The Coming Age of Folly
In the spring of 2014, an ideological trend began with uninviting controversial speakers like Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde, and has now escalated to protests that border on free-for-alls. The most recent display was verbal and physical assault at Milo Yiannopolous’s appearance at DePauw. A campus event dissolved into complete disorder. Naturally, Milo laughed it off, which made the whole more embarrassing somehow, like watching a sophisticated foreigner laugh at silly little Americans.
But Milo was right to laugh. Many of our higher education institutions produce graduates who can neither acclimate to the workforce nor think for themselves. I realize I may have been mistaken in my assumption that safe spaces have no place in higher education. Perhaps safe spaces are needed, staffed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with preschool teachers to remind students to use their words.
Protesting has been the quintessential college activity since the Vietnam War. Some colleges, like my alma mater Wesleyan, built dorm rooms specifically designed to prevent mass demonstrations and riots. My friends were arrested during protests on social media in D.C. before Periscope and Snapchat. I shouldn’t be flippant and dismiss protesting as merely a phase, but intellectual passion is a phase, and an important one. You cannot reach higher levels of critical thinking without being seized by the notion that something is utterly right or utterly wrong. But that’s where professors and mentors step in, push back, and demand deeper intellectual rigor. Most of the time, the world does not fall between such extremes. At minimum, we must assemble as many facts as possible before analyzing them. Theories, however imperfect, can provide a framework through which a jumble of facts can make sense. College is the first place where young people learn that there is no such thing as a “right answer”, or a “cure-all” for society’s ills. Many things come in gradients. Ideas must be tested. People can have good intentions and be wrong. Life is complicated and choices are hard.
But maybe it’s time to stop branding college students as “special snowflakes”. Perhaps they’re just regurgitating what they’ve absorbed from their antiwar parents: injustice is bad, and must be stopped. And if anything looks, feels, smells, or sounds like injustice, it must be rooted out. This belief is ubiquitous, from Trump rallies and Presidential debates to legislation to places of worship and learning. Everyone’s comfort must be accommodated before anything of substance can take place. Crushing the infamous thing is first, everything else is second. To be fair, it’s not a position without merit. If you are a member of a minority that is frequently abused or shut out of traditional societal benefits, the first priority is to secure a place of safety and security. It’s instinctive to look for shelter and protection.
But increasingly, learning is being discarded in favor of tactics reminiscent of trade union activism. Oberlin students are protesting that failing grades should not be counted against them as they protest the death of Tamir Rice. This is more than just railing against injustice; this is asking to be shielded from the consequences of their actions. This is demanding to opt out of learning. This is taking pride in ignorance and asking others to foot the bill. It’s a peculiar kind of arrogance that is becoming nearly synonymous with American culture and values, and is quickly becoming our heritage.
The end of reason, on college campuses and elsewhere, does not just leave America culturally or intellectually barren, although that is deeply worrisome. It sends a signal to our allies that we are not up to the task to defend them because we are consumed with folly.
Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria is assistant managing editor at the National Interest. Follow her on Twitter @marjorieromeyn.
Image: Michael Fleshman/Flickr