Classes start on Monday. I knew that intellectually, of course, but I had it brought home to me a few days ago when I innocently drove onto the campus, only to find a traffic jam and crossing guards directing the cars. Students were moving into the dorms, you see.
Higher education is beset with problems nowadays, and I can recite the litany as well as any faculty member. But for all the legitimate complaints, the bottom line is that I still think I have the best job in the world. I get out of bed in the morning excited to go to work, and the upsides of my job vastly outweigh the downsides.
Right now the big “back to school” news in higher education is this letter, sent by the University of Chicago to incoming freshman. The letter takes a strong stance in favor of free speech, and against political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other buzzwords.
I see that Jerry Coyne, on the faculty at Chicago, thinks this is great. P. Z. Myers, in a histrionic post, explains why he is less impressed. Personally, I’m mostly yawning. I’ve been working with and around college students for long enough to know that most of Chicago’s students, if they read that letter at all, will just roll their eyes and say, “Whatever.”
Entering college students are mostly children with no real life experience of any sort. In a flash they go from the prison-like atmosphere of high school, to the all out free-for-all of college. For the first time in their lives they have no adult supervision, and no one hovering over them to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow. They are given this freedom at precisely the time in their lives when they are becoming politically aware, and are realizing that they can actually affect some social change if they are willing to undertake the effort. And they are still teenagers, possessed of all the cockiness and arrogance endemic to the species.
Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that college activism is sometimes superficial and poorly thought out. Sometimes a student’s sense of outraged self-righteousness overcomes his good sense. Perhaps they overreact to a “microagression” or reduce a complex issue to a simplistic caricature.
Those are not the students I worry about. At least they care about something beyond their own immediate social life and have the will to try to right the wrongs that they find.
But if you think that students today are a horde of ideologues spoiling for a fight then you have completely the wrong idea. The real problem is exactly the opposite. It’s apathy. Most students are barely aware of anything beyond finding a party go to on Saturday night. Far from being afraid of my students, I often find that they are a little too deferential and obsequious.
Political correctness is a problem on college campuses, but the magnitude of the problem has been vastly overblown. Any time you hear about an incident that conforms perfectly to the right-wing stereotype of college campuses, be very skeptical. You almost certainly are not getting the whole story.
Did you hear the one about the Emery students who were so traumatized by seeing pro-Trump slogans on campus that they asked for, and were granted, counseling? It got widely reported, but it was mostly made up. The reality was that a large number of racially-charged, pro-Trump slogans were placed right near areas where large numbers of Black and Latino students congregated. In response, a small group of students staged a rally.
Puts a different cast on the story, wouldn’t you say?
Or how about the one where hordes of rampaging Oberlin students were so scandalized by the low-quality of the cafeteria’s ethnic offerings, they were close to rioting over the racial insensitivity of it all? Again, mostly nonsense. What actually happened was that food services was claiming to serve “authentic” ethnic dishes. In reality, the dishes were not just poor versions of ethnic fare, but dishes that had little in common with the real thing. So a few students tried to do something about it by staging rallies and protests. Food services, for their part, met with some of the students to see what could be done.
The horror of it all! Oh this mad descent into political correctness!
And so it goes. Be very skeptical of horror stories about hypersensitive college students or about political correctness run amok. Almost inevitably, when you get the full facts everything seems a bit more nuanced and interesting. I sometimes come away thinking the students were wrong or that they overreacted, but I rarely come away thinking they had no legitimate point at all.
I say almost inevitably, because after you clear out the many incidents of wolf-crying, there remains a residue of actual horror stories. There are cases where faculty have had Title IX investigations foisted on them on obviously frivolous grounds, or cases like the great Yale Halloween costume fracas where things really did get out of hand. So, yes, there is a problem. But in the list of problems that menace higher education this one is pretty far down.
Look folks, college life isn’t very complicated. Ninety-nine percent of it is doughty faculty desperately trying to spark a little interest and engagement in the students, while the students for their part are more interested in socializing and sports. The picture of courageous, free-thinking students being intimidated and indoctrinated by fanatical faculty is a near-perfect inversion of reality. A more accurate picture is faculty trying to get students to challenge and argue back at them, while the students just want to be given a litany of facts to memorize for the test.
All I want from my students is that they do the problems right when test time comes around. If they pull that off I will be so delighted, I won’t give even one second’s thought to whether or not they are voting for Trump.