There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.
But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.
Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.
Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.
But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.
The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:
Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.
They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.
Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!
Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:
“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”
“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”
Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?
But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:
Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.
Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?
Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.
I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.
If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.
The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?