Why Critics of Angry Woke College Kids Are Missing the Point

The halls of academia may appear to be overrun by battles over academic freedom, free speech, identity politics, cancel culture and overreaching wokeness. But why does it look that way? And what are the real causes? The influential political theorist Wendy Brown has spent her career studying the very ideas — those of identity, freedom and tolerance — that are central to current debates about what’s happening on college campuses across the country, as well as to the attacks they’re undergoing from within and without. “We’re confused today about what campuses are,” says Brown, who is 66 and is the UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. “We’ve lost track of what’s personal and public and what’s acceptable speech where. That confusion happens in part because boundaries are so blurred everywhere.”

When people talk about free speech problems in colleges, it’s often in the context of woke ideology run amok. Which to me seems like a simplistic understanding of what might be causing changes in discourse on campuses. What do you see as being responsible? Campuses are complicated spaces, because they aren’t just one kind of space: There’s the classroom, the dorm, the public space that is the campus. Then there’s what we could call clubs, support centers — identity based or based on social categories or political interests. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse all of these and imagine that the classroom or the public space of the campus is the same as your home. Some of that confusion, and I don’t think it’s limited to the left, is responsible for the effort to regulate or denounce what transpires in public spaces. The other thing is that we are suffering from highly politicized discourse about education — discourse that often doesn’t care one whit about actual education. The most recent example is Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida math-book banning for reasons that he can’t explain and that have some vague connection to something he doesn’t understand called either critical race theory or social-emotional learning. The politicization of academic environments is unhelpful in being able to understand how we teach and orient ourselves to contesting views. What you need is to have the classroom as a space where we’re not talking left wing and right wing but offering the learning that students need to be able to come to their own positions and judgments. So there are two problems. One is the loss of distinctions among different spaces on campus. The other is the hyperpoliticization of knowledge and education.

Who’s responsible for clarifying those campus distinctions? I want to suggest that the biggest onus is on faculty themselves to think through this problem and teach it in their classrooms. Tell students, “These are the different kinds of spaces on a campus, and here’s what’s appropriate in each.” There’s an important set of issues to teach and to understand rather than just being reactive. Administrations for the most part have tried to dodge this issue in two ways. One is by issuing vague civility or “time, place and manner” codes. When Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer come to campus, administrations try to throw their time, place and manner codes at the problem, but that doesn’t settle it. On the other hand, many administrators try to send out general encomiums about tolerance and respect and civility and responsible speech. But those don’t address the deeper problem. We need to orient students differently, not just regulate them. It’s quite possible to do. If you ask students to think with you about where they think it’s appropriate to limit speech and where they don’t, and you talk them through the histories, the social theories and laws, the jurisprudence on this, they’re game.

Orient them how? Or, put another way, where’s the most common disagreement between student views on free speech and those of you and your colleagues? Certainly we have had for some time a debate about whether hate speech is free speech or ought to be covered by free speech, and if not, what qualifies as hate speech. There are excellent — I can’t believe I’m about to use this term — critical race theorists who have written volumes on the question of whether hate speech can be specified, what it means to specify it and whether it can be categorized as an exception to free speech. That’s an important zone and a difficult one. Many students today go quickly to the position that there is such a thing as hate speech, that they know it when they see it that and it ought to be outlawed. For me that’s a topic to teach, not to simply honor or denounce. I’m revealing myself here as a person whose chords and arpeggios and scales are always the history of political thought: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is the place to start. He says that the line between your freedom and its end is where it impacts on another’s freedom. That’s the question with hate speech: When does it do that? I’ll also mention Charles Murray. That’s tricky, because his science has been discredited by his peers, and his conclusions are understood by many as a form of hate speech, because he makes an argument about the racial inferiority of Black people in their capacity to learn and to succeed in this society. It feels terrible to give him a podium and a bunch of students who would sit and imbibe that as the truth. I think if Murray is invited to campus, you can picket him, you can leaflet him, but I don’t think it should be canceled. The important thing is for students to be educated and educate others about the bad science, the discrediting of his position, and then ask, Why does he survive in the academy, and why does that bad science keep getting resuscitated? Those are important questions for students to ask and then learn how to answer. That’s what’s going to equip them in this political world.

