Inside the Belly of the Beast

Why would they do it?

Why would a group of college students physically attack a professor in order to show their disapproval of an invited speaker?

Why would students demand the resignation of a professor because his wife told them to relax about the politics of Halloween costumes?

These reactions seem extreme and mind-boggling. If we want to make sense of the new wave of repressive student activism on college campuses, we need to start with two not-so-obvious facts:

  1. Only a few college students actually behave this way—and there’s a pattern to it.
  2. There’s a long history to this sort of thing.

So, first, who are the students who are staging these sorts of shut-down-speaker protests? As usual, Jonathan Zimmerman hit the nail on the head the other day. Students at elite schools like his tend to be more aggressively united in their leftism. What seems normal at Penn and Yale, though, isn’t normal at most schools.

He’s exactly right. Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution crunched some numbers and came to the same conclusion. As they put it,

the schools where students have attempted to disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average. . . . The average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.

The wonks at The Economist agree. “Colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited,” they concluded recently. They even plotted an attractive three-color chart to prove it:bicker warning

So it seems safe to say that richer students at fancier schools tend to be more likely to stage this sort of shut-up protest than college students in general. Of course, we don’t know for sure in every case, but the tendency is clear.

So what?

It adds a moral dimension to these protests that needs more attention. We’ve been down this road before.

In the 1970s, a group of elite college students broke off from Students for a Democratic Society to form the violent militant group Weather Underground. They didn’t do much, but they wanted to. By the 1970s, the FBI was after them.

weather_wanted

Okay, but did they contribute to the alumni fund?

They weren’t just run-of-the-mill college students. Bill Ayers’ father, for example, was CEO of Commonwealth Edison. Ayers the Elder even has a college named after him at my alma mater. That’s not something most Americans have experienced.

Bernardine Dohrn grew up in the tony Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay. (When I taught high school in Milwaukee, the kids jokingly referred to it as “White Folks’ Bay.” Ha.) She graduated from the super-elite University of Chicago. Clark also attended the University of Chicago. Boudin’s father was a high-powered New York lawyer and she went to Bryn Mawr College.

Their elite backgrounds and college experiences mattered. Weather rhetoric was flush with talk about their privileged status and the need for white elites to act violently.

In 1970, for example, Dohrn issued the Weather Underground’s first “communication,” a “DECLARATION OF A STATE OF WAR.” Rich white kids, Dohrn explained, had a “strategic position behind enemy lines.” They had a chance to strike from inside the belly of the beast. And they had a moral duty to act violently in support of world-wide anti-American revolutionary movements. It was time, Dohrn wrote, for rich white kids to prove that they were not part of the problem, they were part of the violent solution. As she put it,

The parents of “privileged” kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us. But the war and the racism of this society show that it is too fucked-up. We will never live peaceably under this system.

Again…so what? What does this prove?

It helps us understand college protests that don’t seem to make common sense. Why would a group of college students assault a professor to protest against racism? Why would they react so ferociously to a seemingly innocuous comment about Halloween costumes?

Because—at least in large part—students from wealthy families at elite colleges are in a peculiar pickle. If they are at all interested in moral questions, they find themselves in a tremendously compromised moral position. They are the beneficiaries of The System. They are the ones who profit from America’s imbalanced racial and economic hierarchy. They enjoy their cushy lifestyles and glittering future prospects only because they were given an enormously unfair head start in life.

If you care at all about social justice, that’s a heavy burden to bear. One way to handle the strain is to go to extreme lengths to signal your rejection of The System. Though protests at fancy colleges may seem strange to the rest of us, they make sense if we see them as demonstrations of rejection, as proof of position. In other words, some students at elite colleges—at least the ones who do the reading—are desperate to demonstrate that they are not happy with racism, sexism, and class privilege. They need to show everyone that they are not lapdogs of the exploiters. Their protests are not only about changing policies, but about proving something about themselves. And those sorts of protests will necessarily swing toward extreme actions.

In the end, we will only scratch our heads if we try to figure out why liberal students insist on illiberal policies in terms of day-to-day political strategy. Instead, we need to see these protests as shouts of separation, desperate and ultimately ill-starred attempts to prove that students from the 1% are standing with the rest of us.

