so many questions

I have many questions — real, deep, sincere questions — about this.

  • Does Katherine Dettwyler really believe that a person deserves torture and death for stealing a poster?
  • Or does she, rather, believe that a person deserves torture and death for being a clueless privileged culturally-imperialist white male?
  • Or does she, perhaps, believe that a person deserves not torture and death but maybe arrest for being a clueless privileged culturally-imperialist white male, and just wrote carelessly?
  • Is she right that a significant number of her white male students “think nothing of raping drunk girls at frat parties and snorting cocaine, cheating on exams, and threatening professors with physical violence”?
  • How do any or all of these beliefs affect her ability to do her job as a teacher?
  • How many college teachers share these beliefs?
  • Is this a situation in which no “beliefs” as such are involved, but Dettwyler’s Facebook post was rather an unfocused spur-of-the-moment venting arising from frustration with a lousy job or lousy working conditions?
  • If your answer to the previous question is “Yes” or “Probably yes,” how do you account for the fact that Dettwyler seems to have made very similar comments on blogs?
  • How might a tendency to go off on unfocused spur-of-the-moment venting arising from frustration with a lousy job or lousy working conditions affect a person’s ability to do her or his job as a teacher?
  • Did the University of Delaware ask Dettwyler for an explanation of her post and/or comments?
  • Did the university ask her to apologize for them?
  • Suppose that she did apologize — would that be sufficient for her to keep her job?
  • What would the University of Delaware have done if a tenured faculty member had made precisely the same comments?
  • As those outside the academy go apoplectic over these matters, those inside the academy shrug. Is shrugging enough?
  • What does it mean that so many people these days wish death on strangers whom they dislike or disagree with?
  • Should we feel better when we’re told that people don’t really mean it when they, for instance, respond to a tweet expressing a view about English grammar by wishing an entire generation of Americans dead?
  • Like, if you don’t really in your heart of hearts want those people you disagree with to die in a fire or be raped and tortured, then we don’t have a problem? Is that the argument?
  • Presumably all of the above, and worse, has been said to Katherine Dettwyler since her Facebook post went public — does that help?
  • Does vigilante vengeance have limits?
  • Even if it’s just verbal vengeance?
  • Is forgiveness a social good?

“major collegiate disorders”

A follow-up to yesterday’s post

Of course it’s possible to reach too far into the past to get context for current events in the university, but this book certainly offers some interesting food for thought:

I love the fact that there was something called the Conic Section Rebellion.

Anyone who said that nothing like this could happen today would, I think, be correct; but I leave as a potentially illuminating exercise for my readers this question: Why couldn’t it happen today?

getting context, and a grip

Several long quotations coming. Please read them in full.

James Kirchik writes,

Of the 100 or so students who confronted [Nicholas] Christakis that day, a young woman who called him “disgusting” and shouted “who the fuck hired you?” before storming off in tears became the most infamous, thanks to an 81-second YouTube clip that went viral. (The video also — thanks to its promotion by various right-wing websites — brought this student a torrent of anonymous harassment). The videos that Tablet exclusively posted last year, which showed a further 25 minutes of what was ultimately an hours-long confrontation, depicted a procession of students berating Christakis. In one clip, a male student strides up to Christakis and, standing mere inches from his face, orders the professor to “look at me.” Assuming this position of physical intimidation, the student then proceeds to declare that Christakis is incapable of understanding what he and his classmates are feeling because Christakis is white, and, ipso facto, cannot be a victim of racism. In another clip, a female student accuses Christakis of “strip[ping] people of their humanity” and “creat[ing] a space for violence to happen,” a line later mocked in an episode of The Simpsons. In the videos, Howard, the dean who wrote the costume provisions, can be seen lurking along the periphery of the mob.

