Art Is Active and Incomplete: a Conversation with Erik WahlErik Wahl
(National Review) – It is being claimed a new civil rights era, a stand for social justice against oppression buried deep in some of America’s most privileged bastions. Three weeks ago, the president of the University of Missouri system resigned over charges that he had not taken seriously enough allegations of systemic racism permeating his campuses. At Yale, both the university’s president and the African-American dean of Yale College have capitulated to student demands for sensitivity training, expanded minority programs and courses, and have offered abject public apologies for “failing” Yale’s black students over similar assertions of racial bias on campus, including an e-mail questioning the need to censor Halloween costumes. Meanwhile, the master of one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges was confronted and verbally assaulted by a group of student protesters, who screamed profanity at him and refused to engage in any type of reasoned debate.
As demonstrations spread to other campuses, a group called the Black Justice League took over the Princeton president’s office, resulting in a formal memorandum of agreement from the president over demands for “cultural competency training” and a diversity requirement, along with the removal of portraits of Woodrow Wilson from university buildings. At Dartmouth, Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted and harassed students studying in the library, while other demonstrations at Claremont-McKenna and Ithaca College have roiled campus and led to similar demands, to which administrators quickly agreed. Protestors at each university claim that endemic, institutionalized racism is the major factor of life on today’s campuses. The effect of the growing protests on free speech, civility, and social relations will resonate widely for decades to come, especially if the students’ tactics win out over civilized discourse. Few, if any, of the various charges at Yale, Missouri, Ithaca, or other places have been proved; they remain a mix of allegations that should be investigated. If any alleged incidents of racism or harassment are shown to be true, then offenders should be punished, including possibly expulsion for any civil-rights violations or criminal acts. But the rush to judgment, with forced resignations and premature acceptance of wrongdoing, is a blow to administrative rationality, undermines the rule of law, and threatens civic relations.
Most of the commentary so far has focused on the students at the center of the campus crisis, trying to understand why some of America’s most privileged young adults are so angry, so threatening toward elders, and so unwilling to even acknowledge that allegations remain just that, until proven, and that rational debate is the bedrock of civil society. As one Yale student named Jencey Paz wrote in the campus newspaper: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” Yale’s administrators, like those at Missouri and Claremont-McKenna, have surrendered to this flood of passion. The Yale residential college master at the heart of the controversy sent a letter acknowledging that his wife’s triggering e-mail about Halloween costumes was “hurtful,” when, as many commentators have shown, it was anything but. Yet focusing only on the students expressing their grievances and exercising their newfound power is not to explain, but only to account. To understand how things got to this point, we must look past the students, to those supposedly charged with educating them. As James Kirchick asks in an excellent article, “Where are the adults?” Indeed, if you want to understand the pathology of today’s college students, you must look first at the pathology of the professoriate. While students are the instigators, this autumn of discontent is as much about them as it is about their enablers, the professors.
As a former college professor, at Yale as it turns out, I feel at least moderately able to both interpret and even explain some of the mindset among America’s academics. I went to a prestigious private university, got my M.A. and Ph.D. at Big 10 universities, and taught for seven years at Yale, though my first and possibly best teaching job was at a community college. I have seen and worked with academics at both the top and near the bottom of the academic hierarchy, and while I would never claim to know what is individually in the hearts of the tens of thousands of professors in this country, as a professional class, they share certain world views, character traits, and experiences that perhaps help to explain how they have created an environment that has resulted in today’s protests.
The issue is not simply, as is often claimed by conservatives, that the vast majority of American academics are ideologically liberal. Though true, that is not perhaps the salient socio-intellectual element in their makeup. Rather, it is that most professors, and certainly those in the humanities and social sciences, have adopted an oppositional stance to society and power their entire lives, one that becomes engrained and unreflective over time. Their embrace of the political over the intellectual is what Julien Benda decried in the early 20th century as the “treason of the clerks.” It is part of the assumed ethos of being a professor, the belief that one is sacrificing one’s self-interest for the larger community or the dispassionate search for knowledge. This also helps make many professors feel martyrs to the cause of social justice, equality, world peace, and the like. As Jacques Barzun wrote in 1959: “The beleaguered intellectual — it is a badge and a position in life.”
In reality, though, what it often means is that America’s universities and colleges are filled with adults who themselves have not moved much beyond their own student days, either emotionally or intellectually. They also are as a group very risk averse; after all, the crown of academic achievement is tenure, where lifetime employment insulated from the regular job market is assured.
