Yale of­fer­ing a tu­to­rial in so­cial de­scent

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - COMMENTARY - Ge­orge Will’s syndicated col­umn ap­pears Thurs­days and Sun­days in the Tri­buneHer­ald. His email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON — Sum­mer brings no respite for aca­demics com­mit­ted to cam­pus pu­rifi­ca­tions, par­tic­u­larly at the in­sti­tu­tion that is the leader in the silli­ness sweep­stakes, Yale. Its Com­mit­tee on Art in Pub­lic Spaces dis­cov­ered a stone carv­ing that has adorned an en­trance to Ster­ling Me­mo­rial Li­brary since it opened 86 years ago has be­come “not ap­pro­pri­ate.”

The carv­ing, ac­cord­ing to Yale Alumni Magazine, de­picts “a hos­tile en­counter: a Pu­ri­tan point­ing a mus­ket at a Na­tive Amer­i­can.” Ac­tu­ally, the Na­tive Amer­i­can and the Pu­ri­tan are look­ing not hos­tilely at each other but into the dis­tance. Still, one can’t be too care­ful, so the mus­ket was cov­ered with stone. This is uni­lat­eral dis­ar­ma­ment: The Na­tive Amer­i­can’s weapon, a bow, was not cov­ered up. Per­haps Yale thinks that armed white men are more “trig­ger­ing” (this aca­demic-speak means “up­set­ting to the emo­tion­ally brit­tle”) than armed peo­ple of color. Na­tional Re­view On­line’s Kyle Smith drolly wor­ries that Yale might be per­pet­u­at­ing harm­ful stereo­types.

If such cam­pus folderols merely added to what Sa­muel John­son called “the pub­lic stock of harm­less plea­sure,” Amer­i­cans could wel­come a new aca­demic year the way they once wel­comed new bur­lesque acts. Un­for­tu­nately, the de­scent of in­sti­tu­tions of learn­ing into lu­di­crous­ness is symp­to­matic of larger so­cial dis­tem­pers that Frank Furedi has di­ag­nosed abroad as well as in Amer­ica.

Furedi is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in Eng­land and au­thor of “What’s Hap­pened to the Univer­sity?: A So­ci­o­log­i­cal Ex­plo­ration of Its In­fan­tiliza­tion.” Writ­ing in The Amer­i­can In­ter­est, he cites a warn­ing is­sued to Ox­ford Univer­sity post­grad­u­ate stu­dents about the dan­ger of “vi­car­i­ous trauma,” which sup­pos­edly re­sults from “hear­ing about and en­gag­ing with the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers.” This, Furedi says, is symp­to­matic of the “med­i­cal­iza­tion” of al­most ev­ery­thing in uni­ver­si­ties that strive to be “ther­a­peu­tic.” Uni­ver­si­ties are “pro­mot­ing the­o­ries and prac­tices that en­cour­age peo­ple to in­ter­pret their anx­i­eties, dis­tress and dis­ap­point­ment through the lan­guage of psy­cho­log­i­cal deficits.”

This gen­er­ates self-ful­fill­ing di­ag­noses of emo­tion­ally frag­ile stu­dents. They de­mand men­tal health ser­vices on cam­puses that are re­plete with “trig­ger warn­ings” and “safe spaces” to in­su­late stu­dents from dis­com­forts, such as the de­pic­tion of a mus­ket. What aca­demics per­ceive as “an ex­panded set of prob­lems tracks right along with the ex­po­nen­tial growth of the ‘Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Disor­ders.’”

The so­cial­iza­tion of chil­dren, which pre­pares them to en­ter the wider world, has been shifted from par­ents to pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, and now to higher ed­u­ca­tion, which has em­braced the task that Furedi calls “re-so­cial­iza­tion through al­ter­ing the norms that un­der­grad­u­ates grew up with.” This is done by us­ing speech codes and in­doc­tri­na­tion to raise “aware­ness” about de­fects stu­dents ac­quired be­fore com­ing to cam­puses that are de­ter­mined to pu­rify un­der­grad­u­ates.

Often, how­ever, stu­dents ar­rive with little moral bal­last be­queathed by par­ents who thought their role was, Furedi says, less to trans­mit val­ues than to val­i­date their chil­dren’s feel­ings and at­ti­tudes: “This em­pha­sis on val­i­da­tion runs in tan­dem with a risk-averse regime of child-rear­ing, the (un­in­tended) con­se­quence of which has been to limit op­por­tu­ni­ties for the cul­ti­va­tion of in­de­pen­dence and to ex­tend the phase of de­pen­dence of young peo­ple on adult so­ci­ety.”

The ther­a­peu­tic univer­sity’s lan­guage — stu­dents are “vul­ner­a­ble” to rou­tine stresses and dif­fi­cul­ties that are de­fined as “trau­mas” — also be­comes self-ful­fill­ing. As a re­sult, stu­dents ex­pe­ri­ence a di­min­ished sense of ca­pac­ity for moral agency — for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

This can make them si­mul­ta­ne­ously pas­sive, im­mers­ing them­selves into group­think, and volatile, like the mobs at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and other schools that dis­rupt un­con­ge­nial speak­ers. Hence uni­ver­si­ties pro­vide “trig­ger warn­ings” that fa­cil­i­tate flights into “safe spaces.” Furedi quotes an Ober­lin Col­lege stu­dent who says: “There’s some­thing to be said about ex­pos­ing your­self to ideas other than your own,” but “I’ve had enough of that.”

Times do, how­ever, change, as the Yale Alumni Magazine del­i­cately in­ti­mated when it said the stone now ob­scur­ing the Pu­ri­tan’s mus­ket “can be re­moved in the fu­ture with­out dam­ag­ing the orig­i­nal carv­ing.” And the fu­ture has come with strange speed to New Haven.

In a pe­cu­liar let­ter in Tues­day’s Wall Street Jour­nal, a Yale of­fi­cial says the univer­sity is re­mov­ing the stone “that a con­struc­tion project team had placed on the stonework.” By clearly sug­gest­ing, im­plau­si­bly, that this “team” acted on its own, the let­ter con­tra­dicts the magazine’s re­port that the cov­er­ing up was done be­cause the Com­mit­tee on Art in Pub­lic Spaces deemed the carv­ing “not ap­pro­pri­ate.” The let­ter, which says the un­cov­ered carv­ing will be moved to where it can be stud­ied and “con­tex­tu­al­ized,” speaks vol­umes about Yale’s con­text.

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