Of Yale’s graduating class, it was these two students whom the Nakanishi Prize selection committee deemed most deserving of a prize for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” on campus. Hectoring bullies quick to throw baseless accusations of racism or worse; cosseted brats unscrupulous in their determination to smear the reputations of good people, these individuals in actuality represent the antithesis of everything this award is intended to honor. Yet, in the citation that was read to all the graduating seniors and their families on Class Day, Yale praised the latter student as “a fierce truthteller.”

Let’s look at these episodes at Yale in relation to something that happened at Cornell nearly fifty years ago. Paul A. Rahe was an undergraduate at Cornell then, and tells the story:

At dawn on April 18, 1969 — the Saturday of Parents’ Weekend and the day after the student conduct tribunal issued a reprimand (as minor a penalty as was available) to those who had engaged in the “toy-gun spree” — a group of black students, brandishing crowbars, seized control of the student union (Willard Straight Hall), rudely awakened parents sleeping in the guest rooms upstairs, used the crowbars to force open the doors, and ejected them from the union.

Later that day, they brought at least one rifle with a telescopic sight into the building. On Sunday afternoon, the administration agreed to press neither civil nor criminal charges and not to take any other measures to punish those who had occupied Willard Straight Hall, to provide legal assistance to anyone who faced civil charges arising from the occupation, and to recommend that the faculty vote to nullify the reprimands issued to those who had engaged in the “toy-gun spree.” Upon hearing that this agreement had been reached, 110 black students marched out of Willard Straight Hall in military formation to celebrate their victory, carrying more than seventeen rifles and bands of ammunition.

The next day, when the faculty balked and stopped short of accepting the administration’s recommendation, one AAS leader went on the campus radio and threatened to “deal with” three political science professors and three administrators, whom he singled out by name, “as we will deal with all racists.” Finally, on Wednesday, April 23, the faculty met at a special meeting and capitulated to the demands of the AAS, rescinding the reprimand issued by the student conduct tribunal and calling for a restructuring of the university.

At the very least, the Cornell story should give us some context for thinking about what happened at Yale last year. More generally, we should remember that the ceaseless hyperventilation of social media tends to make us think that American culture today is going through a unique process of dissolution. Rick Perlstein is one of my least favorite historians, but he does well to set us straight on that:

“The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason — many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years — even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Let’s pause for a moment to think about that: More than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in two years.

So, is the country disintegrating? In comparison with the Nixon years: No. Not even with Donald Ivanka Kushner Trump in charge. Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen, only that it hasn’t yet happened, and if we want to avoid further damage we would do well to study the history of fifty years ago with close attention. For the national wounds that were opened in the Sixties may have scabbed over from time to time in the decades since, but they have never healed.

And in relation specifically to the university, we might ask some questions:

  • How significant is it that most of the people running our universities today were undergraduates when things like the Cornell crisis happened?
  • If it is significant, what is the significance?
  • To what extent are the social conflicts that plague some universities today continuations of the conflicts that plagued them fifty years ago?
  • If universities today seem, to many critics, to have lost their commitment to free speech and reasoned disagreement, have they abandoned those principles any more completely they did at the height of those earlier student protests?
  • What happened in the intervening decades? Did universities recover their core commitments wholly, or partially, or not at all?
  • How widespread are protests (and the “coddling” of protestors) today in comparison to that earlier era?
  • What needs to be fixed in our universities?
  • Are universities that have gone down this particular path — praising and celebrating students who confront, berate, and in some cases threaten faculty — fixable? (A question only for those who think such behavior is a bug rather than a feature.)

Vital questions all, I think; but not ones that can be answered in ignorance of the relevant history.

Frederick Barbarossa won’t be around to save you

In the Boston Globe, Kumble R. Subbaswamy writes,

More than 850 years ago, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Barbarossa, issued the Authentica habita, granting imperial protection for traveling scholars. This seminal document ensured that research and scholarship could develop throughout the empire independent of government interference, and shielded scholars from reprisal for their academic endeavors. These concepts, the foundation for what we now refer to as “academic freedom,” have, over the centuries, enabled some of the most significant advances in the history of humankind.

As chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I work with my colleagues in an environment envied by others. Through the inventiveness of trial and error, the exchange of ideas, peer critique, heated debate, and sometimes even ridicule, we put ourselves out there, focused on our research and scholarly pursuits. Without the freedom to experiment, to fail, to persuasively defend our work, we would not learn, and then improve, and eventually succeed. Without this freedom, we would not be able to pass on to our students the importance of pursuing the truth.”

All this is good, and well said, but the invocation of the Authentica habita is perhaps misplaced. For the purpose of that document was to protect scholars from anger or extortion by extra-academic forces, especially local political authorities across the Empire, whereas the most common threats to academic freedom today come from academics. Whenever an academic these days is threatened with serious personal or professional repercussions for articulating unapproved ideas, you can be pretty sure that the call is coming from inside the house.

So if you, fellow academic, think that justice requires that you police, fiercely, untenured assistant professors of philosophy who make arguments that read directly out of the Progressive Prayer Book but stumble over one phrase: fine. Knock yourself out. But don’t expect anyone else to stand up, ever, for the principles that Frederick Barbarossa stood up for. And under the category “anyone else” I would specifically encourage you to remember local, state, and national legislatures, students, donors, and trustees.

I have beaten this drum over and over again in the past decade, so why not one more time? — People who think like you won’t always be in charge. This is a lesson that the Left seems especially incapable of learning, I think because of its deep-seated belief in the inevitability of progress, a belief that is belied by even the briefest inspection of Washington D.C. You, and people you want to support, may well pay in the future for every victory lap you take today.

But there’s another problem here, one that operates in a different dimension — not the dimension of employment or prestige, but rather that of intellectual exploration itself. Some years ago, in a brilliant essay called “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” Bernard Williams wrote of

the well known and highly typical style of many texts in analytic philosophy which seeks precision by total mind control, through issuing continuous and rigid interpretative directions. In a way that will be familiar to any reader of analytic philosophy, and is only too familiar to all of us who perpetrate it, this style tries to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded.

But we now live in an academic world increasingly ruled by the malicious and the clinically literal-minded. They occupy the stage and issue their dictates, and get less and less resistance to any ukase they choose to promulgate. This leads to an environment which, by analogy to what Williams calls “the teaching of philosophy by eristic argument,” “tends to implant in philosophers an intimidatingly nit-picking superego, a blend of their most impressive teachers and their most competitive colleagues, which guides their writing by means of constant anticipations of guilt and shame.” With increasingly frequency, this is what academic thought and academic discourse are driven by: constant anticipations of guilt and shame. Which is, needless to say, no recipe for intellectual creativity and genuine ambition. 

the defilement thesis, expanded

In a recent post I spoke of what we might call the Defiling of the Memes, and suggested that Paul Ricoeur’s work on The Symbolism of Evil might be relevant. Let’s see how that might go.

In that book Ricoeur essentially works backwards from the familiar and conceptually sophisticated theological language of sin to what underlies it, or, as he puts the matter, what “gives rise” to it. If “the symbol gives rise to the thought,” what “primary symbols” underlie the notion of sin? Sin is a kind of fault, but beneath or behind the notion of fault is a more fundamental experience, defilement, whose primary symbol is stain. Before I could ever know that I have sinned (or that anyone else has) there must be a deeper and pre-rational awareness of defilement happening or being. I think of a passage from Dickens’s Hard Times:

‘Are you in pain, dear mother?’
‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.’

First we know that defilement is, “somewhere in the room”; then we become aware that we have been somehow stained. From those elemental experiences and their primary symbols arise, ultimately, complex rational accounts that might lead to something like this: “I have defiled myself by sinning, and therefore must find a way to atone for what I have done so that I may live free from guilt.” But that kind of formulation lies far down the road, and there are many other roads that lead to many other conclusions about what went wrong and how to fix it.

