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OPINION: Could Student Intolerance Lead To Another Cultural Revolution?

Will the U.S. heed history and course correct or proceed down the bloody road pioneered by Mao?

In China, the Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966 and lasted until 1976. Students were encouraged to attack and destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking. The end result was torture, imprisonments, and killings that, according to an estimate from Andrew G. Walder, caused the deaths of between 1.1 and 1.6 million people.

The destructive impact of the Cultural Revolution, known by its full name as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, could ultimately end up being repeated with the radicalization of young minds in the 21st century United States. The rising tide of intolerance in the name of purported justice is a threat to the principles the United States was founded upon.

College campuses have been making headlines for shouting down and/or refusing to listen to speakers as of late. On March 10, 2022, law students at Yale University, one of America’s most prestigious institutions, shouted down participants in a bipartisan free speech panel, triggering a police escort for the panelists. The event was paused after one student remarked that they would “literally fight you, b—h,” to a member of the conservative group speaking.

The Cultural Revolution encouraged Chinese students at both the college and high school levels to attack those who disagreed. The CCP’s actions are being compared to not only current state of college campuses but also changes to the U.S. K-12 curriculum. A survivor of Mao’s China, Xi Van Fleet, compared trends in K-12 education to the Cultural Revolution in June of last year. Van Fleet, a parent of a Loudoun High School graduate in Loudoun County, Virginia, described one of her memories of the Cultural Revolution that she observed when she was six years old:

“One of the teachers was considered bourgeoisie because she liked to wear pretty clothes,” Van Fleet said. “So the students attacked her and spit on her. She was covered with spit … and pretty soon it became violence.”

In addition to destruction of artifacts that were associated with religious and cultural traditions, Van Fleet also described the indoctrination that took place: “We were asked to report if we hear anything about someone saying anything showing that there’s a lack of complete loyalty to Mao,” she said. “There were people reporting their parents, and their parents ended up in jail.”

Van Fleet compared what she witnessed to today’s educational policies: “We were also encouraged to report on each other, just like the Student Equity Ambassador program and the bias reporting system.”

Just as Van Fleet has compared K-12 education to the Cultural Revolution, columnists such as The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher wrote of a “Campus Cultural Revolution” in higher education in 2015.

Origins of the Cultural Revolution

Fearing that the population would turn against Communism in the wake of the Great Leap Forward, Mao, his wife Jiang Qing, and others sought to create a pro-Mao, pro-Communist movement. Lin Biao, the head of the CCP military known as the People’s Liberation Army, compiled quotes of Mao into a publication known as the “Little Red Book.” The “Little Red Book” was distributed to members of the military, beginning a phase of indoctrination. In response to artists and others’ criticism of Mao and Communism, the Cultural Revolution was a way to inculcate an ideology and a cult of personality in China.

As faculty members of universities and then high schools began to criticize the CCP,  Jiang and other Party leaders distributed armbands to groups of students calling them “Red Guards.” Red Guards would violently attack “anyone whom they believed lacked revolutionary credentials, and then turned on those who simply failed to wholeheartedly support their efforts,” writes author Stefanie Lamb.

Today, the intolerance exhibited by college students towards speakers they disagree with is eerily reminscent of that of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. One article described the Red Guards’ activities during the summer of 1966 in the context of a belated apology from former Red Guard member Song Binbin.

Ms. Song, who is now living in the United States, was known to have been present at some of the earliest “struggle sessions,” where ordinary Chinese deemed often arbitrarily as “Rightists” or “landlords” were brutally humiliated.

The first sessions targeted school teachers, beginning at Ms. Song’s school in western Beijing, where students were exhorted to turn against their educators. At one particularly brutal encounter, the school’s principal, Bian Zhongyun, was beaten to death by her own students, marking the first death of a teacher during a decade that would see thousands of others face the same tragic fate.

While college campuses in the United States have long been bastions of left-wing perspectives and demonstrations, with the 1960s anti-Vietnam War protests as a prominent example, the extent to which today’s student protesters have been seeking to prevent speech would likely surprise liberal leaders of past generations. The Free Speech Movement between 1964-65 at UC Berkeley was associated with the New Left, not the conservative Right. The goal of the movement was to oppose free speech restrictions that had been established in the previous decade as a component of opposing the war. The Free Speech Movement’s literature invoked the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution in support of its campaign.

American Higher Education Trends In the 21st Century

Throughout the past five years, polls of U.S. college students have illustrated an alarming trend in support for not only censorship but also political violence. A poll taken in August 2017 by John Villasenor of Brookings indicated that a slim majority of students polled (51 percent) agreed that “A student group opposed to the speaker disrupts the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker” was acceptable behavior. A survey conducted four years later by Foundation for Rights in Individual Education (FIRE) found that 66 percent of students polled were accepting of shouting down a speaker, and 23 percent of students considered it acceptable “for people to use violence to stop certain speech.” FIRE noted that the latter percentage was an increase from the previous year’s survey taken in 2020.

The Hechinger Report recently unveiled an article exploring how the cost of a college education, the fall of American trust in higher education, and the perceived diminishing value of higher education is behind dwindling enrollment. Curiously, the report did not address the estimated growth at colleges considered to be religious or conservative. The trends at today’s mainstream colleges, along with the impacts of remote learning, are likely behind the growth and enrollment at conservative religious universities. The Washington Examiner reports that Grove City College in Pennsylvania and Colorado Christian University in Denver are seeing enrollment spikes as college enrollment dropped overall in 2020. In addition, conservative-led states such as Texas and Florida are taking measures in support of viewpoint diversity among campus faculty. Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida are addressing this topic through proposals to establish classical study programs and cultivate conservative think tanks to balance out the overwhelming left lean of campus faculty.

There was once a time when it was acceptable to examine the detrimental impact of the Cultural Revolution. Back in 1998, an episode of Histeria! conveyed the essentials of the Cultural Revolution to a young audience with the series’ trademark humor. Since the late 1990s, criticism of Maoism has been less pronounced in the corporate press. It has been five decades since Mao’s actions destroyed cultural artifacts and pit students, teachers, and citizens against each other in a brutal so-called revolution. In comparison to the atrocities committed by other dictatorships of the 20th century, the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party have been largely overlooked. The tragic irony of this is that not only has the CCP remained in power since Mao’s demise, tendencies towards Mao-esque political intolerance have only grown in the West. French authorities have gone as far as to denounce “out of control leftism” in American universities as of February 2021. It remains to be seen: will the U.S. heed history and course correct, or will it proceed down the bloody road pioneered by Mao?

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