Every time we seem to have reached peak insanity when it comes to the intellectually constipated and socially stultifying atmosphere on today’s college campuses, some new story manages to reveal vast new and untapped reservoirs of ridiculousness. In a world of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and official apologies featuring misgendered pronouns that start a whole new round of accusations, wonders never cease.
So when ’60s-radical-turned-Reagan-fanboy David Horowitz shows up at University of North Carolina to equate Islam with terrorism for the thousandth time, the student body gets the vapors, tries to shut him down, and creates the hashtag #notsafeUNC.
When a student publication prints a story called “So You Want to Date a Teaching Assistant?” in a special satirical issue, the whole run gets pulped.
When Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor at Northwestern, publishes an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education extolling her experiences sleeping with professors while a student, two current undergrads lodge complaints with the university’s Title IX office.
What does it say about the state of the campus today that comedian Chris Rock says he skips college tours now because today’s students are too “conservative”? He doesn’t mean that in a political sense. He means “in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”
On the wrong side of 50, I know I am an old fart. I graduated from college in 1985 and kicked around getting an M.A. in 1988 and a Ph.D. in 1996, so it’s been a while since I’ve been young and on a campus full time.
But really, what the fuck is wrong with kids these days and, more important, the supposed adults who look after them? They act as if they are raising human veal that cannot even stand on their own legs or face the sunlight without having their eyeballs burned out and their hearts broken by a single deep breath or uncomfortable moment. I’m just waiting for stories of college deans carrying students from class to class on their backs.
As a first-generation college student way back when, one of the very greatest things about college was engaging with ideas and attitudes that were different than what you already knew. Attending Rutgers in the early ’80s, you could walk from one end of the centuries-old College Avenue Campus to the other and encounter screaming matches over divesting the stocks of companies that did business in South Africa, whether Nicaragua was already a Soviet satellite, and the supposedly self-hating theology of Jews for Jesus.
Hardly a week went by, it seemed, without a public demonstration for and against the burgeoning gay rights movement, a protested showing of the anti-abortion movie Silent Scream, and debates over how great and/or evil Ronald Reagan actually was. The whole idea of college was about arguing and debating, not shielding ourselves from disagreements.
Even as it seemed to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of exotic new ideas, outrages, and attitudes, it wasn’t paradise, and I shudder to think of the insensitivities that were taken for granted by the privileged and internalized by the oppressed of the day. Nobody wants to return to the days when campus was segregated by race, gender, and lest we forget, class.
But the way students and especially administrators talk about college today, you’d think parents are paying ever-higher tuition so their children can attend a reeducation camp straight out of China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s as if college presidents, deans, and the ever-increasing number of bureaucrats and administrators and residence-life muckety-mucks walked away from Animal House firmly believing that Dean Wormer was not only the hero of movie but a role model. At all costs, order must be enforced and no space for free play or discord can be allowed!
A case in point is the administrative reaction to an April 16 lecture at Georgetown University by Christina Hoff Sommers. Way back in the 20th century (1995), Sommers, then a professor at Clark University, published Who Stole Feminism?, a wide-ranging and controversial critique of what she termed “gender feminism.” Where “equity feminists” such as herself pushed for legal and political equality under the law, Sommers accused “gender feminists” of discounting massive and ongoing improvements between the sexes, calling for privileged status for women and, ironically, reinscribing the idea that females needed special protection from brutish males.
Fast-forward 20 years. Sommers is now a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and talking at one of the nation’s leading basketball factories at the request of the College Republicans and the Clare Booth Luce Institute, a conservative organization named for the late playwright, stateswoman, homewrecker, and acid-eater. Sommers’ talk, titled “What’s Right (and Badly Wrong) with Feminism,” was in no way mandatory (like chapel used to be at religious schools) and it contained no surprises to anyone even barely acquainted with her work.
In a nutshell, Sommers still believes in “equity feminism” and still abjures “gender feminism.” She talked about the themes of her 2001 book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism in Harming Our Young Men, which started as an article in that seething crucible of misogyny The Atlantic. And she covered similar ground to that discussed in her popular YouTube series, The Factual Feminist.
During her talk, which can be viewed online here, protesters stood with signs warning that Sommers might trigger post-traumatic-stress flashbacks. They also denounced her as a rape apologist. (She regularly notes that sexual assaults have been declining for years, especially on college campuses, and she’s argued that Rolling Stone’s retracted story of a nonexistent gang rape at the University of Virginia exemplifies how ideology clouds the minds of many activists, journalists, and scholars.) At various points, some of the protesters asked questions and Sommers gamely answered them.
So far, so good. This is exactly the way college is supposed to work. Student groups invite speakers who give talks and answer questions. Words are exchanged, ideas debated, tempers flared, and everyone walks away hopefully a little wiser in epistemological humility or, more likely, even more secure in the fact that she alone possesses Truth with a capital T.
Then there’s Georgetown, which boldly claims to provide “a unique educational experience that prepares the next generation of global citizens to lead and make a difference in the world.” Which in this instance means demanding that the protesters’ faces and questions be edited out of the video posted at YouTube by the Clare Booth Luce Institute. The university’s assistant director of the center for student engagment, Lauren Gagliardi, emailed the College Republicans demanding that an “edited version [of the video] needs to be released without students who did not give permission to be taped.” Gagliardi also threatened that if the folks at the Luce Institute were “unwilling or unresponsive to the request, [then] Georgetown will need to step in.”
Good luck with that. Over at the blog Legal Insurrection, Laurel Conrad of the Luce Institute is having fun with the request and staking out a common-sense defense, writing, “It stretches credulity that Georgetown and its students would not understand that the lecture was a public event. The video camera was in plain view, and audience members themselves appear to be taking video and photos. It could not shock any student that he or she was on camera.”
In her post about the incident, Conrad invokes the “Streisand Effect,” which refers to attempts to shut down publicity that inadvertently increase it. (In 2003, La Barbra tried to block publication of her Malibu home in an online public database of aerial photographs, which caused over 400,000 people to access the site hosting the picture. Before Streisand’s demand, the image of her spread had been accessed just a half-dozen times.) By raising a stink, Georgetown has made the incident and video bigger than it ever was by inspiring news coverage on Fox News and at various news sites (including this one).
Perhaps the negative publicity from threatened reprisals will help break the spell that lies upon today’s campus climate like a patient etherized upon a table. Or perhaps all the stories of political correctness run amok and demands for “freedom from speech” are wild exaggerations and the phenomenon barely exists outside the confines of a few elite academies warehousing the overindulged offspring of America’s upper classes until they are shunted off into make-work jobs at their parents’ firms.
Either way, this much seems likely: Today’s students are even less prepared to deal with anything approaching the real world than those of us who graduated into a world that didn’t even pretend to care what our senior thesis was about. Take it from me, kiddos: The whole world is a microaggression when it isn’t openly kicking you up and down the street. And if your vast clone army of administrative busybodies can’t fully protect you from disappointment on campus, they’re even more useless once you’ve graduated and start paying off your student loans.