Ricoeur writes as a philosopher and a Christian, which is to say he writes as someone who has inherited an immensely sophisticated centuries-old vocabulary that can mediate to him the elemental experiences and their primary symbols. Therefore one of his chief tasks in The Symbolism of Evil is to try to find a way back:

It is in the age when our language has become more precise, more univocal, more technical in a word, more suited to those integral formalizations which are called precisely symbolic logic, it is in this very age of discourse that we want to recharge our language, that we want to start again from the fullness of language. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.

But what if you have not inherited such a sophisticated moral language? Might you not then be closer to the elemental experiences and their primary symbols? That might help to account for the kind of thing described here:

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

So here’s my (highly tentative) thesis: when you have a whole generation of young people whose moral language is severely attenuated — made up of almost nothing except Mill’s harm principle — and who have been encouraged to extend that one principle to almost any kind of discomfort — then disagreement, or alternative points of view, appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.

And this in turn leads to a phenomenon I have discussed before, and about which Freddie deBoer has written eloquently: The immediate turn to administrators as the agents of cleansing. This is especially true for students who have identified themselves as marginal, as social outsiders, as Mary Douglas explains in Purity and Danger: “It seems that if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others. He cannot help his abnormal situation.”

And yet another consequence of the experience of defilement: the archaic ritualistic character of the protests and demands, for example, the scapegoating and explusion of Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, and the insistence of many protestors upon elaborate initiation rituals for new members of the community in order to prevent defiling words and deeds. (Douglas again: “Ritual recognises the potency of disorder.”)

I have described the thinking of these student protestors as Baconian — a notion I develop somewhat more fully in a forthcoming essay for National Affairs — and while I still think that analysis is substantially correct, I now believe that it is incomplete. The anthropological account I have been sketching out here seems necessary as well.

Again: these are behavioral pathologies generated by simplistic moral frameworks and a general disdain for rational debate. The sleep of reason produces, if not always monsters, then a return to a primal experience of defilement, and a grasping for the elemental symbols and rituals used from ancient times to manage such defilement. And in light of these recent developments, the world of criticism seems less like a desert than an elegant and well-furnished room.

on microaggressions and administrative power

Let’s try to put a few things together that need to be put together.

First, read this post by Jonathan Haidt excerpting and summarizing this article on the culture of campus microaggressions. A key passage:

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Now, take a look at this post by Conor Friedersdorf illustrating how this kind of thing works in practice. Note especially the account of an Oberlin student accused of microaggression and the way the conflict escalates.

And finally, to give you the proper socio-political context for all this, please read Freddie deBoer’s outstanding essay in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s an absolutely vital passage:

Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers — the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange — speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today’s academy.

I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.

This is brilliantly incisive stuff by Freddie, and anyone who cares about the state of American higher education needs to reflect on it. When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end up simply reinforcing a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university — including the administrators themselves, since they’re typically reading responses from an instruction manual prepared in close consultation with university lawyers — are instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime. Few social structures could be more alien to the character of true education.

Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole. That seems indubitable to me. When people in the workplace routinely make complaints to HR officers instead of dealing directly with their colleagues, or calling the police when they see kids out on their own rather than talking to the parents, they’re employing the same strategy of enlisting Authority to fight their battles for them — and thereby consolidating the power of those who are currently in charge. Not exactly a strategy for changing the world. Nor for creating a minimally responsible citizenry.

In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,”, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present, that she is watching — she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching) — but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts — even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long — just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict — conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don’t begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it? Imagine if at university, or even in the workplace, they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction. What a mess that would be.

UPDATE: Please see Josh’s comment below.

don’t just quit, quitpiece!

I think Ian Bogost is correct about the essential boringness of quitpieces — essays or articles or posts by former academics explaining why they bailed out — but it’s hard, for me anyway, not to comment on this one by Oliver Lee, because of Lee’s almost charmingly absolute self-regard.

