Alum Speculates on Kenyon Civility During CSAD, Is Wrong

Hey, that’s what we’re doing! “Social Justice Kittens” by

Yesterday, American Thinker, a conservative online daily publication run by Thomas Lifson and Richard Baehr, both ’69, published an article titled, “When the Social Justice Warrior Dogs Didn’t Bark.” Following the lead of other publications, Lifson, who authored the article, sought to praise Kenyon for its civility to James Comey P’16 who spoke during the CSAD conference on April 7th. The central argument of the article is that Kenyon has “a strong culture of engagement in serious discussion of ideas.” We agree, but we take issue with Lifson’s subsequent argument that Kenyon has this culture because it has not succumbed to the ‘trendy’ “leftist domination”of academia. According to Lifson, “this malign current must be resisted. Kenyon, although not explicitly conservative like Hillsdale College, has stuck to this goal resolutely.”

We have a few things to say about the article, namely that, um hey, do you even go here? Click through to come on this journey with us as we let our social justice warrior dogs give the article a good shred, paragraph by paragraph.

Let’s take it from the tippy top of the page and start with the title. “When the Social Justice Warrior Dogs Didn’t Bark.” Well, first things first, Tom. Kenyon students are really more like cat people. This you should know. You have been keeping in touch like you said you were right? Have you ever read The Thrill?

The leftist domination of America’s elite campuses is so extensive that it has become notable when a speaker deemed controversial is not shouted down. If, wonder of wonders, a speech is delivered and an intelligent and probing discussion takes place with an exchange of views that is not merely civil but enlightening, it deserves note.

Hey Tom, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in being a Marxist radical feminist, it’s that old white men always like to tell me that I shout.

Quoting Lawfare:

Wittes wonders what it is that Kenyon College “is doing right that so many institutions of higher education are failing at so miserably these days?” It’s a good question, and deserves some thought. Here are some of my ideas, based on having attended Kenyon half a century ago and kept in touch with life on campus ever since. A strong culture of engagement in serious discussion of ideas is essential. This is the classical goal of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, it is no longer trendy in academe, and this malign current must be resisted. Kenyon, although not explicitly conservative like Hillsdale College, has stuck to this goal resolutely.

Hi Tom, me again.

I googled Hillsdale College because I’d never heard of it. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say: “Most of the curriculum is based on and centered on the teaching of the Western heritage as a product of both the Greco-Roman culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Hillsdale requires every student, regardless of major, to complete a core curriculum that includes courses on the Great Books and the U.S. Constitution.”

Here’s another quote from the same article about Hillsdale’s president, Larry P. Arnn: “In 2013 Arnn was criticized for his remarks about ethnic minorities when he testified before the Michigan State Legislature against the Common Core curriculum standards. Expressing concern about government interference with educational institutions, he recalled that shortly after he assumed the presidency at Hillsdale he received a letter from the state Department of Education that said his college ‘violated the standards for diversity,’ adding, ‘because we didn’t have enough dark ones, I guess, is what they meant.'”

Hey Tom, here’s the thing: no part of the above information is what contemporary Kenyon students would consider to be “a serious discussion of ideas.” We’d say that it’s fucked up, because racism and western-centrism don’t have roles in our “classical liberal arts education.” Am I shouting again?

With regard to Kenyon:

When I was a student, we called it the “magic mountain,” after Thomas Mann’s great book of that title. It is always clear to students that they are at a distance from the broader society and culture, that they are on a four-year excursion into great ideas, an experience that is a rare privilege.

Tom, you’re really having a hard time here. Magic mountain? Are you sure you’re familiar with the topography of Ohio? Sounds trippy-er than I remember.

The faculty and administration have kept the faith in civil discussion in part because of mostly fortunate decisions in faculty and administrative hiring, in part because activist alumni have not hesitated to make their views known on preserving this culture, and because that is the nature of the setting. Faculty live within walking distance of the college, in the town of Gambier, which has nothing other than Kenyon sustaining it.  A lack of civility has immediate and lasting consequences.

Phew Tom, good thing you’ve never been privy to an allemp thread.

Kenyon is not in New England, not in the Bay Area, not on the way to anywhere glamorous — it is not a campus that generally attracts those interested in basking in status and prestige. Faculty and students are attracted to it because of the intellectual intensity of the place. There is a pride that develops about being not trendy, not attund to the latest curents, but rather centered around a community where everyone knows everyone else (no anonymity or isolation is possible) and where superficialities fall aside as people live and study and think together.

These qualities were apparent to me when I visited the campus as a high school student in 1964, and I fell in love with it.  And they continue to be apparent to me when I return for visits.

I conclude from all of this that these qualities were once dominant in higher education, but have been lost most places simply because of  conformism in the wake of the leftist takeover of academia. Resisting these trends is difficult but not impossible. Kenyon shows that it can be done.

