The Kids Are Post-Liberal
Most institutions of American higher education today are dominated by progressive liberalism. But as elite institutions across the nation spearhead the radicalization of society, a reaction by the students themselves has gone relatively unnoticed.
Media headlines regarding university life, on both sides of the political spectrum, focus on the expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. The University of Michigan’s DEI department, for example, has 163 staff members. Popular media also pay attention to colleges along both coasts moving away from single-sex dorm buildings and even introducing mixed-sex dorm rooms. Those looking at the modern university from the outside may only hear about scholars who call for the elimination of parental rights, support infanticide, and promote progressive ideology.
Many institutions of higher education do indeed seek to supplant traditional values with their own system of morality and view of human nature. Many students are swept up in this progressive endeavor. But others have come to recognize that the neutral playing-field of “academic freedom” is inherently tilted in one direction. Students responding to the normative, leftist ideology on university campuses have two options which serve as a microcosm of broader debates on the American right.
The first response calls for a return to a perceived golden age of academic freedom. It accepts classical-liberal ideals, and believes that free and equal persons will naturally discover the truth through rational discussion. Thus, in the face of the left’s unequivocal dogmatism, these dissenters propose to fight to have their voices heard, invoking their First Amendment rights as they articulate the traditional, conservative ideals that they believe are necessary for the functioning of a moral society. Students’ faith in this response is dwindling.
The second response, on the other hand, perceiving the trajectory of the modern university, believes that the classical-liberal framework has failed. This “post-liberal” view is perhaps in the minority in the nation’s political landscape, but has become essential to youth who choose to attend elite schools.
University administrators and professors make normative claims to their students regarding identity politics, inclusion, and, most recently, the moral imperative to follow any Covid-19 policy. Advocates for academic freedom turn their efforts away from confronting these issues directly and instead ask that their point of view on these matters be heard, too. Perhaps this approach has some pragmatic merit, but as a positive theory for structuring a society or university, it has been all but debunked by the last 200 years of history.
Reforming society requires more than reintroducing a Millian “marketplace of ideas” in which the truth will rise to the surface. Ideas that conflate base human desires with personal identity are too pleasant for the masses to reject. The answer to our contemporary problems instead lies in conceiving a positive vision for the social order built on substantive moral claims that can inform action. If certain things are inherently bad—like abortion, pornography, and sodomy—then a successful political order will declare them so in law. And if certain things are inherently good—such as practicing religion, supporting a family, and building organic human community—then these things should be supported by the law.
University students watch as their left-leaning peers are slowly radicalized through four years of institutionally sponsored propaganda. Students are taught to say their pronouns, not assume gender, and follow all rules blindly. And many do so unquestioningly. At the institution that I attend, the University of Notre Dame, the indoor masking mandate ended on Friday, February 4 at 5 p.m. Until that hour, a large majority of students complied with the mandate. But as soon as it passed, hardly a mask could be found on campus. This immediate shift could not reflect a scientific realization that the risk caused by Covid-19 dramatically changed at 5 p.m. on February 4. Rather, it revealed that students were following the rule simply because it was imposed by an authority figure.
This example, along with countless others around the country, reinforce that the answer to confronting progressivism is not to request dialogue or permission to speak. While fruitlessly doing so, the masses will be swept away, and questions that are open one day—such as the debate over gay marriage less than a decade ago—are closed the next. Anyone who seeks to re-address such topics will be exiled from the community of elites that nearly every student at a prestigious university hopes to join.
The post-liberal movement is rapidly gaining popularity among university students who are witnessing the ugliest aspect of today’s liberal order. Many who are intellectually ready to embrace this movement do not yet know what it is. But the further universities and society “progress,” the more necessary moving past liberalism will be for those who refuse to comply.
W. Joseph DeReuil is an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame and the executive editor for the Irish Rover.