While much of the post is supposed to describe what Lee learned about academe in his time as a professor, his thoughts on the State of Higher Education are disjointed and incoherent. One example will suffice: he goes in one sentence from counseling liberal-arts students to skip college in in favor of watching relevant YouTube videos to declaring that “Online education isn’t the solution,” and doesn’t even notice the disconnect. But his prose becomes vibrant when he’s describing … well, himself.

It turns out that Oliver Lee was absolutely fantastic as an academic. He “launched several digital humanities initiatives”; he speaks of his “effusive student evaluations”; he “coached [his] university’s legal debate team to a national championship bid” — though I was sort of sad to see the vague word “bid” tacked on to the end there, since by this point I was expecting nothing less than, you know, an actual championship. But the self-celebration goes on for quite a while.

But in every Eden there’s a serpent, or several. Lee became the object of “sniping” by his colleagues; he was beset by “politics”; one of his projects was “derided as bewildering and gimmicky.” Even his students let him down: immediately after telling us what an excellent lecturer he was — “By professor standards, which admittedly aren’t that high, I could rock the mic” (that apparently humble caveat isn’t really a caveat at all, since the only context of this whole essay is academia, and it just gives him a way to demean professors) — he describes how a friend visiting his class was distracted by a student watching Breaking Bad on a laptop. It seems pretty clear that if someone hadn’t told him, Lee never would have guessed that some students failed to notice his mic-rocking abilities.

By the time I got to the end of Lee’s personal narrative I had developed a very strong suspicion that what he may really have been saying was “You can’t fire me, I quit.”

But in any case, I’m reminded by this feature of the quitpiece genre: it is almost always immensely self-congratulatory. People will describe in detail their levels of commitment and energy and the superb work they elicited from their students, and will imply or say explicitly that they were targeted by colleagues or department chairs precisely because they did their work so well. If they acknowledge that they were criticized, such criticisms are invariably dismissed as motivated either by jealousy or by fantastically misplaced priorities.

Within the moral economy of the quitpiece genre — which is not, I suspect, reliably indicative of why most people who leave academia do so — to walk away from an academic job is to turn your back on an institution that doesn’t deserve you, isn’t good or pure or rightly-ordered enough for you. I’m longing for a quitpiece that says “I left my job as a professor because I didn’t like it and wasn’t very good at it.”

presentism

No surprises here, of course, but when you ask people who teach creative writing in American universities what books they assign, almost all of them assign books written in the past few years. A couple of people reach all the way back to Chinua Achebe, Saul Bellow, and Jean Rhys, and one bold trailblazer — Joel Brouwer, who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Alabama — actually assigns Homer and Virgil. But the rest don’t dare look any further back than yesterday, and, moreover, the great majority of the texts they assign are by Americans.

This studied avoidance of the past, of the world — of anything that isn’t immediate and local — is bad for the future of fiction and bad for the American mind more generally. The default assumption that our writers can be valid only when they’re working in the idioms of their peers is something close to a death sentence for artistic creativity. Looking at reading lists like this, I can’t help thinking that they play a significant role in maintaining the dreary sameness that is so characteristic of the fiction and poetry that come out of contemporary MFA programs.

an imaginary student replies to Freddie deBoer

Freddie deBoer imagines a kind of universal trigger warning, perhaps to be issued to students on their arrival at college:

You’re going to be exposed to stuff you don’t like at college. We will try to give you a heads up about the stuff that might upset you, but what is considered potentially offensive is an inherently political, value-laden question, and we aren’t always going to agree with your prior beliefs about that question. We cannot guarantee that everything you might be offended by will come with a warning, and we are under no obligation to attempt to provide one. We will try to work with you with compassion and respect, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to deal with the curriculum that we impose, and not our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t bother you. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in college.

