The curse of the college campus
The Class of 2020, armed with fresh high-school diplomas, gets a warning
The members of the Class of ’20 know now who they are, or soon will be. They’ve made the final choice of what college they’ll attend, they’ve sent off their security deposits, and now they’re wondering what their next life will be like. These young men and women have entered the last chapter of childhood, though they won’t see it that way until they’re looking back in memoir, song or movie. Their parents, naturally, have a different perspective. They’re fretting over their children’s immediate future, concerned that the digital distractions of social media will intrude on their books. This is the generation that can’t make eye contact with others because they’re always staring at a tiny screen to communicate. That’s not exactly an intimate connection.
Most high school graduates, if they’re honest with themselves, are a little frightened as they anticipate the next step forward, but it’s not hip to say so. They’re supposed to be liberated and happy. Feelings of disconnection are not an option when they’re tuned in to a multitude of electronic devices.
That’s too bad, because those attending prestigious universities, where tuition with room and board can be $60,000 a year (or more), will confront corresponding academic pressures. They’re heading into a confusing world where grades are fiercely competitive and prospective jobs are scarce. The dogmas of the politically correct shut down debate and ideology fills the personal void. Safe spaces and protests against freedom of speech flourish on many campuses and nonconformists have a hard time standing up to campus ideologues.
The class of ’20 thinks it’s more sophisticated than the classes that came before it — so has it ever been — but it nevertheless shares many of the sensitivities and vulnerabilities confronted by the generations before them. The gizmos and devices of their high-tech world enable them to ignore a certain portion of the real world, but they’re as immature as their parents and grandparents were and they’ll need the intellectual guidance that college generations before them required. But such guidance isn’t organized as it used to be.
College in the past was understood to be the place for discovering what Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century English critic, said was “the best that is known and thought in the world.” It was a training ground for trying on different ideas. The canon, or great works, which once exposed college freshman and sophomores to big ways to think about big ideas, is long gone. The fragments of the liberal arts approach which remain are diversified and diluted to trendy thinking about current “isms” of outrage. Complex ideas are reduced and simplified when they’re stuffed into a Procrustean bed of grievance.
Whether the lens is racism, feminism, capitalism or environmentalism, the young are encouraged to “feel good” about themselves and their pious opinions, with no particular respect for opposing points of view or those who hold such views.
“Know thyself” the best-known of the Delphic maxims of ancient Greece, cunningly was used by Socrates to seek the root of a person’s ideas. This was the philosophical notion for knowing the self as human in relation to the larger universe. It has morphed into “Know thy identity,” which has more to do with an ethnic placement of where a person stands on the spectrum of exploitation and victimhood. Insights are not developed by reading history, literature, psychology or philosophy, but superimposed on “the text.” Learning is subservient to ideology.
This was explored by Nathan Heller in the current New Yorker magazine, in an article titled “The Big Uneasy,” the tyrannical dogmatisms that malign the liberal arts on many elite college campuses. He focuses on Oberlin College in Ohio, described as politically “left of Bernie Sanders,” to examine the poisoning of the well of learning, cheating impressionable minds.
At Oberlin, the problem sprouted from little acorns of offense first expressed by students with multicultural backgrounds. The complaints could be as trivial as observing the “inauthentic” ingredients served in the dishes at the Afrikan Heritage House, but the acorns quickly grew into great oaks of outrage at the college, an institution described as functioning “on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and cissexist heteropatriarchy.” Throw in campus conversations, publications and posts filled with personal and political recriminations, ranging from conspiracies that Zionist Jews plotted September 11 to the lack of “trigger warnings” that some students would be offended by the study of Antigone, and you’ve got an anarchy of attitude.
Many of these arguments render college as farce, but the students pushing them are deadly serious. They’re unhappy that the education establishment failed them. Their perceived “isms” have made everything they have learned suspect and unsatisfying. The Class of ’20 is forewarned and, if they’re lucky, forearmed. Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.