The current turmoil on a few college campuses has, of course, led many of us to generalize, to maintain that there’s a new student radicalism in the air, that the chickens of neoliberal disruption are coming home to roost, that coddled and ‘trigger warned’ youths are finally seeing the ‘real’ world and are retreating to self-created ‘safe spaces,’ that it’s all the media’s fault, that…, that…. We’re all half right when we make these arguments… but we are also all self-serving in doing so. And, what we so feverishly argue for is rarely more than half true.
In The New York Times today, Ross Douthat joins the fray (I hesitate to call it a “debate”). He flatters himself:
It probably goes without saying that I have little sympathy for the goals of these new activists. In the academy they have in mind, ideas I cherish would probably be banned as hate speech and a past I treasure buried under “trigger warnings.”
The “Amherst Uprising” goals he links to have nothing to do with his ideas (they refer to “racial insensitivity and hate speech,” not Douthat’s conservatism) and “trigger warnings” are never meant to bury or avoid—only to allow topics to be approached with delicacy. Most likely, in the academy the activists have in mind, Douthat would simply be ignored.
Where Douthat is at least half right in saying that students are “dealing with a university system that’s genuinely corrupt, and that’s long relied on rote appeals to the activists’ own left-wing pieties to cloak its utter lack of higher purpose.” The faux radicalism of some on college faculties and many in administrations has bothered me since the week we students shut down my campus during the days after the Kent State killings in 1970.
The school I attended at that time, Utica College, was then a small branch of Syracuse University. There were a few dorms (I lived in one) but most of the students were commuters. We weren’t by any means elite college students but were a real cross-section of America, especially in terms of class but, to some degree, also of race. Coming from a leftist family and a long Quaker tradition of resistance to war, I was radicalized long before I ever arrived on campus. The campus activists, however, were having little success getting the majority of students or even faculty to pay attention to their causes. We turned elsewhere to express our views, heading down to Washington to join demonstrations or working with anti-draft groups nearby.
With the Kent State killings, that changed. Suddenly, everyone on campus was jumping on board the radical cause.
I jumped off.
I saw quickly that the “movement” was being coopted by those already in power in the universities, the administrations, the faculty and even those students who had been seen as student leaders (but who never before had been part of radical activities). Since then, I’ve watched as administrations have turned the leftist agenda to their own ends, turning feminism into a means of bolstering their own positions of power, using “equality” as a bludgeon rather than a goal, and more. As a student, I decided to stay away from all of that—and even from leftism as a career route within academia. When I finally did attend graduate school, it was not for a job—I entered Peace Corps as a volunteer in agriculture as soon as I earned my doctorate in English. I had no idea of ever attempting an academic career.
That changed, of course, but not until a decade and a half had passed.
Today, I understand that neither the students nor the faculty are what I had imagined they were becoming in 1970 and that they are also quite different from their media caricatures. Few professors fit the stereotype David Horowitz tried to create in his book The Professors a decade ago, pampered and over-paid leftists intent on indoctrinating a new generation. Most are over-worked and under-paid professionals trying to teach under difficult circumstance. Even fewer students fit the “coddled” media image of the youth who needs protection in ‘safe spaces’ from ideas and images they might disagree with. In the American network of higher education, which includes everything from community colleges on reservations in Arizona to the research reserves of Boston, students come from every imaginable background and possible experience. And they are as brilliant and as dumb on every campus—just as are the faculty (the idea that “super teachers” gravitate to Harvard and Stanford is another myth).
American college and university administrations are another story. Douthat describes, accurately, I believe, what has happened since the radicalization following Kent State:
With time, the university ceded just enough ground to co-opt and tame these radicals. It adopted their buzzwords as a kind of post-religious moral vocabulary; it granted them the liberal arts as an ideological fiefdom (but not the sciences or the business school!); it used their vision of sexual liberation as a selling point for applicants looking for a John Belushi-esque good time.
The result, by the time I arrived at college late in the 1990s, was a campus landscape where left-wing pieties dominated official discourse, but the university’s deeper spirit remained technocratic, careerist and basically amoral.
This two-pronged approach served administrations well. Recently, though, with increased right-wing domination of state governments with appointment powers over boards, chancellors and presidents of public universities and the increasingly technocratic bent of the monied contributors to private universities, the paper-maché façade is crumbling. The new overseers care nothing for left-wing pieties and the students are seeing through what remains of them and are feeling betrayed. The cobbled together and papered over half-truths of lucrative jobs through education and freedom to learn unimpeded are beginning to melt into the mass of sodden newspaper they always really were.
The collapse of the for-profit college industry has drawn attention to the fact that education needs to be something more than training and certification. Students themselves are making us aware that they need something more on campus than a mechanical process toward graduation. As Douthat writes, they “aren’t wrong to smell the rot around them.”
I agree. In fact, I would say that the students, finally, are people proving to be more than half right. The rest of us need to listen and admit that what these students are saying is probably more than half true. We need to put aside our prejudices and start paying attention.