Wendy Brown at a rally at Williams College in 1985, where she was an assistant professor.
From Wendy Brown

Questions about what’s happening on college campuses keep turning into questions about politics, which happens a lot these days but which maybe also conflates various things. A debate over cancel culture on campus, for example, is a different thing from legislators’ enacting laws limiting what can be taught in schools. So where are the useful connections and what are the unhelpful conflations as far as politics and on-campus issues? Here I think it’s time to talk about the very serious right-wing effort to use free speech and freedom more generally as a flag for a political, social and moral project. On campus, for example, the constant harangues about cancel culture and wokeness on the left that you get from the right keep us from seeing enormous amounts of foundation money and use of the state to try to control what is taught, to build institutes and curriculums that comport with a right-wing engine. Guilford College, this little Quaker school in North Carolina takes half a million dollars from a foundation in love with Ayn Rand. Every econ and business major in the college for the next 10 years had to be given a copy of “Atlas Shrugged,” and at the center of the curriculum there had to be a course in which “Atlas Shrugged” was the required textbook. This story has been repeated over and over. Then you have colleges and universities not so desperate but nonetheless willing to take large amounts of Koch and other right-wing-foundation money to set up institutes, even hire faculty. All of this is under the aegis of free speech, organized as correcting for wokeness and cancel culture. The right is also mobilizing the state. Not just to cancel math textbooks in Florida but the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, the C.R.T. bills. It’s important that we have our eyes wide open about that. Little episodes about cancel culture make great tidbits in newspapers and talk shows, but they don’t represent this larger and deeper project of the right of mobilizing state power and corporations for their agenda in schools. They also don’t represent the deeper problem with which we began: the confusions and the loss of boundaries between something like academic freedom and free speech. That boundary is just totally messed up.

Where should that boundary be? Academic freedom needs to be appreciated as a collective right of the faculty to be free of interference in determining what we research and teach. We’re accountable to our disciplines, our peers. We can’t just do anything and have it called quality scholarship or teaching. But the idea of academic freedom is that we are free of external interference. Free speech is different. It’s an individual right for the civic and public sphere. It’s not about research and teaching. It’s not even about the classroom. It’s what you can say in public without infringement by others or the state. Now, what’s the mess-up? The right today is mobilizing state power and using corporate money to attempt to constrain academic freedom in the name of free speech. They’re attempting to say what can’t be taught in primary and secondary schools, and they’d like to get their hands on the public universities. They don’t say we’re trying to constrict academic freedom. They bring free speech in as the rubric for these constraints or censorship and often bring parental rights as well. Now let’s go to the left. The left has permitted a certain moral, political strain to gain a foothold in classrooms where things ought to be more open and contestatory. That’s where I think there’s confusion on the part of the left and the right about whether the classroom is that civic space for free speech or whether it ought to be governed by something more like academic freedom, which is, again, a faculty right. Then the question is, What can and should students be able to do there? My own view is that they ought to be able to try out their ideas but not simply have them presented as a political broadside. That’s not what class is for. That’s for civic space.

Brown speaking at a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study in 2021.
Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study

So in your view it’s a kind of category error to think of an academic classroom as a site for free speech? Yes. Not because there shouldn’t be openness for ideas to circulate but because it’s not a free-speech zone. You can’t just say anything. You come into my class on political theory, and we’re talking about John Stuart Mill or Plato, and you want to begin yelling about the Russians attacking Ukraine, I’m going to tell you that’s not appropriate. I’ve given you a kind of extreme example. To the student who starts denouncing Marx — clearly not having read the text, which is terribly common — I’m not going to say, “OK, you get your five minutes and the next student gets their five minutes.” No, it’s not a free-speech domain. It should be a domain in which all kinds of concerns that bear on the topic have a place, no doubt about that, but that’s not free speech.

