This crisis of confidence at colleges—driven by conflict-shy administrators and self-effacing professors—has come to a head in the culture of protest that has developed on American campuses. Once again, political polarization is only one part of the story. Today’s college students are certainly more liberal and more ideologically uniform than their counterparts of the mid-twentieth century. But the focus on the little things that we see in campus protests—as in the movement to suppress insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale in 2015—shows the extent to which the political fervor is being driven by the absence of bigger, richer ideas to seize students’ attention.What might those bigger richer ideas be? We could do worse than the Canon and the Curriculum.
For colleges to re-adopt intellectual openness would require them to take on a great degree of risk, and they could never succeed without the hard-won cooperation of individual professors and administrators. But with more and more research emerging about the value of a challenging curriculum—and with a hunger for thought-provoking substance still growing on America’s campuses—the incentives may soon begin to align for a renaissance of heterodoxy.Better to allow students to play with ideas, crazy, conventional, or misleading in university with the hope that they graduate less certain of where they stand but better equipped to handle surprises, rather than be socially promoted out, completely certain of where they stand but vulnerable to a mugging by reality.