Preening At The Vermont Coffeehouse

Tom Nichols, who has curmudgeon potential should he seek to work a little harder on it, revisits the (thus far) ineffective calls to fire Camille Paglia from Philly’s University of the Arts and Sarah Lawrence’s “Diaspora Coalition’s” condemnation of its professor, Samuel Abrams. And, of course, the students at Vermont’s Middlebury College, threatening governmental suicide if their demands aren’t met.

In Vermont, students at Middlebury College have threatened to disband their own student government if the school does not respond to a hodgepodge of demands ranging from greater student presence in the administration to the creation of a black-studies department. Many years ago, I taught at Dartmouth College and lived in Vermont just up the road from Middlebury; just 1.1 percent of the population of Vermont, the whitest state in the nation, and 1.9 percent of Middlebury’s is black. That might make recruiting faculty for a black-studies department a challenge for any institution in the region, but students also want a two-year plan to create an LGBTQ center, hire more counselors who are “femme, of color, and/or queer,” and “provide a more robust health service for transitioning people,” proposals that are likely to be especially expensive for a small institution in rural New England.

If Middlebury had a more robust black-studies department, more counselors who are “femme, of color, and/or queer,” and a guarantee that anyone seeking the evisceration of their genitalia would get it upon demand, would there be any takers? This isn’t to say any of these demands are inherently wrong or bad, although one might expect a call for counselors to focus more on quality and effectiveness than “femme” or “of color.” But Nichols goes on to question where these entitled students are and how they got there.

This is not activism so much as it is preening would-be totalitarianism. If college is to become something more than a collection of trade schools on one end and a group of overpriced coffeehouses on the other, Americans have to think about how we got here and how to restore some sanity to the crucial enterprise of higher education.

It’s adorable when someone asks a question that was answered long ago, long before he pondered the obvious outcomes of schemes that could lead nowhere else.

As I wrote in a book titled The Death of Expertise, much of this, at institutions both great and humble, proceeds from a shift in the late 20th century to a kind of therapeutic model of education, which prioritizes feelings and happiness over learning. Colleges take the temperature of their students constantly, asking if they feel fulfilled, if they like their courses, and if they have any complaints. Little wonder that the students have made the short and obvious jump to the conclusion that they should be in charge.

Nichols questions the “why,” running the gamut of the “unbridled and performative student activism” disease born of affluence, over indulgent parents and, of course, the “shameless dereliction of duty among faculty and administrators.”

He’s right, of course, but he’s wrong. The reason we’re seeing this now is that academics, administrators, parent and pundits didn’t heed my warning in 2012 that they need to take back the classroom or lose it.

Dear Lawprofs:  Take back your classroom.  These are not your peers, your colleagues. Perhaps one day they will be, but not now. When you seek their approval, you forfeit your authority to teach them.  If they are wrong, someone must tell them they are wrong. If they lack the capacity to become a lawyer, someone must give them a dime and tell them to call their mother.

But they won’t like you?  Too bad. Your job is not to be liked, but to teach blobs of clay to become lawyers. You do not need any more permission than the fact they sit in your classroom.  They disagree with what you say? Too bad. They are students. They know nothing. That’s why they’re there.  Their feelings will be hurt if you don’t apologize for anything less than glowing validation of their every thought, and they will take it out on you in their evaluations?

That’s why they pay you the big bucks.

It might be a fabulous intellectual exercise to argue the myriad factors that brought about the delusion that students went to college for the sake of engaging in activism, but it’s a truism that if you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers. If the problem is college students paying exorbitant tuition and coming out the other end with nothing but a Starbucks mochaccino to show for it, the question is why are they not being taught?

Indeed, students at Brown University noticed the time-consuming nature of changing the world, and in 2016 demanded less schoolwork so that they could devote more effort to their “social-justice responsibilities.” As one anonymous undergraduate told the Brown school newspaper, “There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes, and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on.” A senior with the wonderfully appropriate name of Justice Gaines told the paper, “I don’t feel okay with seeing students go through hardships without helping and organizing to make things better.”

School is a place where one is educated. If you’re a lawprof, teach law. If you’re a physics prof, teach physics. If the little shits don’t like you because you make them study or fail, and they have no time to indulge their feelings, too bad.

