What happens when higher education lowers itself?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., May 12, 2014 – There are a few growing trends in our institutes of higher education, and the trends aren’t good. College campuses are beginning to treat the Constitution as if it were Chairman Mao’s Red Book (although the latter might fare better in today’s academic world), critical thinking has been replaced by conformance, and Civics has been abandoned in favor of political correctness. Is it any wonder our academic standing and global competitiveness have begun to suffer?

In January, two students from the University of Hawaii at Hilo were precluded from handing out copies of the Constitution on campus. They were representing the campus’ chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (“YAL”); a group that welcomes “limited government conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians” into its midst.

According to YAL’s website, the group’s creed supports the following beliefs:

  • “that government is the negation of liberty; 
  • “that voluntary action is the only ethical behavior; 
  • “that respect for the individual’s property is fundamental to a peaceful society;
  • “that violent action is only warranted in defense of one’s property; 
  • “that the individual owns his/her body and is therefore responsible for his/her actions;
  • “that society is a responsibility of the people, not the government.”

It sounds quite subversive; almost as much as the documents from which those thoughts were apparently drawn (i.e., the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States).

The University of Hawaii’s campus policy does not allow members of clubs and organizations to approach fellow students to solicit them. If this rule were drawn up in such a manner as to prevent intimidation, harassment, etc., it might have a logical basis (i.e., to maintain order and safety). Unfortunately, it seems to be far more generic than that.

The two students were also informed they could not speak anywhere on campus other than in the “free speech zone” unless they sought permission at least seven business days in advance and received it. There once was a time in this country when a “free speech zone” had a different name: the United States of America.

Were this an isolated incident, it might be easier to dismiss. However, there was an earlier episode in which a student was precluded from distributing copies of the Constitution on another campus. That one occurred on September 17, 2013, at Modesto Junior College. If the date doesn’t ring a bell, it should. It’s Constitution Day; the day that commemorates the adoption of that famous document.

Of all the institutes in America that should represent the ideals that are defined within the First Amendment, one might expect our colleges and universities to rank at or near the top. So, let’s examine that concept.

Freedom of Religion

It’s offered on most campuses through separation rather than inclusion. Groups are often available for students to join but few are interdenominational. Rather than discussing differences and identifying commonalities, religious organizations on campus tend to attract only like-minded individuals and reinforce beliefs that are already held by their members. Does that sound educational to you?

Freedom of Speech

Last September, a Creative Writing professor at Michigan State University was suspended for having threatened students who differed with his socio-political views. He was captured on video saying, “I am a college professor. If I find out you are a closet racist, I am coming after you.”

Of course, this was after having defined Republicans as “a bunch of dead white people or dying white people” who raped the United States to get “everything out of it they possibly could.” Perhaps, there’s a chance the professor didn’t mean this. Maybe he was only practicing his creative writing skills through verbal articulation. Then again, you better not voice an opinion that disagrees with his.

Freedom of the Press

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “Educators are entitled to exercise greater control over…student expression to assure that participants learn whatever lessons the activity is designed to teach, that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school… A school must be able to take into account the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics.”  (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).) While the case specifically addressed the issue of a high school newspaper, it has been interpreted to potentially apply to colleges as well.

In this regard, the University of Hawaii made the news again when it was sued last year in Oyama v. University of Hawaii for dismissing a student from a student-teaching program partially because of out-of-class remarks in which the student expressed unconventional views about a few sensitive subjects. With regard to the remarks, the University asserted its broad censorship authority under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier to use the politically incorrect comments to remove the student from the program.

Freedom Peaceably to Assemble

This one is easy. Students still can assemble freely on campus if they do so peaceably. They merely have to secure someone’s permission well in advance of assembling. If clear standards do not exist with respect to the approval process, they may assume that their message just has to align with the beliefs of whoever is making the decision.

Freedom to Petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances

Universities are “home free” on this one. After all, they aren’t the Government. Their role has simply become one of shaping young minds to conform to a particular school of thought (no pun intended).