DeVos’ Trump Card

Why, oh why, would anyone think Secretary Betsy DeVos was qualified to serve as leader of the Department of Education?  We see a hint this week from pro-DeVos protesters in Maryland.  Secretary DeVos is tapping into the most powerful impulse in American schooling.  Schools have always promised first and foremost to do something more important than readin, writin, and rithmatic, and DeVos gets it.

First, the background: Secretary DeVos teamed up with friendly GOP Governor Larry Hogan to visit a Bethesda elementary school.  They planned to read some Dr. Seuss to compliant little kids.

Recent Trump politics, however, turned the visit into a forum about Trump’s immigration policies.  As Politico reports, Governor Hogan attracted anti-Trump ire by insisting he would veto a school sanctuary bill for undocumented students.  Protesters blasted DeVos and Hogan for targeting immigrants.

Trump’s team, though, shifted the discussion to America’s primal fear about schooling.  Why should undocumented immigrants be rooted out of American schools?  Spokesperson Sean Spicer focused on the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl at a Maryland high school.  Her alleged attackers were in the country illegally, Spicer explained.

Secretary DeVos didn’t miss a beat.  Before she ventured out to visit another school, DeVos offered a public statement.  She didn’t talk about Dr. Seuss or the Common Core.  She didn’t talk about school vouchers or charter schools.  Instead, she talked about rape:

As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of this terrible crime.  We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.

At least some of the Bethesda protesters thought DeVos hit the nail on the head.  While most of the signs protested against DeVos’s policies, at least two of the protesters agreed with her.  One sign read, “Protect Children in Our Schools.”  Another said, “Thanks Betsy.”

pro devos protesters

Safety First. Photo by Sonya Burke

For those Bethesda supporters and for DeVos fans across the nation, the most important job of schools is not teaching kids to read or to share.  Rather, the most important thing a school needs to do is keep children safe.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, no matter what the issue, conservatives were able to win when they built their arguments about children’s safety.  Because no one, of course, wants to put kids in danger.  So when anti-evolution protesters wanted to ban evolution, they compared evolution to poison.  When sex-ed protesters wanted to ban sex-ed, they compared sex-ed to rape.

Over and over again, protesters focused on safety.  And conservatives aren’t the only ones who win with this strategy.  These days, leftist college students and their faculty allies have scored terrific success in a seemingly quixotic campaign to ban controversial speakers from their campuses.  Pundits and professors have often been flabbergasted at the ways college administrators cave to such censorship.

Why is it so easy for protesters to ban ideas?  Because they appeal to administrators’ prime directive: Keeping students safe.  Listen to the odd apology given by Yale’s administration in the wake of the Christakis costume controversy.  Instead of talking about the politics of Halloween costumes, Dean Jonathan Halloway told student protesters,

Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation.

First and foremost, no matter what the issue, safety wins.  As always, The Simpsons said it best.  In any discussion about schools or public policy, Helen Lovejoy could be counted on to wail, “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?”  It didn’t have to be relevant.  It didn’t have to be helpful.  But Helen would always belt it out, because she knew she could never lose by harping on the safety of the children.

It’s funny because it’s true.  And Secretary DeVos knows it.  We can argue about vouchers and charters.  We can hem and haw about religion in public schools.  But no one—NO ONE—will ever win a political fight in these United States by saying that schools can be risky places for kids.

What Today’s Campus Radicals Should Be Doing

Not instead of, mind you, but in addition to. We all know elite colleges and college-watchers are aflutter with the recent batch of campus protests. A dean at Claremont McKenna was roasted for inappropriately worded sympathy. An instructor at Yale was blasted for inappropriately worded revelry. Cafeteria workers at Oberlin were attacked for inappropriately sautéed chicken.

protestingoncampus

What do we want? Not sure! When do we want it? Now!

With good reasons, pundits have excoriated these overly precious effusions of moral indignation. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m bullish overall on this round of campus activism. But I think we old folks should humbly remind today’s students of some of the more elementary rules of social activism. In short, we need to remind today’s activists that it is more important to hit em where it hurts than to garner big negative headlines.