I find it difficult to understand the extent to which fears about cancel culture or free-speech issues on campus could be akin to a kind of moral panic. In your own experience are these phenomena more alive and dangerous than they used to be or are people just fixating on them more? I do think that in order to feel effective in a world that makes many politically progressive or socially conscious kids feel extremely impotent, that there may be a little upsurge of righteousness; you try to control the tiny world that you’ve got. There’s probably some of that, but I agree with you not just that this is a kind of moral panic but also that it’s basically a right-wing mobilizing trope. Critical race theory, the supposed education of little kids in sexuality and gayness and cancel culture are being used with great effect to convince a base that the left is a totalitarian socialist nightmare and that universities and schools are crawling with this stuff. The analogy I would offer is communists under the bed: It’s everywhere; it’s in the math books; it’s in every kindergarten; it’s got to be cleaned out.

Looking specifically at college campuses, though, what do you think are the biggest threats to academic freedom? What worries me is that we can’t see the extent to which academic freedom is in serious peril these days from increasing corporate sponsorship of research, which contours that research in a private-enterprise direction and away from research for the public. Also, adjunctification: The phenomenon in universities in this country today in which about 70 percent of teaching is done by non-tenure-track faculty means that 70 percent of those who are teaching basically don’t have academic freedom. Technically they have it, but they don’t have it in the sense that they don’t have job security. They’re dependent on student evaluations on the one hand and faculty approval on the other. What does that mean? They have to teach in a way that is entertaining. They can’t teach anything too challenging. They can’t teach the basic literacies that students need to understand the world in a deep way. So adjunctification, corporatization and then the rankings-and-rating systems of programs and faculties and individual academics also mean that we are increasingly constrained by a narrow set of norms in the discipline by which we either rise or fall. It’s also important to distinguish between academic life and political life. In a classroom, in a research project, you have to be treating good challenges as something you cherish. The political world, you stake your position and you try to win. A highly politicized academy is a real disaster, because it messes up the importance of more open space for thinking, for undoing something you had arrived at. That needs to happen in any research or seminar or lecture hall. That’s the opposite of political life.

Has the hyperpoliticization that you mentioned earlier changed what students expect to be getting out of university? Which is to say, their willingness to entertain uncomfortable ideas? The immense hurdle is the idea that your future income prospects and investment in those prospects are what you’re in college to pursue. The second problem here is that instead of approaching higher education as a place where you expect to be transformed in what you think the world is, what it takes to understand it, that ideal of a higher education — which is essential to developing citizens — has been almost completely displaced by the idea of bits of human capital self-investing to enhance that capital. So political views, social views, are for many students bracketed if not altogether irrelevant to what they expect a university education to be. What’s the implication of this? That those views are treated as something that you just have culturally, religiously, according to family — but not something that you develop, enrich, maybe change. To put it in brief, neoliberalism essentially aims to roll out education as vocational training, and the extreme right essentially aims to turn education into church. What you have in the middle are a bunch of kids earnestly concerned with social justice, climate crisis, police violence, screaming into that context that their views matter, and that their view should hold sway and if not dictate curriculums at least dictate the culture of campus.

How much should students’ views dictate the culture of a campus? I don’t think they should dictate curriculum. I certainly think that in the open public space of campus, what students believe and student disagreements and student political and social aspirations for the world will govern that. If I can add this: We need to appreciate that young left activist outrage about a burning planet and grotesque inequality and murderous racial violence and gendered abuses of power is accompanied by disgust with the systems and the rules of engagement that have brought us here. Young left activists are pulling the emergency brake because it feels as if there’s no time for debate and compromise and incrementalism; because many see conventional norms and practices as having brought us to the brink and kept us stupid and inert. I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. #MeToo, with its flagrant disregard for due process, did in two years what previous generations of feminists could not pull off, which was to make sexual harassment totally unacceptable in school and workplaces. Black Lives Matter in a summer pushed America’s violent racial history and present into the center of political conversation and transformed the consciousness of a generation. My point here is that if we just focus on this generation’s political style — and we have to remember youth style always aggravates the elders — we ignore their rage at the world they’ve inherited, and their desperation for a more livable and just one, and their critique of our complacency. That is part of what is going on in the streets and on our campuses. But that remains different from educating that rage and helping young people learn not just the deep histories but even the contemporary practices that will make them more powerful thinkers and actors in this world. If they’re right about our complacency, what we still have to offer is knowledge and instruction and some space in a classroom to think.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Neal Stephenson about portraying a utopian future, Laurie Santos about happiness and Christopher Walken about acting.