When my college got shut down in 2008, I was blamed. Not necessarily me as an individual, but as I was enrolled at Antioch College after the golden age of the baby boomers, I was part of a “toxic student culture” that the administration, older alumni, and conservative and mainstream media blamed.
What was amazing was that people didn’t even have to cast the blame explicitly or intentionally. The mention of any measure of politically-oriented student misbehavior immediately turned into the entirety of the discussion. The real reasons for Antioch’s closure were complicated and difficult*, involving corporate structure, financial shenanigans, and over-ambitious curriculum ideas. But having opinions about student culture—that’s easy.
*I’ve done my best to summarize the issues my article on “How Antioch Closed”.
See, bad student behavior is scurrilous and it’s seductive. You can’t turn away. It’s sexy. Indeed it was literally sex-based in Antioch’s case—In the past generation our school was best-known for it’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP), which turned into a national conversation in 1993 when it was discovered that this tiny little college in Ohio had the crazy idea that people should verbally consent when they have sex with one another. Even Saturday Night Live got in on the act. A generation later, the moral panic over verbal consent seems ridiculous—like gay marriage, its role in the culture war seems to be getting resolved like lined-up dominoes. Yet when the closure was announced, one privileged older alum took to the pages of The New York Times to blame the the SOPP and excessive liberalism without any particular evidence.
And why wouldn’t he? How very boring it is to talk about how Antioch University forced Antioch College (*yes, it’s confusing—Antioch College is Google here, and the university is Alphabet) to take on 10% of its budget every year in depreciation costs in 2001-2002. That’s boring compared to stories of watermelon fisting demonstrations at SOPP parties, major donors stopping to use the restroom in the student union and being freaked out by murals of fat people tenderly having sex, or 19-year-olds not handling racially charged Community Meetings with perfect grace.
It’s hard not to see the parallels between Antioch’s “toxic culture” and the current fad of handwringing about trigger warnings and microaggressions on college campuses. The controversies are the same—left-wing students seizing power from the adults, letting their unconventional political views get in the way of their education and the people who know best! Their goals are also explicitly feminist and their spokespeople usually young women, a combination essentially guaranteed to bring older mansplainers out to tell them that they’re being young wrong.
(*Trigger warnings are often supported by members of other traditionally underrepresented groups, to be certain, and the idea of “microaggressions” tends to come out of race-based societal analysis. This does not in any way prevent people from judging those students’ political savvy in parallel fashion.)
But here’s the big problem. If it were just that some people who weren’t college students had opinions about how students were spending their political energy, that would fine. Perhaps annoying, but fine. But because everyone can have an opinion about whatever the culture war topic du jour is, and because it’s so seductive that the media and readers can’t help but spray it all over the place (The Atlantic’s latest essay into the genre: 231,000 shares on Facebook. Vox’s from earlier this summer: 289,000!) As such, it’s not just part of the conversation about academia, it’s the entirety of conversations about the problems facing American academia outside of academia itself. It’s sucking all the air out of the room.
Not only is “terrifying” student culture dominating the conversation, it’s doing it in such a way that justifies reactionary attacks on the academic system. At Antioch, it went like this. Community members were blamed for having a toxic culture, and this idea was utilized internally to take power away from the people actually at the college and our long tradition of shared governance. Externally, it meant that every alumni discussion or external piece of media came down to this: current and recent Antiochians had to constantly fight to justify whether they deserved all the problems of the increasing financial crises.
American academia as a whole is under similar attack. The rest of Antioch University was structured in a way that made adjunct professors common and tenured profs rare—and the closure would sweep all tenured teachers out. Meanwhile the adjunctification of higher education is a critical issue (*number of Facebook shares: 61,000 in sixteen months, or 30% of what the trigger warning article received in four days), with the numbers of barely-paid adjuncts exploding in the past decade. University administrators praise the “flexibility” of not having tenured faculty and try to run schools “like a business,” even as administrative numbers and salaries have become monumentally bloated in that corresponding time.
In roughly that same time period student loans have grown dramatically as well, saddling an entire generation with debt that not even an emoji can encompass. Those loans have become necessary as tuition has gone up, and it’s not to pay for more expensive professors, but there’s a new Vice President of Development who’s gotta get six figures. Or it’s to make up for the slashed state investment in public education. If there’s one aspect of American universities that’s grown, it’s the amount of money invested in college athletics, but that money doesn’t even make it to the athletes, let alone the educational system at large. Coaches and Athletic Directors are doing okay, though.
