned hostile, and in a few places such as the University of Missouri and Howard, with racist death threats.

Violence is a contagion, a virus, for a very good reason. There is no way to respond to force but by using force. If you are committed to using only reason and discussion, and I am willing to resort to force when I disagree with you, then you “lose” every important “argument”—until you respond to me with force.

What makes the students think they can get away it—as they most certainly are doing, so far? Of course, it is what they have been taught by their so-called “post-modernist” professors who teach that ideas are only a means by which one group politically controls another group. I recommend to you Explaining Postmodernism by Prof. Stephen R.C. Hicks. Faculty today teach that the racial or ethnic group with which you are identified pits you against all other groups, who are striving for political power. Well, why limit the power struggle to books and debates and other discussion? Mao Zedong said “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”—and seized power over the most populous nation on earth.

The Washington Post reported a Princeton University spokesman as saying:

“President Christopher L. Eisgruber and Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, spent about an hour speaking with a group of students in the president’s office. We expect the conversation to continue beyond today’s meeting.”

As one of the first university heads to face this new wave of force-prone student protestors, President Eisgruber may get away with compromise. The students may be uncertain, for now, how far they can go, and glad to gain limited concessions. The Washington Post story was extraordinarily respectful, quoting the leaders of the student trespassers as length. President Eisgruber may save his job by steering a course between the students and his trustees and alumni. He may not have to take Woodrow Wilson’s name off the most famous buildings and programs at Princeton and get rid of paintings of Wilson.

Like all men who temporize with the early initiation of force, who smooth things out by making tolerable concessions to force, he is setting up others, including all institutions disarmed by so-called Postmodernism, for non-negotiable demands backed by force.

I wonder if Woodrow Wilson, a distinguished historian, could have told President Eisgruber how it always ends: in complete capitulation to force by intellectuals desperate to save their own skins—as when the prominent philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in May 1933—soon after being elected rector of Freiberg—led the faculty in joining the Nazi Party?

As Pragmatists, the administrators of Princeton would dismiss such a comparison as irresponsible extrapolation of principles. They would claim that there are no absolute, fixed principles that shape and determine the course of human affairs. It is the actions of men like themselves that create the reality of the future. That is to say little more than good intentions are all we need.

As President Eisgruber and his deans continue negotiations with the students sprawled around his office and commanding his desk, he will ask himself: What can I do to reach a compromise that I can live with? But whether acknowledged by his mind or not, a principle will be determining the eventual outcome of his actions. That principle has no tolerance nor pity for those who evade it. It was stated by Ayn Rand in the famous article referenced above. She wrote:

“The difference between an exchange of ideas and an exchange of blows is self-evident. The line of demarcation between freedom of speech and freedom of action is established by the ban on the initiation of physical force.”

When “freedom of action” becomes the initiation of force, so that a university president “discusses” demands with students who take over his office, where does that leave “freedom of speech”? What happens to our “exchange of ideas” when I decide to punch you in the face?



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  • Michael Hardy

    Student putsches didn’t end with Kent State in 1970; there was one at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1972.

    A complication is that students who flunked out of universities were subject to conscription into the army and being sent to Viet Nam.