The curse of the col­lege cam­pus

The Class of 2020, armed with fresh high-school diplo­mas, gets a warn­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

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.


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