What I Learned and Did Not Learn at Columbia
Most things I aspired to have never lived up to my expectations. Moreover, whether contemplating a career or a life partner, I always made the wrong decision. There have been exceptions, like my decision to return to college in 2008 after a 30-year career in the music business. As a non-traditional student at Columbia University, I looked forward to sharing what I learned while living my life. Most of my classmates were between 18 to 22 and attended the finest private schools in the world. I was 51 and the product of a public school education. In retrospect, I was generally well-received. The late Peter Awn was a great champion of non-traditional students and veterans. When I often felt unworthy of studying at one of the greatest institutions in the world, Dean Awn gave me confidence. He told me Columbia was lucky to have me and others like me. He said our real-world success and experience were a much-needed counterweight to the ivory tower abstractions prevalent in academia. I was not a student at Columbia in 2007.
Still, I remember the controversy when Lee Bollinger invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the controversial former president of Iran, to a forum at Columbia University. In his dedication to freedom of academic inquiry, Bollinger grilled Ahmadinejad with tough questions designed to reveal the true nature of academic debate; all are free to speak, but none are free from scrutiny. The dialog was stimulating and refreshing during my freshman and sophomore years (2013, 2015). Toward the end of my time at Columbia, I noticed a significant change in the environment. The speakers Columbia invited were decidedly more mundane and pedestrian when compared with Ahmadinejad and Milo Yiannopoulos. I was not necessarily well known as a conservative or tub-thumper for any particular ideology, but I had a reputation for questioning what I was taught. I thought challenging my professors with spirited, well-sourced debate would impress them. Unfortunately, in many cases, I learned that they were more impressed with my younger classmates accepting everything they heard without exception. I often pointed out that the required readings of certain classes were from a strictly liberal perspective. I suggested that the students might benefit from arguments made by Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and others. A few professors thought it was a good idea and promised changes to the syllabus.
As things changed in academia with the advent of what some call critical social justice, my after-class one-on-one conversations with professors, once so prevalent and treasured, were a rare occurrence. Students protested to prevent guest speakers like Herman Cain, Anthony Scaramucci, and Rand Paul, whose only sins are that they are either successful capitalists or republicans, from expressing their views. Antifa targeted even Aristotle Boosalis, the president of the Columbia University College Republicans. While students often objected to CUCR speakers, I noticed they had no legitimate argument against anything specific. Instead, they concocted a convoluted strategy in which they tried to connect the individuals in question to unproven allegations of sexual abuse or unsolicited endorsements from white supremacists or antisemites. By the time I graduated from Columbia in 2017, the administration was walking on eggshells and habitually kowtowed to various campus activist groups. Bollinger’s vigor in advancing the art of true academic discourse disappeared from the campus. In particular, I remember an incident that caused me to reevaluate my decision to pursue graduate studies at Columbia or anywhere else. In my anti-racism class, after making a distinction between prejudice and racism, my professor offered several definitions of racism. Stanford history professor George M. Fredrickson proposed the one I particularly liked:
The definition had two components: difference and power. It originates from a mindset that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethnoracial Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group. The possible consequences of this nexus of attitude and action range from unofficial but pervasive social discrimination at one end of the spectrum to genocide at the other, with government-sanctioned segregation, colonial subjugation, exclusion, forced deportation or ethnic cleansing and enslavement among the other variations of the theme.
In the class discussion group, I asserted that I preferred this definition of racism because it took the white American versus Black American-centric depiction of racism that American academics are fixated on and explained other situations from world history. I mentioned The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi, as prime examples of Fredrickson’s definition in action. I argued that I foresaw a time (sadly coming to fruition) that Asian Americans would be discriminated against and barred from entry to Ivy League universities.
I believed my professor would be pleased by my academic prowess and view that any group can practice racism. He was about to offer his opinion but was interrupted by one of my furious young classmates who said that blacks do not hold racial power in the racial hierarchy. In her view, a racist has racial power within a system of oppression. She argued that since only whites are the only ones who hold racial power in our society, only white people and the systems they created can be racist. To my classmate, a young white girl, the more I argued, the more she loathed me. She echoed the sentiments of her hero, social justice educator Robin Di Angelo, who believes if you are a white person in America, you are racist, pure, and simple.