What effect do today’s protests have? They allow people around the country to laugh up their sleeves at the ways fancy students react to the tiniest smidgens of intellectual discomfort. That is not their aim. Rather, I think today’s protests are, at heart, admirable attempts to make elite colleges more truly inclusive, more truly welcoming.

That is an enormously important goal. If elite colleges remain the province of an already privileged minority, we will see nothing but a fierce doubling-down of America’s yawning class divide.

Today’s elite university students are in a unique position to change the game. If students can push colleges to do more than change their ideological window-dressing, they might make higher education more welcoming to all.

But just chanting and blocking aren’t enough.

Elite colleges these days only retain their inflated prestige due to their ability to set potential students against one another. The competition for spots at elite schools has become fiercer than ever. That allows the top schools to reject most applicants, retaining their “selective” status and feeding the vicious cycle.

What can today’s campus radicals do? Go on an application strike. If no top students applied to Oberlin, Yale, or Claremont McKenna, the elite status of those schools would be instantly deflated. That is something school administrators absolutely could not allow. They would be willing to make real, dramatic changes to their admissions policies in order to bring back top applicants.

Could it work? Probably not, because applicants have nothing in common except their deep insecurities and hyperactive resume-building. And this scheme would face the eternal problem of labor solidarity. If a few scabs chose to take advantage, the entire scheme would be defeated.

Moreover, as Peter Greene has recently noted, elite college students today are literally killing themselves in their competition with their fellow applicants. That sort of mindset does not lend itself to picket-line solidarity.

Plus, this kind of activism would require real sacrifice on the part of student activists. They would have to gamble with their collegiate futures. Instead of just protesting on Monday, then graduating and moving into their high-powered careers on Tuesday, this plan might leave them out in the cold, forced to attend less-Olympian schools.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth talking about. The real problem of inclusion at today’s top universities is not a question of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes or cafeteria offerings. The real problem, instead, is that students are fighting each other tooth and nail for admission. Only students who are already privileged stand a chance to get into the even-more-privileged world of high-end higher education.

Change that, and you could make some real changes in the inequities of schools and society.

Hijab & Halloween

Well, that just proves it, you might be tempted to say. When Wheaton College can suspend a tenured professor for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” it just goes to show that the “Fundamentalist Harvard” is (still) more “Fundamentalist” than “Harvard.”

Hawkins Wheaton

Whose God?

But wait just one minute. If we look at this episode another way, we see that Wheaton’s recent strange action puts it smack dab in the mainstream of elite higher education these days.

You’ve probably seen the story by now. As Christianity Today reports, political science professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended recently. Professor Hawkins planned to wear a traditional Islamic headcovering—the hijab—during Advent this year to express her Christian solidarity with Muslims.

That’s not why she was suspended, at least not officially. The college suspended her, officially, for her statements about God. In a Facebook post on December 10, Professor Hawkins explained the reasons for her act of sartorial solidarity: “as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Non-evangelicals like me might not see the problem. But as Christianity Today pointed out, the question of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is intensely controversial among some Christians.

It is tempting to see this episode as proof of Wheaton’s continuing status as a school outside of the higher educational mainstream. As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, however, the truth has always been more complicated. Wheaton is NOT outside the mainstream here. Rather, this is exactly the sort of action that is taking place at elite colleges across the nation.

Of course, the details are different; the specific issues are different. In Wheaton’s case, the administration acted to suspend Professor Hawkins because, in their words,

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.

This final problem of “theological clarity” seems to be the rub. Wheaton’s administration said they sympathized with Prof. Hawkins’s sympathy for Muslims. But, they repeated, “our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.” Professor Hawkins, in short, was suspended for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”

Obviously, no pluralist, liberal, or secular school would suspend a professor for an act of theological un-clarity. As we’ve seen over the past few months, however, elite colleges everywhere are suspending professors and administrators for actions and statements that seem inconsistent with their non-theological convictions.

Like Professor Hawkins, for example, Erika Christakis at Yale has left her teaching duties. Why? Because she wrote an email that many students found unsettling. We might say that Christakis’s suspension was due to her lack of sufficient “clarity” about her racial ideology.

