Colleges and universities keep telling us that they teach “critical thinking” skills, but in reality they are deeply complicit in the destruction of the ability to think at all. They’re the source of a kind of mental contagion called “cancel culture,” an anti-intellectual phenomenon that encourages people to silence and punish those who disagree with them. Rather than teaching students how to rationally argue, our schools (and not just colleges) are teaching that dissenters can and should be silenced.
That is the big, frightening point of a new book by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, The Canceling of the American Mind. Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and Schlott, a journalist and podcast host, have written an extremely timely book meant to awaken Americans to a growing threat to our ability to communicate and reason. Instead of listening, evaluating, and then formulating a rational response to those who don’t agree with you, Americans are encouraged to “win” by censoring their opponents.
Colleges are deeply complicit in the destruction of students’ ability to think.This atavistic behavior has become common not only in our educational institutions but also in business, publishing, and the professions. Lukianoff and Schlott provide many examples that will persuade anyone with an open mind that “cancel culture” is not some right-wing bogeyman, as some claim, and that the nation desperately needs to return to the free-speech culture that used to prevail here.
Consider this case.
In 2022, Hamline University art-history professor Erika Lopez Prater decided to show her class a painting of the Prophet Mohammad. She was aware that some followers of Islam believe it to be sacrilegious to paint that image and therefore took pains to ensure that no student would be surprised. In her syllabus, she warned that the painting would be shown on a particular day. On the day of the class, she again told students that the Mohammad painting would be shown and that anyone who objected could leave without penalty.
One would think that she had done everything within reason to avoid offending any of her students.
That, however, was not the case. After the class, one student complained about having seen the painting, despite the professor’s advance notice. That student griped to the student newspaper, “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I feel like I don’t belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member.”
So, one student who either hadn’t paid attention to the professor’s efforts to avoid trouble, or (as I suspect) simply wanted to attack her for doing something she disapproved of, voiced displeasure. The student had no grounds for complaint, and, in a sensible school, no one would have paid her any attention. But this particular student was doubly wrapped in “diversity” status. In our colleges, officials feel duty-bound to treat such students’ complaints with the utmost concern.
Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, stated, “Responsibility for the observant Muslim student should have superseded academic freedom.” For thinking otherwise, Professor Lopez Prater was terminated.
Faculty were targeted over 1,000 times just because they said something that annoyed someone on campus.That astounding overreaction led to a lot of bad publicity for Hamline, and President Miller was pressured into resigning, but the damage had been done. The message had been sent to “minority” students that they have unique powers to visit harm on professors who displease them, no matter how slight the reason.
Was that just an isolated instance? No—the authors present many other cases, and FIRE data from 2014-23 show that faculty were targeted over 1,000 times just because they said something that annoyed someone on campus, someone who cannot be ignored. Cancel culture empowers the oversensitive to go after anyone they regard as an enemy with censorship and punishment.
How did this anti-intellectual trend take hold? The authors point to the 1960s radical professor Herbert Marcuse, who argued that voices in opposition to the “progressive” agenda should not be tolerated. They should be silenced so that the voices of “the oppressed” could be heard. That idea soon caught on with leftists—after all, arguing with opponents is hard mental work and you might fare badly in a debate. It’s much better just to declare that dissenters don’t deserve to be heard.
That position swept through American education, with many teachers and professors declaring that disagreement with their views could come only from ignorance or bad motives. Eventually, logic and argumentation would be denounced as part of the white power structure’s system of oppression. The goal was to close minds.
While cancel culture is most often used by the Left, Lukianoff and Schlott show that the Right also has its methods and tactics for avoiding debate and suppressing voices it dislikes. They call out all mind-cancelers.
First, the Left has erected what Lukianoff and Schlott call the Perfect Rhetorical Fortress. Inside their fortress, advocates of leftist policies can always avoid mental confrontations with opposing ideas. Anyone who challenges their beliefs can be dismissed on one or more grounds involving some sort of ad hominem attack: the speaker is conservative; the speaker is white; the speaker is the wrong sex to comment on this issue; the speaker suffers from some phobia, etc.
It is illogical to dismiss an argument on the grounds that the person making it is somehow imperfect.Anyone who has studied logic understands that arguments must be met on their own merits and that it’s illogical to dismiss an argument on the grounds that the person making it is somehow imperfect. But logic has been tossed aside in the need to protect leftist ideas from criticism.
This “fortress” against dealing with contrary views means that those inside it are sheltered against arguments and information suggesting that they might be mistaken. They never learn about different perspectives—never have to think through a rational response, then defend it. They never learn the art of persuasion. This is a formula for intellectual stagnation and strife.
Nor is it only the Left that seeks to protect its ideas against debate and silence critics. The authors observe that the Right also has its “Efficient Fortress.” Those inside it have their own barricades against having to deal with criticism.
Both sides have gotten into the bad habit of trying to cancel their opponents. It’s no wonder that our campuses and politics are becoming increasingly bitter, even violent.
Can anything be done? The authors have several suggestions.
First, we need better parenting in America. Referring back to the “Three Great Untruths” of Lukianoff’s previous book The Coddling of the American Mind (with Jonathan Haidt), Lukianoff and Schlott write, “The Untruth of Fragility causes a canceler to believe that it’s better to shut down a person who is saying or doing something that makes them uncomfortable because, after all, what doesn’t kill them makes them weaker.” Also, “the Untruth of Us versus Them” places the canceler on the right side of history, even if they’re part of a mob.”
Good advice, but it won’t be easy to break the bad habits of mal-parenting.
Second, businesses should stay out of the culture wars. Here, there’s a good prospect for improvement, since there have been some conspicuous, expensive blunders costing firms lots of money.
We need new institutions that will offer education without an overlay of ideology.Third, we need to change K-12 schools, returning them to political neutrality. The key ideas of cancel culture are firmly embedded in most schools because the people they hire have almost uniformly come through education-school training that’s completely controlled by the intolerant, zealous Left. The authors advocate licensing reform so that officials will be able to hire teachers who have not come through ed schools. And they see that we need many new schools, including Montessori and trade schools.
Lastly, higher education needs dramatic transformation since, the authors write, “small changes won’t cut it.” Alumni and donors must insist that colleges and universities go back to teaching bodies of knowledge rather than indoctrinating students with opinions. And here, too, we need new institutions that will offer education without an overlay of ideology.
The paramount change we need is to get rid of “cancel culture” and to revive our culture of free speech. The authors write, “A healthy Free Speech Culture acknowledges that knowing the world as it is requires knowing people as they are and what they really think. It’s very important to know even the bad ideas in our society.”
That’s correct, and I would add that a free-speech culture is a necessary part of a more general culture of freedom in all respects.
The Canceling of the American Mind was written before the outbursts of hatred we’ve seen on many American campuses following the Hamas terror attacks of October 7. Those events underscore the importance and timeliness of this book.
George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.