Most professors have thus spent their entire lives in the collegiate community, going directly or almost directly from undergraduate to graduate to teaching. Most have never held any real responsibility, certainly any accountability, and even when they have had such positions (dean, etc.), the system has largely insulated them from any real exercise of or need to respond to power. It is, in many ways, a comfortable way to spend one’s life, where class time and office hours circumscribe the boundaries of one’s responsibilities, along with the ever-present need to write books and articles, grade papers, and advise students.
But in dealing with the real issues of the world, outside the safety zone of the classroom, professors are singularly ill-equipped, especially in cases of inchoate student rage directed at themselves, of all targets. Used to being lords of the lecture hall, they are unprepared to deal with actual dissent. If the professors are sympathetic to the students, then meek capitulation is the initial response; if in disagreement with the students, then active opposition, sometimes even physical, is taken to be their right on their campuses. Their varied responses are part of the very problem that is feeding the escalating demands these past weeks.
Take submission first. Inherently uncomfortable with power, and identifying all their professional lives with the underdog, the oppressed, and the righteous strugglers, professors are more likely to adopt a submissive position toward students demanding social justice, regardless of the basis of the students’ complaints. To this attitude, proof is less important than commiseration, process less vital to the orderly working of campus society than the assumption of injustice and the nearly immediate acceptance of student demands. The supposed academic commitment to the dispassionate search for objective truth is jettisoned when the issue is presented as one of social justice; emotions triumph over analysis, and the professoriate reverts to its own emotional and intellectual biases.
Thus, both Peter Salovey, the president of Yale, and Jonathan Holloway, the dean of Yale College (both of whom I knew), rushed to admit their university’s apparent failings, without trying to defend the free speech of their fellow academics — in this case the master of Silliman College and his wife — and in the face of serious questions about the veracity of other racially charged episodes. As administrators, they abdicated their role of ensuring that the truth is brought forth, that real justice is done, and that a deliberate process is followed. Instead, their reactions only abetted the sense of entitlement among their students and led to greater protests and demands. At the same time, the public humiliation and subsequent resignation of Tim Wolfe at the University of Missouri showed the dangers of not appearing sufficiently chastened by the chorus of public allegations. Salovey quickly accepted nearly every demand the student protesters made, including subjecting Yale’s top administrators to diversity and sensitivity training.
But submission, as the novelist Michel Houellebecq limns so powerfully, means not merely surrender, but also at times the joining. Thus, there are other professors who actively side with the protesters, allying their interests with the agitators’ and becoming foot soldiers in the war to eradicate injustice from America’s college campuses.
For some, it may be the first real excitement they’ve had in their professional lives, the overpowering sense of finally putting their ideas into practice or of finding meaning outside the classroom. It also can turn professors into activists, harassing students whom they believe are on the wrong side of social issues. For an example of both such excitement and opposition, watch the widely seen video of Missouri communications professor Melissa Click obstructing and intimidating a student journalist as he attempts to film campus protests. Her body language gives away her nervous energy, as does her juvenile mocking of the student’s First Amendment claims. Like a chirpy femme fatale in a bad gangster film, Click actually yells out for “muscle” to come help her block the student journalist. While rare, perhaps, she is not alone.
Last year, University of California–Santa Barbara feminist studies professor Mireille Miller-Young pleaded no contest to charges of stealing and destroying an anti-abortion activist’s poster during a campus confrontation in which the adult academic physically assaulted the teenage demonstrator, who was in a recognized campus free-speech zone. Like her ideological colleague Click, Miller-Young enlisted willing students to physically harass and block anti-abortion activists from retrieving their property. For these younger professorial social-justice warriors, today’s struggles make up for their missing of the real counterculture revolution, back in the 1960s. Others may not (wo)man the barricades, but they join with alacrity to pen open letters condemning their own administrators and siding with the protesters, as happened at Missouri. And in doing so, they send an unmistakable message of encouragement for more incivility, rushes to judgment, and occasionally physically threatening acts.
