The end of liberal education — Part One, the Vassar experience

Have left-liberals killed liberal education? I’ve come to think so, and recent developments at Vassar and Bowdoin help confirm my fear.

The indispensable Stanley Kurtz is on top of both stories. At Vassar, the subject of this post, he reports on attempts to block a speech by Alex Epstein, a proponent and defender of America’s conventional energy industries. Epstein was invited to speak by Vassar’s Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA).

The presentation of Epstein’s point of view was particularly important at Vassar. For, as Kurtz demonstrates, the college has attempted, in the context of an aggressive fossil-fuel divestment campaign, to brainwash its students on issues of climate change, energy, and the environment. As one student told Kurtz, “I don’t feel that [conservative students at Vassar] are able to freely express their views at all.”

The reaction to Epstein’s appearance is consistent with that impression. Posters advertizing his lecture were promptly covered or ripped down. The head of MICA, whose room lock was broken, was ridiculed mercilessly and eventually came under pressure from leftist students to pay Epstein not to appear. One student threatened to inflict bodily injury on himself at Epstein’s lecture in order to disrupt it.

At the lecture, protesters (some believed to be from the Occupy Wall Street movement) appeared. Some of them wore Dick Cheney masks. Wearing masks, a cowardly act, is an Occupy tactic. Vassar students told Kurtz that the presence of masked protesters created considerable tension that detracted from the lecture experience.

About half an hour into the lecture, a protester interrupted Epstein to read a prepared statement. Then, on cue, approximately 30 people (about a third of the audience in the room) walked out. The good news is that some students criticized the protesters as they left.

How did Vassar respond? Its acting president issued a tepid statement to the effect that the students who left the lecture lost an opportunity to engage and question the speaker. Apparently, he has not addressed the tearing down of posters, the attempt to pay Epstein not to speak, the threat of a student to harm himself if the speech occurred, and the interruption of the speech itself.

As Kurtz concludes, Vassar appears to have passed a tipping point beyond which the classical ideals of liberal education no longer meaningfully operate where they are most needed. And Vassar is not an isolated case, as I will argue in my next post on the subject.


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