Moreover, you will always need a lifetime of conscious effort to rectify it. My professor finally weighed in and framed my views as perhaps “older ways of thinking.” My classmate was not nearly as kind. There was no discussion or debate. Summing up her “argument,” she said she did not care what people like me had to say because most people from my generation would soon be dead, along with their racist ideas. That is really what she said, with neither shame nor reservation. I can say with absolute authority that the young woman who longs for my demise believes that her views are liberal, but as a classical liberal who grew up in the 1960s, I beg to differ. Modern-day pseudo-liberals believe in rule by an intellectual elite who impose values they hold as objectively true and not subject to debate. Anyone who does not subscribe to their societal remedies and extend sympathy to favored victims of this ruling intellectual elite is banished from society. Dr. Paul Gottfried pointed out this phenomenon in his book After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State as early as 1999. The liberals of the 1960s were champions of free speech. They were also anti-war and greatly distrusted corporations. Modern-day liberal activists and activist groups are in bed with corporate America and seek to squelch free speech and discourse with messianic zeal.
Moreover, they partner with corporate America, big tech, and the mass media to stifle dissent and raise capital with no accountability. In return for donations, these self-styled activist groups turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy of Nike calling for social and racial justice in the United States while standing accused of benefitting from forced labor and other human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party. Individuals like me who oppose this particular leftist ideology are irredeemable and must be ostracized and controlled by a therapeutic surveillance society run by modern liberal lunatics. As a liberal arts major, it was customary for Columbia to emphasize relatively new ideas like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), critical race theory, and anti-racism in every aspect of my life at Columbia. By my final year (2017), these ideologies, formerly the domain of the humanities, infiltrated the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly known as STEM. In one of my last research papers, I cited the work of sociologist Charles Murray, specifically his book Losing Ground, which argues that rather than benefit from them, the social programs of Johnson’s Great Society made things worse for the poor and minorities. I received an A on the paper, but my professor chastised me for referencing Charles Murray in my essay. He asked if I knew about The Bell Curve, Murray’s most controversial work, which examined racial differences in IQ scores and documented the emergence of a cognitive elite. I told him that the book was my introduction to Murray’s work. In the book, Murray concluded that Asian Americans have a higher mean IQ than white Americans, who outscore Black Americans. My professor questioned Murray’s methodology and, ultimately, his conclusions, but what upset him more was the motivation behind the research. He argued that Murray’s data was that it tacitly condoned the judgment of individuals based on race. Using his exact argument and redirecting it toward him, I asserted that I feel the same way when professors and academics judge me because I am an older, white cisgender male and accuse me of being a racist and a white supremacist or categorize Black Americans as “Uncle Tom” when they reject critical social justice or ideological conformity. Murray was one of the first right-leaning academics publicly criticized as a racist and thereafter sent to Bogeyland for deviant academics. Others, like Jordan Peterson and Paul Gottfried, followed. It was unacceptable when Peterson experienced tremendous success on YouTube after his fellow professors pushed him out of academia. They responded along the lines of, “ I never knew how many racists were on YouTube,” rather than thinking that perhaps they were wrong about our society’s moral and ethical issues and how they might be solved.
Milton Friedman argued that “a society that puts equality- in the sense of equality of outcome-ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom… the use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interest.” If Friedman were alive today, he would be disappointed to learn we are moving in that direction. News networks of the cable news variety often portray a college education as worthless and the most prestigious universities as liberal indoctrination centers that shape young and malleable minds; the end goal is administering an education that aids a dominant elite aiming to impose ideological conformity, control, and economic dependence. As a recent college graduate, I would argue that colleges are not the brainwashing centers that the Right claims, and there are many students and professors that are independent thinkers. On the other hand, independent thinkers are under attack in academia by a Marcusian/ Gramscian liberal elite. This pseudo-liberal elite pretends to take on the mantle of the liberalism of the 1960s. Still, it undermines it while undoing the progress over the last 70 years. This feature is not an accident. This deception is the linchpin of this new brand of illiberalism. College administrations that ignore this and refuse to support professors with different viewpoints do so at their peril.
Education comes in two forms; the lessons learned while living your life and what you learn if you are lucky enough to attend college. What you learn in what some people call the School Of Life should be distinct from what you discover in college, and vice versa. The wise person realizes this and uses both types of education to their advantage. My life experience has taught me that sometimes the theories professed within the halls of academia fall apart when encountering the complex world in which we live. My college studies have been a dagger through the heart of America’s grandiose illusions about itself. Even though nothing I have ever aspired to lived up to my expectations, and I have often deviated off course, it has all been necessary to enable me to savor the meaning of education today. In this later phase of my life, education has given me everything, and I feel I must give it everything in return. I believe the world is neither as complex nor divided as portrayed. I can say this with absolute authority because everything I need to know about the world I learned and did not learn at Columbia University.