What is missing in today’s protests, of course, is any attempt by professors to act as adults to control such crises, dispassionately guide debate, and assert that there are rules and procedures for investigating such charges, or for protecting speech with which they disagree. The professorial enablers are justifying the demands of students that they not be held accountable to standards of proof or civility, or they are actively interfering with those students on the opposite side of issues about which they are passionate. In doing so, they fail to set an example of how mature citizens in a free society are expected to interact. But to expect them to do so is to ask them to take a responsibility that is not often part of their adult experience and to display an even-handedness that is all too rare at American universities. Barzun, again, identified the anti-intellectualism of the intellectual, which already in the 1950s had led to an environment in which “the school is not to teach but to cure.”
The lesson is abysmal, and self-reinforcing. Any student confronted with the spectacle of his pedagogical leaders standing silently and shamefacedly for hours in a circle of jeering or insulting undergraduates, as Yale’s Holloway endured, will come away with a clear lesson in how to exercise fear and power. In the Missouri case, it was supercharged by the threatened boycott of upcoming games by the black members of the football team. The tools of economic and social coercion are being joined together in a toxic stew, and principled opposition is threatened into silence.
And indeed, the spreading protests, increasingly aggressive and comprehensive in their demands, show that the students are learning from each other and finding encouragement in the submission of the professors. It is just as likely that today’s victorious protesters will inherit a healthy contempt for their elders and a presumption that in the future, any similar demands they make in their professional lives will be agreed to with as much alacrity as during their student days.
It may not be too much to claim that the academy as a whole is teetering toward complete intellectual unsustainability. If nothing can be discussed, if speech itself is physically harmful, if debate must be controlled by the mob, then there can only be an ever-shrinking sphere of rational discourse, and the university will become just a grant laboratory for the hard sciences (and possibly not even there). The vast majority of students, of course, want nothing to do with these dramas and are being punished by the disruptions on their campuses for which they are neither responsible nor from which they are being protected.
There is undoubtedly continued racism and bias occurring at America’s universities. Asian students have recently filed complaints against Harvard for systematic discrimination in the admissions process, while the number of anti-Semitic incidents across the nation continues to rise. Conservatives, of course, are regularly shouted down and threatened on campus, including earlier this month at Yale at a conference on free speech, of all things. No doubt blacks and other minorities encounter prejudice from their peers and sometimes offer the same, as well.
Yet precisely because of sensitivities among intellectuals to the country’s bitter past of slavery and Jim Crow, universities have spent decades since the 1960s erasing any vestiges of institutional racism, sexism, or oppression. As a professor at Yale, I was impressed and envious of how all students were coddled and catered to, given the finest facilities, and submerged in institutional identity, gender, and race support mechanisms. Yale, for example, has had an Afro-American Cultural Center since 1969, and a flourishing African-American Studies Department, of which the Yale College dean is a member, among other ethnic departments and programs. Regular courses and events on racism, civil rights, and the like are reminders of America’s continuing journey toward a truly color-blind society.
The truth is that a student of any color or religion on today’s campuses is all but insulated from any of the real racism that lurks outside campus gates. They may encounter bigots along the way, and occasionally act like one themselves, but the idea of endemic racism or oppression occurring at Yale, and at any other academic institution with which I was familiar, is risible, and the professors, who ensured that such an environment would not exist, know that better than anyone else.
Yet still the professoriate enables its young charges’ anger and alienation. In doing so, the professors reveal all too starkly their own limitations and weaknesses. They may well have inherited young adults already convinced of their righteousness, but as those educating them for the first time out of the familiar confines of family and hometown, they have a special duty to prepare them for life beyond collegiate gates and, in many cases, to become leaders. Consciously or not, professors are almost certainly now going to be less likely to be color-blind in their treatment of students, their grading, and their mentoring; and all students will suffer, including minorities.
In an essay entitled “The Tension of Order and Freedom in the University,” Russell Kirk argued that modernity’s overthrow of religion led to “asserting freedom as an absolute, somehow divorced from order,” and thereby leading to the loss of freedom through oppression from both the extreme right and left. The university, he continues, “was raised to restrain passion and prejudice through right reason. . . . The university is not intended to be a staging-ground for the destruction of order . . . in society.”
And yet that exactly is what is happening today on our college campuses. America’s faculty members have collectively abandoned their commitment to discipline and order as the underpinning of intellect. Instead, they either surrender to or abet the unrestrained and atavistic behavior of their supposed pupils. The lack of the professors’ confidence in their mission, and their failure to appreciate and defend the very behaviors that help ensure the survival of their world apart, is a depressing and dangerous portent for the future of American civil society.