And just like at Antioch, shared governance—the ideal that the stakeholders, the people most affected by decisions, should be making those decisions, especially faculty at learning institutions—is under attack. Power is being shifted upward, away from teachers and onto administrators, boards, or ambitious governors looking to show off their conservative bona fides by sticking it to the ivory tower liberals.
This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate discussions to be had. At Antioch, we needed to have more, better discussions about the dangers of ideological mobs and violent rhetoric, just as we needed to discuss how demands for politeness could also be used to silence legitimate complaints and tactics. They also needed to be understood in the context of the enforced austerity of the governance structure that, say, eliminated significant amounts of institutional support for diverse students.
Likewise, yes, there are certainly important conversations to be had about trigger warnings and microaggressions, but they should be had internally, by the stakeholders, in the tradition of shared governance. Questions of effective mental health care are for experts and sufferers to deal with individually, not commentators to make sweeping claims about from afar. These things are not our business--they’re the business of the people they affect.
And yes, there should be all kinds of conversations about the power faculty have over students, like the access professors have to op-eds in major magazines and websites to complain about their educational charges. There also need to be discussions about the power students have over faculty--how student evaluations of teachers tend to mirror society's prejudices against women. Perhaps even more important are the discussions about the power that administrators have over students and teachers (and staff!). Faculty are losing decision-making power in the entire system, as seductive as that narrative is. Politically-oriented students and faculty should be natural allies in the fights against adjunctification and corporatization of education, but trigger warnings turn it into a wedge issue.
That wedge issue is specifically ideological, and it’s specifically one that aids the right wing in both the culture wars and in their attacks on American academia. The trigger warning debate is a stalking horse, that drives potential liberal allies away from supporting higher education, while empowering the enemies of the university system.
It’s this wider context that makes the trigger warning controversy so dangerous. Worries about “political correctness” ignore the history of how the PC term was reinvented by right-wingers in order to discredit and silence campus radicals a generation ago. And it’s powerful Republicans leading the actual charge against universities, job security, and academic freedom. Beyond Wisconsin, there are examples of direct attacks on higher education from conservative governors in North Carolina and in Florida, just as a few examples.
There’s a history here, too: how is this current generation of oversensitive, too-PC students so different from the one lambasted by discredited felon Dinesh D’Souza in 1991’s Illiberal Education, or Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind? Ronald Reagan attacked protesters and hippies on his way to the California governorship, stirring up lurid thoughts of Beatles-soundtracked, marijuana-infused orgies at UC-Berkeley. Much like a Slayer, it seems that in every generation a campus culture war is born—I’ve little doubt that you could head back to the 1930s and discover moral panics about Stalinist-Trotskyite ideological battles on our campuses.
The danger isn’t merely ideological, either. Working the base into a froth about excessive “political correctness” doesn’t just support the Donald Trumps of the world, it also empowers threats of physical violence.
Tacked onto the end of the “My liberal students terrify me” Vox article is this fascinating, terrifying update:
Update: After a discussion with a woman whose tweet was quoted in the story, the editors of this piece agreed that some of the conclusions drawn in the article misrepresented her tweet and the article was revised. The woman requested anonymity because she said she was receiving death threats as a result of the story, so her name has been removed. Unfortunately, threats are a horrible reality for many women online and a topic we intend to report on further.
So not only was a key anecdote perhaps overinflated, but it served the purpose of giving the reactionary right, now firmly ensconced on social media, a target, who they then proceeded to attack mercilessly. Liberals and centrists may share these articles to worry about how kids today are too naïve and not savvy enough, but more sinister elements have more specific reasons for sharing these articles.
This reminds me of my last term as a student on-campus at Antioch in 2004, when the local media picked up a college controversy involving white students feeling threatened by the rhetoric of radical students of color. That report went viral...with the Ku Klux Klan, who suddenly appeared on campus, dropping piles of their newsletters on the steps of every building, following up by driving around and asking white students if they “needed any friends,” and then having a tiny march through the college town of Yellow Springs.
I was meeting with some students in the immediate aftermath of the newsletter attack when I remember an outspoken Latino student friend of mine asked some of us white students if we could walk him home. He did so with wry humor, acknowledging the absurdity, but also making clear the seriousness of the situation and his reaction. And so we walked in diamond formation across the tiny, idyllic campus into the Midwestern night, four white students surrounding a friend against the threat of a KKK gunshot, in 2004.