That’s very well said, and I agree with pretty much every word — but I think that a great many students in almost all of our universities will dissent from its premises. They may not be able to articulate their dissent clearly; they may not even consciously formulate it; but I think a dissent is implicit in much of what I read about the various trigger-warnings controversies.

It might go something like this:

You speak of “the curriculum [you] impose,” but I deny that you have the right to impose anything. I am passing through this place, headed for the next stage of my life — possibly graduate education in some form or another, more probably a job — and I am paying you to prepare me for that next stage. In short, we have a business contract in which I am your client, and it is your job to serve what I perceive my needs to be, not what you may happen to think they are. It’s not as though we’re living in that long-ago age when universities were considered repositories of timeless wisdom and professors custodians of that wisdom. You faculty are employees of an ideological state apparatus in a neoliberal regime that constitutes itself by a series of implied or explicit contracts in which goods are exchanged for fees. Please stop acting like this is the University of Paris in the age of Aquinas and we’re all seeking transcendent wisdom. I control my own values and am not even interested in yours, much less willing to be subservient to them. So do the job I am paying you to do and shut up about all that other crap.

an academic farce

Peter Conn is right about one thing: college accreditation is a mess. But his comments about religious colleges are thoughtless, uninformed, and bigoted.

Conn is appalled — appalled — that religious colleges can receive accreditation. Why does this appall him? Well, because they have communal statements of faith, and this proves that in them “the primacy of reason has been abandoned.” The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day; and if it’s the primacy of reason that Conn is particularly concerned with, perhaps he might take a look at the recent (and not-so-recent) history of his own discipline, which is also mine. Could anyone affirm with a straight face that English studies in America has for the past quarter-century or more been governed by “the primacy of reason”? I seriously doubt that Conn even knows what he means by “reason.” Any stick to beat a dog.

Conn is, if possible, even farther off-base when he writes of “the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton.” I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way. Certainly in such an environment I would never have dared to write a book on the theology of reading — and yet what I learned in writing that book has been foundational for the rest of my career.

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” Wheaton is differently closed than Penn; and for the people who teach there and study there, that difference is typically liberating rather than confining. It certainly was for me.

It would take me another ten thousand words to exhaustively detail Conn’s errors of commission and omission — I could have fun with his apparent belief that Christian colleges generally support “creation science” — but in conclusion let me just zero in on this: “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

How do accreditation agencies “uphold” “academic and intellectual standards”? They look at such factors as class size, test scores of incoming students, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and the like. When they look really closely they might note the quality of the institutions from which the faculty received their terminal degrees, and the percentage of graduates who go on for further education.

These are the measures that, when the accreditation agencies come calling, schools like Wheaton are judged by — that is, the same measures that all other colleges and universities in America are judged by. Wheaton faculty in the humanities — I’ll confine my comments to that field — have recently published books on the university presses of Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, among others. Former students of mine — to speak even more narrowly — have gone on to get degrees from the finest institutions in the world, and are now professors (some of them tenured) at first-rate universities here and abroad. The factual record speaks for itself, for those who, unlike Conn, are willing to look into it. And I am not even mentioning non-academic achievements.

Some of Wheaton’s most famous alumni have strayed pretty far from its theological commitments, though I think Wes Craven has done a pretty good job of illustrating the consequences of original sin. But even those who have turned aside from evangelicalism, or Christianity altogether, often pay tribute to Wheaton for providing them the intellectual tools they have used to forge their own path — see, for instance, Bart Ehrman in the early pages of Misquoting Jesus. The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.

In this respect, the institutional attitude of Wheaton College differs considerably from the personal attitude of Peter Conn, who, it appears, cannot bear the thought that the academic world should make room for people whose beliefs he despises — even if they meet the same academic standards as other colleges and universities. What Conn wants is a purge of religion from academic life. He ought to own that desire, and stop trying to camouflage it with the verbal fig-leaves of “intellectual standards” and “academic freedom” — concepts he neither understands nor values.