Or, we might consider the case of Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna College. Did Dean Spellman make racist comments? No, but her attempt to care for one non-white student seemed to lack clarity to many students and activists.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it. But I think it is true, and I think this episode is further proof: Mainstream colleges today are moving more toward the “impulse to orthodoxy” that has been the hallmark of conservative evangelical colleges like Wheaton.

It’s easy enough to point out differences, of course. At Wheaton, pressure came from conservative alumni and administrators. At the other schools, pressure came—at first—from students. At Wheaton, the statement of faith is explicit and official, whereas the other orthodoxies are implicit and tentative.

In the end, though, I think the parallels are striking. At elite colleges these days, instructors, students, and administrators are expected to do more than agree generally and in principle with their schools’ current orthodoxy. They are expected, rather, to agree with forceful clarity. They are expected to avoid any statement or action that “seem[s] inconsistent” with dominant moral ideas.

To this reporter, it looks as if Wheaton College continues to be more similar than different from other elite schools these days.

HT: EH

Power on Campus: Fundamentalists Have the Last Laugh

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. At places such as Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Missouri, presidents are resigning and faculty are trembling. Ham-fisted protesters are demanding an end to free speech. Halloween costumes have become a disguise for racial oppression. To regular joes and pundits alike, this burst of campus outrage can seem puzzling. But there is one group to whom this phenomenon would make perfect sense.

A brief review of the cases:

The episodes can tell us a good deal about the real levers of power on campus. Who doesn’t have power? Administrators charged with insensitivity toward systematic racism and oppression. They get the boot, and fast, if they seem to oppose racial inclusivism.

Who else doesn’t have power? Students who want bread-and-butter economic reforms of higher ed. Even when a million students protested for lower tuition and lower student debt, it didn’t generate the same feverish buzz as these recent racial protests. To my knowledge, no university president has resigned because his or her school is expensive.

Who else is out? Even protesters against racial insensitivity, if they try to use physical coercion. When that happened recently at Missouri, for instance, the offending bully resigned and even sympathetic leftist pundits agreed that the protesters weren’t “always-wise.”

Just as informative, these protests tell us who really has power on campus. Who has it? Football teams. Duh. But even those athletes are energized by a surprising fact.

The real power on campus these days comes from an ancient but complicated moral idea. We might call it “the impulse to orthodoxy.” It can be tricky to understand, especially since no one is talking about it in those terms. The impulse to orthodoxy includes a moral two-step: Not only must people behave in a moral way, but they must actively seek out and root out those who fail to understand the proper reasons for moral action.

How does this ancient idea work in today’s campus protests? The successful campus protests these days insist not only that school leaders fight racism. More telling, protesters are fired up by the idea that they are under a moral imperative to expose and exclude all those who do not adequately understand the nuances of systematic racism.

At Missouri, for example, system president Tim Wolfe eventually resigned due to a perceived lack of administrative action against repeated racial incidents. The protesters wanted more than new policies. They wanted Wolfe out. Why? Because Wolfe personally seemed to misunderstand or even belittle complaints about systematic racism. One student leader went on a much-publicized hunger strike until Wolfe was kicked out. The student, Jonathan Butler, explained that only the ouster of Wolfe would make the school “a better place.”

At Yale, too, the impulse to orthodoxy has caused some observers to scratch their heads. On one level, it seems like a slightly hysterical protest about a fairly reasonable request. Faculty masters Nicholas and Erika Christakis suggested that students might relax about Halloween costumes. So what’s the problem? Morally orthodox students could not stand Christakis’s suggestion that they simply “look away” from offensive outfits. For the orthodox, looking away from immorality is as bad or worse than the immorality itself.

A similarly insufficient zeal damned an administrator of the elite Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean of Students Mary Spellman wrote a sympathetic email to a student who complained about racial insensitivity. So what’s the problem? Spellman included a line about non-white students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” To protesters, such language smacked of a hidden, intolerable insensitivity.

In all these cases, school leaders and faculty are under attack for two reasons. First, they are accused of displaying an inadequate understanding of and zealousness about racial inclusivity. The oft-confusing part, though, comes from the second reason. The impulse to orthodoxy demands that such inadequate agreement be tirelessly sought out and ruthlessly purged. It is not enough to apologize. Campus protesters feel free to use any coercion, stamp out any speech, if those things seem to promote immorality.