Witness what happened this past Constitution Day to a well-respected friend of mine, Pat Benjamin. Pat was scheduled to speak at Columbia University, the Ivy League from which she received her Master’s degree. She had written a book about a historically significant political campaign in which she had participated (The Perot Legacy). It should be noted, Pat is also a former educator, a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a feminist, and a small business owner in the field of energy conservation. Clearly, she is someone who could significantly expand the thinking of college students who lack any comparable real-world experience.

Days before Pat was to deliver her pro bono speech, she was advised that it had been canceled. It seems Columbia had determined her speech to be “inconsistent” with the University’s position.

This is particularly interesting because Columbia, renowned for its School of Journalism, had never inquired about the content of Pat’s speech. Had it taken that first step of journalism (i.e., gathering facts), it would have realized that her intent was to encourage students to become civically engaged, to become informed about issues, and to participate actively with whichever Party they preferred. Apparently, this is “inconsistent” with the University’s goal for its students.

Many of our universities and colleges seem to have forgotten their basic mission, which is to educate their students by exposing them to a myriad of ideas rather than a minimum of them. While this may not coincide with our Nation’s preoccupation with assiduously adhering to the narrow bounds of political correctness, it might actually resurrect the lost art of critical thinking.

Instead, many of our institutes of higher education have evolved into a self-perpetuating system of higher costs and lower expectations. They fight to attract “higher quality” students rather than to focus on creating them. They build state-of-the-art classrooms, incredible athletic facilities, and spa-like student amenities to entice the “better” students to choose their program over the programs of others. As a result, student expectations have soared with regard to their physical surroundings almost on a trajectory that rivals the rising cost of a college education.

If college students were more deeply ingrained with the ability to apply critical thinking to their situation, they might recognize that the investment in assets that enhance their experience does not necessarily contribute in a meaningful way to the knowledge they are there to acquire. However, critical thinking represents one of the greater gaps that exists in our current educational approach.

In grades K through 12, we have defaulted to True/False and multiple choice questions because they are easier to administer and grade. By the time students are exposed to a college curriculum, they often have been cheated of the opportunity to evolve critical thinking skills (i.e., the ability to objectively analyze and evaluate an issue in order to form a judgment). Otherwise, the next time they’re scaling that rock-climbing wall in the University’s student recreational facility, they might realize why their tuition is rising disproportionately in comparison to the quality of the education they are receiving.

Interestingly enough, one course that has been proven to advance critical thinking is Civics. The instruction of Civics “kills two birds with the same stone” as the saying goes.

It challenges students to think in a non-linear sense because there are no perfectly correct answers to many of our socioeconomic and political problems. A discussion of these issues requires an objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment, or in other words, critical thinking.

Civics also provides a fundamental understanding of the basis upon which our Nation was built, what rights we have, why we have them, and what our responsibilities are to preserve and protect them. If our students had a firm understanding of Civics, they would know when their First Amendment rights were being trampled and what to do about it.

Unfortunately, the instruction of Civics has given way to more politically correct courses in recent years. However, there is hope.

Another friend of mine, Richard Dreyfuss, appeared on Huckabee on May 10, 2014 (a show on Fox hosted by Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas and 2008 Republican Presidential candidate). Richard has been working tirelessly for over a decade to revive, elevate, and enhance the teaching of Civics in grades K-12 of our public schools (find out more at http://thedreyfussinitiative.org).

Richard said, “…we don’t know enough about our Constitution or our history to know why we should be proud of it.” He eloquently described how “George Washington said the Constitution should be central; the Parties should be peripheral,” and then noted how we have unfortunately pivoted to a position in which, “…the Parties are central, and the Constitution is peripheral.”

Unless we return Civics to our schools’ curricula, unless we restore critical thinking to the skill sets of our future generations, and unless we foster a diversity of thought on our college campuses as opposed to a dearth of it, we will continue on the downward slide that emasculates our rights rather than defends them. We will be left wondering what happened to this once great Nation; why it struggles to compete; why the middle class is eroding; why Government dependency is increasing; and why the American Dream and the freedoms we once enjoyed seem to be vanishing memories. It doesn’t have to be this way, but please understand, the decision rests with you.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).