On March 29, Alex Epstein’s talk, “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” at Vassar College was interrupted by a student reading a prepared statement which denounced the consumption of fossil fuels as entailing, among other things, “intimidation.” The incident followed a week during which posters for the talk were ripped down, the home of the talk’s organizer was vandalized, and a threat was made by one student to disrupt the talk by physically harming himself.
Since then, an article by Stanley Kurtz has highlighted what happened at Vassar as symptomatic of a larger deterioration of the values of liberal education in American universities, in the favor of political indoctrination and intellectual conformity. A follow-up piece points to the weak-kneed response by Vassar’s administration, whose flimsy comments imply that far from raising concern about the free flow of ideas, such attempts to silence exponents of unpopular views on campus are now to be expected and tolerated.
Kurtz claims that the climate of intellectual conformity and intimidation at Vassar precedes this particular event, and I can certainly confirm that this problem is not unique to Vassar. I recall very clearly the message conveyed when an English professor at my own alma mater stood up during a lecture by a visiting pro-capitalist philosopher and attempted hysterically to shout him down. The message was that some moral-political truths are beyond the scope of thought, and that those who wish to challenge them should be forcibly prevented from gaining an audience.
This attitude is implied by the last sentence of the Vassar student’s rant: “Those of you who prefer a friendly and intelligent discussion about divestment, fossil fuels and sustainability, stand up now and follow me . . .” In other words, thought and discussion of these issues is only “friendly” and “intelligent” if it is in basic agreement with the ideas held by the majority today.
This approach to disagreement is made necessary by the fact that these students’ views are accepted and held as articles of faith. Those who have the intellectual independence to come to their conclusions by reason do not attempt to bypass the minds of those they aim to convince.