Ok, last thing, Tom. I fixed your typo in the first sentence. I’ll let you find it with your nonconformist, trend-resisting eyes. We’re glad that you had a nice time at Kenyon. We like Kenyon too. But not your Kenyon. You’ve been stumbling around in the dark with your hands out, and you’ve grabbed Hillsdale College. We’re turning the lights back on. Our Kenyon is not conservative. We have many “social justice warrior dogs.” We’re very liberal. But more to the point, we’re apathetic. That’s why we didn’t yell.

6 responses

  1. PREACH! Thank you. I really didn’t like the feel of the Lawfare blog piece, because I thought that it missed an important point — most schools aren’t “silencing” people like Comey, whose opinions they simply disagree with. They are protesting and interrupting people whose opinions are racist, xenophobic, sexist, classist, etc. I don’t know where I saw this quote, but simply, Kenyon, and all those “leftist” people are protesting people whose “opinion disrespects the existence of others.” And the FBI and the iphone controversy doesn’t do that, which is why we were reported as having a calm and civil discussion about it.

    I think that the lawfare article opened up the stage for an article like Lifson’s — Lifson was just a lot more openly horrible about his ideas.

    Thank you so much for writing this, Anneliese!

    • The problem is that it’s hard to establish a universally accepted criteria of what’s elitist, racist, exist, xenophobic, etc. Some people are highly sensitive to these problems, some are quick to paint opposing arguments with a derogatory “ism”, and others think that these labels are too widely applied. For example. students at Scripps College protested the presence of Madeleine Albright, despite her being traditionally viewed as a strong woman role model. The amount of emotions and personal investment with these issues can make having an open conversation difficult, as they often result in hurt feelings or students censoring themselves to avoid criticism or conflict. I don’t think taking opposing arguments personally or silencing yourself out of fear have a place in a healthy learning atmosphere.

      To keep Kenyon a place where ideas can freely flow, I think it’s best to withhold from protesting and interrupting speakers except as a last resort for truly reprehensible people. Judge them and disagree with them all you like, but disrupting or silencing them crosses a line into dangerous territory. The best way to deal with someone you disagree with is to ask penetrating and direct questions in order to have a productive dialogue. Not writing condescending articles like this one that, in my opinion, dismisses an alumnus with very little of the respect or good faith that should be offered to another resident (past, present, or future) of Gambier.

      Just a note, many alumni from the 60s-90s refer to Kenyon as Magic Mountain as an allusion to Mann’s novel. Maybe the author would gain some perspective from talking to alums or engaging with a major work of Western literature…

    • Hi I just want to point out one thing very quickly. Members of the “Left” at Kenyon who Madi describes brought in a speaker last year whose “opinion disrespects the existence” of Israelis (Dr. Steven Salaita). That’s not as real of a standard as Madi makes it out to be.

  2. Mr. Lifson, on the off chance that you read this blog, I wish to apologize for Annaliese’s depiction of Kenyon. While she may be “a Marxist radical feminist,” I can assure you that, while she is not alone in these beliefs, they are by no means held by the majority of the Kenyon student body.

    If you attended the speech, I’m sure you would know that Kenyon students aren’t apathetic. I’m sure you would have noticed that, rather than skipping the conference or shouting it down, students crowded Rosse Hall and the Gund Gallery, even sitting in the aisles after it became apparent that all the seats were filled. They asked constructive and challenging questions, and engaged in the important kind of dialogue that Director Comey advocated.

    Additionally, while Annaliese may not have studied the Western Canon while at Kenyon, she is again, not representative of most Kenyon students. Those of PSCI 101 (aka Quest for Justice), one of the most popular courses each year, would likely take issue with her assertion that courses on the Great Books and the U.S. Constitution are “fucked up” and “don’t have a role in our classical liberal arts education.” Many Kenyon students and faculty hold not only Aristotle, Locke, and the Founding Father’s in high esteem, but also Simone de Beauvoir and Marx as well.

    Many Kenyon students viewed Mr. Wittes’ piece, and to a lesser extent yours, with pride. Annaliese, and you, are correct in saying that Kenyon is not as conservative as Hillsdale. Rather, Kenyon students, as individuals, represent a wide variety of viewpoints. Some like Annaliese, are “very liberal.” Others, like myself, see ourselves as more moderate. And yes, a few are probably conservative. But as an institution, Kenyon remains an assortment of individuals who come together for four years to debate, discuss, and ultimately learn from both our texts and each other. If that makes us conservative, then I (and I expect others) will not shy away from that label.

  3. I’m not sure what argument you’re trying to make here. Are you offended that Kenyon was praised by a conservative? Are we really so polarized that a compliment from a conservative is something a liberal should be ashamed of? Or are you disappointed that Kenyon was too “apathetic” to shout down a speaker? If that’s the case, I’m disappointed that you don’t seem to think that civility and respect, even of differing opinions, is something to aspire to.

    (I consider myself a liberal, by the way, and we probably agree on a ton of things. But I firmly believe that respectful discourse is the best way to change opinions. Not snark, not sarcasm, not censorship.)

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