Life Sucks. College Should, Too.

Want to get a conservative intellectual hoppin mad? Tell them (yes, I can use the plural to refer to just one person now) that college students have a right to complain.

back to school thornton melon

College protesters get no respect…

A recent comment about the harshness of real life by a new Haverford student has a few conservative commenters cheering. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m no conservative myself. But I wonder if erudite pundits such as R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher really want to start down the anti-intellectual path they seem to be taking.

In the pages of the social platform Odyssey, Haverford student Olivia Legaspi explains that working at McDonald’s taught her more about life than did her elite college sensitivity seminars. As she put it,

I have PTSD — because of this, the environment at work was anxiety-producing much of the time. Yet there was no “trigger warning” for when a customer was about to start yelling, when the restaurant would get so busy that I had no time to breathe between orders and the noise would make me feel faint, when a group of men in the drive-thru would whistle and catcall me as they pulled away. The sexual harassment I experienced there is another story entirely — the point is, at work, my mental illness and I were irrelevant. And from that, I grew; I learned to take care of myself in ways that didn’t inconvenience anyone, draw unnecessary attention to myself, or interfere with the structures in place and the work which had to be done. McDonald’s was not a “safe space” for me, and that was how it should be; I was a small part of a big picture, and my feelings had no business influencing said big picture.

At First Things and The American Conservative, respectively, R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher cheer Legaspi’s real-world education. McDonald’s, Dreher cheers, taught her the value of “hard work and humility.” Her essay, Reno notes, shows that excessive college “luxury isn’t helpful.”

I can’t believe they really mean it. And, to be fair, Reno explicitly points out that the goal of college should be to create “communities of care that uplift rather than run down.” However, to say that college students should not be complaining about unsafe spaces because the real world is not safe misses the point entirely.

This is the same tired anti-intellectual argument that we’ve seen for generations. Why study Plato, or postmodernism, or piano, when such things are not valued in the real world?  I don’t believe thoughtful commentators really hope to diminish the value of non-real-world higher education.

What should we do instead? All of us—progressive, conservative, and either/or—should be celebrating the fact that a few college students are a little over-eager in their moral activism. We don’t want to castigate schools for helping create a safe space. Rather, we should be encouraging students to take their campus activism out to the streets and the fast-food counters.

Legaspi points out that her McDonald’s manager would have simply fired her if she tried to complain about working conditions. To her mind—and to Reno’s and Dreher’s—that real-world lesson was worth more than any sensitivity-raising workshop at Haverford. But they seem to come to the morally opposite conclusion. Instead of pushing Haverford to loosen up and get more like McDonald’s, we should all be figuring out ways to make McDonald’s more like Haverford.

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”?

Why Campuses Have Become Timid

You’ve heard the lament: College campuses these days have become intellectual hothouses; students force teachers and administrators to crush any hint of controversial thinking; students insist on atmospheres purged of ideas that might upset them. In the new issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer an analysis of the phenomenon. But why didn’t they invite a historian to their party? For two smart guys, their answers are sadly shorn of any of the historical context that best explains our current “snowflake” syndrome.

The authors review the recent happenings on college campuses. Professors complain that they are muzzled and beleaguered. Students who offend are crushed under the bootheels of climate enforcers. Comedians no longer perform on college campuses.

Macro-aggressions . . .

Macro-aggressions . . .

Instead of feisty arenas in which a universe of ideas battle ferociously, some college campuses have become daycare centers at naptime, the authors charge. Why?

The recent trend toward what Haidt and Lukianoff call “vindictive protectiveness,” they argue, results from generational trends. Today’s college students grew up wearing helmets everywhere. They grew up on Facebook; they grew up in an era of vicious partisan polarization. The results, they conclude, are more than sad. They are scary portents of the ways campuses have pushed students to think in negative ways.

All these things make sense, but they ignore the obvious explanation from the history of higher education itself. Instead of as a psychological “vindictive protectiveness,” an historian of higher ed might explain today’s student activism as an exhibition of “insurgent inclusionism.”

Today’s sometimes-excessive zeal for inclusionism might be traced most immediately to campus tumults of the 1960s. To take examples only from my home state of New York, battles at Columbia, Cornell, and City College of New York all laid the historic seeds for today’s campus activism.

At Columbia, student leftists took over the administration building and helped set a precedent that evil lurked incarnate behind the carved doors of deans’ offices. At Cornell, students demonstrated that no excess of violence would be too much in order to promote their agenda. At CCNY, the very structure of the school itself was turned on its head.

These were all very different episodes, but all of them set the precedent for student moral activism. The good guys in every case were those who were willing to go to any extreme—even shotgun-wielding threats—to create “inclusive” atmospheres.

The moral definitions were established. Those who resorted to extreme measures to promote more egalitarian campuses, places more welcoming to non-white, female, and underrepresented students were the good guys. Those who resisted were the bad guys.

These days, talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” seems an obvious historical development of that moral logic. Insurgent inclusionism dictates extreme tactics to be sure that no historically underrepresented group is left out. Why do student activists take such extreme measures against “microaggressions?” Because such things are seen as the latest flowering of white, male campus elitism.

Haidt and Lukianoff are likely aware of this obvious historical trajectory. I understand that they are mainly interested in other questions. Furthermore, I’m a fan of Haidt’s work. I considered it a big compliment when a recent reviewer planned to teach a culture-war class using my recent book along with Haidt’s Righteous Mind. As a psychologist, however, Haidt seems to ignore the obvious historical logic for our current campus climate, and that historical logic is important.

Without it, it’s easy to get caught up in the alarmist tone of the article. As I’ve argued before, today’s campuses are not as monotonous and timid as these sorts of articles imply. We should not tremble at the thought that student activists are up in arms for moral causes—even if we disagree with the tenor of their protests.

Campus activists these days consciously model themselves on the strident moralism of their 1960s ancestors. Do some of their protests verge into the merely silly? Yes. But overall, the logic of their protests has developed from the best traditions of student activism.

We don’t need to define away student protests as psychologically suspect.