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.