“We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”
So said Yale University students to the faculty of the English department, perfectly encapsulating the attitude of the college activist in 2016. Students at campuses across the country are demanding—not asking, but demanding—fundamental changes to their education.
Sometimes, change is good, and these kids deserve to be heard. But the demands of student activists have increasingly taken an Orwellian bent—and, if met, would eviscerate the free speech rights of faculty members, campus visitors, and even other students.
Here are some of the craziest recent demands of liberal student activists this year.
Abolish English Classes that Feature White Male Poets
Yale activists who told the faculty, “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention,” had a very specific demand: they wanted to purge the English department of its colonialist course offerings by restructuring classes focused on white male poets.
Yale English majors are required to take a two-course sequence on the eight great poets of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. The problem? These poets are all white men.
“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” wrote student activists in a petition. “The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”
Yale does offer courses that feature more diverse readings. But the students have to complete the main sequence—on white male authors—first. For the angry students, that’s a problem. Explicitly, they don’t want more “diversity,” according to their petition: they don’t want to learn about so many dead white guys.
Of course, it’s not the English department’s fault that most of the very best poetry was written by wealthy white men. It’s not right, and it isn’t fair, that rich white men dominated Western culture for centuries, but nevertheless, that’s how history happened. Students should feel free to explore how female authors, and authors of color, were mistreated throughout history, but this shouldn’t exempt them from studying Shakespeare.
Implement Segregated Safe Spaces
It’s not just that the curriculum is too white: some students actually resent having to spend so much time surrounded by people who don’t belong to their tribe. Many activists, in fact, have asked their colleges to create segregated safe spaces for students of color, female students, LGBT students, or students of some other identity group.
In another age, such demands would have been ridiculed as racist. Imagine white students seeking to create a separate area for whites only. This effort would be denounced on both moral and legal grounds—there’s this thing called the Civil Rights Act—and rightfully so.
But it’s an increasingly popular demand among far-left student protesters. At the University of Arizona, the Marginalized Students (PDF)—a coalition of self-described oppressed students, including the Latino student association, black student association, Asian student association, LGBT student association, Native American student association, and women’s center—want safe spaces for each unique identity group. The black students, for instance, want a residence hall to themselves.
They are hardly alone. Student-activists at New York University want one floor of a campus building turned over to black students, and another floor given to LGBT students.
It’s not always clear that non-black students would be welcome in such spaces. Following the protests at the University of Missouri that brought about the ouster of Mizzou President Tim Wolfe, black student activists set up spaces of healing. They specifically asked white students—even those who self-identified as allies—to leave.
Students have the right to segregate themselves into groups, but there’s good reason for universities to avoid creating such spaces by design. A Facebook group that doubled as a safe space for women of color at the Claremont Colleges was anything but safe: several of the female students who frequented the group consistently posted hateful and derogatory comments about people of other genders and races.
Isn’t the point of college to bring people from diverse backgrounds together, rather than keep them apart?
No More Cross-Ethnic Food/Song/Dance/Haircuts
Students have also brought their quixotic Cultural Revolution to the cafeteria, where inauthentic ethnic food is considered a microaggression. At Oberlin College, Asian students complained that the General Tso’s chicken wasn’t up to their standards—a delicious irony, given that the meal was actually standardized in America as a way to introduce Americans to Asian food.
But people on campus have an increasing aversion to cultural intermingling. Some students don’t want white people practicing yoga, others think tequila and sombreros on Cinco de Mayo are offensive, and still others think Hindu chanting should be reserved for Hindus, even when performed with all due respect.
But nothing compares with Bonita Tindle, the irate San Francisco University student who attacked a white man because she objected to his dreadlocks. “It’s my culture,” Tindle explained.
As the previous examples suggest, there are a great many things that offend college students. But student activists don’t merely want to discourage offensive expression—they want to punish those who engage in it. To that end, student activists around the country seek the power to police microaggressions and discipline those who perpetrate them.
Microaggressions are subtle, bothersome digs based upon the slighted person’s race, gender, sexuality, disability status, orientation, age, or even their size. They are often subconscious—the micro-aggressor doesn’t realize he or she is saying something untoward—and they fall well under the category of protected First Amendment speech on public university campuses.
But students at Western Washington University want the administration to create a 15-person student committee to monitor “racist, anti-black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and otherwise oppressive behavior on campus.” No one would be safe: Even tenured faculty members accused of micro-aggressing someone would be subject to formal investigation. As an example of what qualifies as a microaggression in the eyes of these students, they spelled the word “history” with an “x”—as in “hxstory”—because the actual word is too patriarchal (“his” + “story”).
Get Rid of Grades and Tests
Students want far-reaching changes to the curriculum, cultural experience, and tradition of unfettered free speech on campuses. But their most absurd—and transparently self-serving—demand is somewhat mundane: they frequently want grades and tests to be limited, if not done away with entirely.
At Johns Hopkins University, administrators do not count first-semester freshmen’s grades. These students received grades, but they aren’t included on their transcript. The university is phasing out this practice, however, given concerns that it discourages new students from studying as hard as they should.
Student activists are utterly opposed to the new policy. One student, Erica Taicz, accused the administration of worsening her anxiety:
“I’m paying to have a support network, academically and mentally. I can’t be expected to do well in class if I’m depressed and have anxiety. If the school is worsening my anxiety, that’s their problem and they need to be held accountable for that.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,300 Oberlin students signed a petition calling on the college to make “C” the lowest possible grade such that no student would be deemed “below average.” Other students think special accommodations should be made for people who are too depressed, anxious, or triggered to take final exams. One student told The New Yorker that he expected his professors to proactively invite him to office hours to have a conversation about the course material in lieu of a midterm.
If there’s a common theme among these demands, it’s this: the modern college student thinks he or she (or xe) is uniquely oppressed, mistreated, and unsafe. They think a university education is too hostile, triggering, and difficult. They’re paying a great deal of money for this experience, and therefore it should be easy, pleasant, and re-affirming, in their view.
It was once the job of college professors to liberate young people from their delusions about the world in order to better prepare them to succeed in it. But 2016 might be the year the tables turned. Professors and administrators are increasingly caving to their students’ demands out of fear for their own job security.
In other words, there’s little reason to think we’ve reached peak campus insanity.