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As printed in The Boston Globe, Sunday, November 4, 2001
These are not times that should try our minds. But, sadly, in some of our nation's most esteemed redoubts, they are. Once upon a time, our college campuses and universities were serious places, founded to inform the intellect and nurture the soul. In the wake of the mass slaughter America suffered on Sept. 11, most Americans understood the enormity of the attack and supported a strong national response. But in our colleges and universities, our national convictions are less clear.
As deconstruction and political correctness were taking root in the academy throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Americans took little note. Humanities and political science departments were swinging dramatically leftward, imprecating American history and our founding. To speak of self-evident truths as anything but a cultural construct was a practical guarantee that one would not be hired to teach at a college or university. Were a doctoral candidate to write his dissertation on the seriousness of some aspect of our nation's founding, assuming he could assemble a dissertation committee that would accept the topic, he would find it close to impossible to find a starting job in academia. Many blithely dismissed this situation. Now we are reaping the effects of this foolishness.
Eric Foner of Columbia University recently wrote, ''I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House.''
I haven't heard any apocalyptic rhetoric, but if Foner is unsure of which is worse, I suggest he leave his Ivory Tower for a moment and take a walk to where the Twin Towers used to stand. Or ask the widow or orphan of a firefighter.
According to the current issue of Commentary, a young woman who graduated from Williams College last year died in the attack of Sept. 11. A sophomore organized a public recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in her honor. President Morton Schapiro urged the entire campus to attend.
Two hundred students did. Numerous members of the maintenance crew and several cafeteria workers attended. The only faculty members in attendance were the chairman of the art department and the college president.
Meanwhile, a student participating in a war protest wanted ribbons for their vigil. When it was suggested that the protesters get red, white, and blue ribbons, the student stated that would be too nationalistic. There is something terribly wrong in our country when a student at one of the most elite colleges is offended and can speak on behalf of others who are offended by the flag of the United States in the wake of the slaughter of 5,000 innocents. Students are not immune to their professors' teachings and actions.
The bin Laden family has endowed fellowships at Harvard valued at several million dollars. And yet ROTC is not welcome at Harvard. Harvard has been willing to make distinctions and defend the bin Laden family's money, citing their disowning of the terrorist mastermind. Harvard has not, however, seen fit to make any distinctions to defend ROTC.
When ROTC is not welcome at Harvard, but bin Laden family money is, we are witnessing moral confusion. When the country is at war, it should not be too much to ask Harvard to do its small part and welcome ROTC back to its campus. In federal law, a provision known as the Solomon Amendment allows the Department of Defense to withdraw funds from universities that prevent ROTC access or military recruiting on campus. The Department of Defense may wish to look into this in the case of Harvard. The US military should not be an anathema to Harvard, especially when the bin Ladens are not.
These situations force us to reconsider Thomas Jefferson's point that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. Just whose principles are the Columbia, Williams College, and Harvard faculties promoting? Have they criticized Osama bin Laden as much as they have President George W. Bush? Do they understand the difference between the two men? Nevermind the difference between words and actions, the principles behind the two sides do not even belong in the same moral encyclopedia.
There is a lot that is healthy in our country right now and some things that are not. Our First Amendment is in healthy, robust shape, but the condition of moral clarity at our universities is murky, at best. We should not be neutral about our country, about the difference between civilization and terrorism. And we should no longer expect so little from our colleges and universities.
William J. Bennett, a former US secretary of education, is a codirector at Empower America.