Today’s racial protesters will be surprised at the people who might understand them best: Protestant fundamentalists. As I’m finding out as I research my new book, the history of fundamentalist higher education is mostly the story of a similar impulse to orthodoxy. Beginning in the 1920s, it was not enough for fundamentalists simply to protest against secularization of the academy. It was not enough simply to disagree with the theological implications of evolution. Rather, for fundamentalists since the 1920s, it was necessary to demand that schools purge all such things. When that didn’t work, fundamentalists opened their own schools, places such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Bryan College.

Throughout their histories, fundamentalist colleges have taken drastic action to purge any hint of compromise. In 1961, for example, Wheaton scientist Russell Mixter had to offer elaborate apologies to those who thought he might have accepted mainstream evolutionary theory.

These days, similar drastic action is wracking the campus of Bryan College. Faculty who seem not to be sufficiently zealous in their embrace of a young earth are being shown the door.

Of course, the specific moral ideas are extremely different. At fundamentalist colleges, the dangerous trends were toward theological modernism and evolutionary science. At today’s elite mainstream colleges, the moral imperative demands the removal—root and branch—of those who don’t sufficiently act against systematic racism.

Yet the impulse remains the same. The moral imperative of orthodoxy requires more than just a certain set of ideas. It implies a tireless and ruthless dedication to root out all those who do not adequately understand or embody those ideas.

Yale + Halloween = Kardashian

Do we dare not to care?  You’ve seen the news by now: Students and administrators at Yale fretted that thoughtless Halloween costumes might subject them to “cultural appropriation” and steal from them their “voice” and “agency.”  Certainly, it’s easy enough to poke fun at this sort of holiday “snowflake”-ism.  But there’s another question we should also ask: Why do we care?

Insensitive appropriation of cats?...pirates? ...bad taste?

Insensitive appropriation of cats?…pirates? …bad taste?

In case you’ve been preoccupied with real life, the story can be told quickly.  (If you’d like more detail, try here, here, or here.)  Yale’s administration issued an email suggesting that students should think in advance about the cultural sensitivity of their costumes.  Don’t use blackface.  Don’t go as a “wild Indian.”  Etc.  One faculty member, Erica Christakis, responded that such warnings reduced adult Yale students to quivering infants.  Can’t we all be trusted, she asked, to act a little subversive on Halloween?

The response was swift and sure.  Students and their allies denounced Christakis and called for her removal.  They denounced her intentions and racist and oppressive, though she had explicitly supported “concerns about cultural and personal representation.”

It is easy enough to bemoan Yalies’ response to this Halloween email as another egregious overreach by “Snowflake Totalitarians,” privileged students who censor and shout down any smidge of a disturbing idea.  It is also fairly easy to defend the students, in the words of one writer, “to understand why people of color would feel marginalized by the email and the university.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  I tend to agree with the protestors.  Or, at least, I’m happier to see students morally outraged—perhaps to excess—than to see students drinking their way through country-club collegiate life.

But let’s consider a different question today: Why do we care?  Why is it so very interesting to so many of us what goes on at Yale?  After all, hardly anyone actually goes to school there.  For almost everyone, college life is worlds removed from the elite goings-on at Yale, or Princeton, or Harvard.  And, if we measure college by relative earnings, Yale comes out near the bottom.yale low rank

So why do we care?  I’d like to suggest two possible reasons and I’ll welcome suggestions and denunciations.  In essence, though, I think we’re seeing here the higher-educational fruits of Americans’ ferocious love/hate relationship with celebrities.

First, I think there’s some amount of schadenfreude at play.  Just as ratings skyrocket when Kim Kardashian stumbles through another atrocious episode of her public life, we regular folk outside of the Ivy League love to see those snobs act stupid.  More proof, if we needed it, that those grapes were sour to begin with.

Also, I detect among academic schlubs like myself a certain titillation with the celebrity factor.  No one doesn’t know Yale.  Americans are excited and interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

When Ivy-League students act with predictably adolescent over-zealousness to each new situation, do we all have to talk about it so much?  Or will it be culturally insensitive of us to take Professor Nicholas Christakis’s advice and “look away”?