The reason these students maintain the belief that they are in charge and that schools must either accede to their demands or they will ball up in the corner and cry is that academics gave them their classrooms. Back then, it was clear where this would lead. So what if parents were indulgent. So what if admins want to keep their customers happy? You’re the teacher. Teach. They took over your classroom because you let them, you handed it over to them, because you want them to love you, as if that’s what it was all about.

Teach. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. If that’s too hard for you, then get the hell out and let someone competent teach. I told you this years ago, before you bent over and let them do as they will. And if the kids don’t like it, hand them a dime.

24 thoughts on “Preening At The Vermont Coffeehouse

  1. Richard Kopf


    It is true that you warned us all in 2012. It is also true that we don’t need to spend a lot of time pondering why so many universities have surrendered to the demands of students. The point is simple–real teaching often requires professors to motivate their students with cattle prods.

    Forgive me a moment for being pedantic. But long before your warning in 2012, Plato, through Socrates, mirrored your thoughts in his Allegory of the Cave. There he informs us that students begin as prisoners chained in a dimly lighted cave. They know only the shadows in front of them. When helped to escape from the cave, they are blinded by the light. They are disoriented. They are unsure. In a word, they are scared. And, most importantly, they hate their rescuers for inducing such insecurities.

    At least in the beginning, professors, and most especially law professors, must be hated by their students. Once that has been achieved, real teaching can begin. Docile professors turn out dolts. Middlebury students are dolts. And that, my friend, is a syllogism.*

    All the best.


    * Not exactly Aristotelian logic but close enough.

  2. Anon Prawf

    This is a little unfair. Not only is there little support of administration and fellow faculty, but a likelihood condemnation for failure to acquiesce to the students activist demands, plus policy requirements such as only using preferred pronouns, rigorous education can spell the brutal end of an academic’s tenure.

    Some of us want only to teach, but that’s no longer the climate on campus.

    1. SHG Post author

      Was that the case in 2012, or now, after the lunatics have been handed control of the asylum? Who could have quashed this nonsense at the outset? Did you? Did your colleagues? Or did everyone make excuses for why it was easier to give tummy rubs and acquiesce to the babies’ feelings than take back your classroom?

    2. CLS

      As renowned former legal scholar Bill Hicks once remarked, “Welcome to “No Sympathy Night.” Welcome to “You’re Wrong Night.”

  3. B. McLeod

    I know where they can get a Satanist and a [Ed. Note] to lead their firearms safety classes.

  4. wilbur

    Two thoughts:

    In a logical world, an interest in running for a position in student government should be prima facie grounds for expulsion, Partner, you’ve got way too much free time on your hands.

    If they advertised for positions to fill “a more robust black-studies department,(or) more counselors who are “femme, of color, and/or queer,” I suspect they would be deluged with applications. How many available positions are there like this compared to out-of-work degree holders in these areas?

  5. Hunting Guy


    I don’t see any STEM students making those demands at the universities I’m affiliated with.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    If I was a college president facing a student government threatening to dissolve itself if its demands are not met, I would reply “challenge accepted”. This is why I’m not a college administrator. Also this is why the Judean People’s Front Suicide Squad failed.

  7. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I was a campus activist. I didn’t like seeing the student government act in the best interest of the administration against the students, so I and some friends ran for office and took it away from the fratboys and changed things around. We even sued the university. But back then, this was something that we did after class. The only time I ever missed class was when the campus police arrested me during an election and kept me in jail until it was over. That was when I gave up on student government. Maybe I’m a pussy for giving in to their hardball tactics, but I wanted to pass my classes. It never occurred to me to suggest to my professors that they should stop expecting me to learn, so that I could fight for justice. I was there to learn.

    Today’s students are being shortchanged by their universities. They might get the piece of paper that says that they are educated, but at what cost? Universities now only exist to separate fools from their money while leaving their foolishness intact.

  8. phv3773

    “That might make recruiting faculty for a black-studies department a challenge for any institution in the region…”

    A brief search finds that of the four faculty members responsible for the minor in African-American Studies at MIddlebury, two are African-American. And, they are not the only African-Americans on the faculty. So, maybe not an insurmountable challenge.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or exactly the opposite, or nothing of the sort. This is like the best-of-reddit level thinking.

      1. David

        You think Nichol’s argument, that they can’t manage it because there aren’t enough Black profs in Vermont, was better?

        1. SHG Post author

          Nichol’s arg didn’t make much sense either. There may not be a lot of black profs floating around in New England either, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be happy to come if they’re offered jobs. Have black studies, will travel.

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