Thursday, June 2, 2016

Liberal Education

Once upon a time a liberal education meant that one studied, and desired to study, the best that had been thought and written in the humanities. One was deeply enriched by his or her encounter with the classics in literature, philosophy, history, etc. Times have changed, however. The term "liberal education" has taken on a rather different signification today than it had a few decades ago. Take Oberlin College, for example, a liberal arts school in Ohio where students a couple of years ago submitted a list of 50 "non-negotiable" demands to the administration described in a New Yorker column.

The Daily Caller has distilled the New Yorker's essay to a few of the more absurd aspects of the students' "concerns." Here is a sample of their complaints (The text in italics is from the Daily Caller, the rest is my commentary):

This institution [Oberlin] functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy. In addition to wondering what some of this actually means, one might also wonder what the school would look like if it "functioned" on the basis of the contraries of these premises.

The students' demands included a request for an $8.20-an-hour "activism wage," the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty. How, exactly, does one demonstrate "insufficient support"? Are the students saying that if these nine employees don't agree with their concerns they should therefore be fired? Is it the students' idea of justice to deprive someone of their livelihood because they don't agree with their opinion? If so, it is Stalinesque.

A student wanted trigger warnings on required reading. The book which triggered the demand for triggers was Antigone. This student activist had wrestled with suicidal tendencies and so does Antigone. One can sympathize with the student's apprehensions while nevertheless thinking that "trigger warnings" are, in general, a concession to emotional adolescence. Any student can google any book and find out what its basic themes are if he's concerned that he might suffer an emotional or psychological ambush while reading it.

The students wanted the removal of a “harmful” multicultural mural. The former chair of the Student Union Board reports that students ordered a mural featuring people of a number of different races destroyed because they feared that it “exoticized” minorities. I'm not sure what it is to be "exoticized," but it sounds bad. Whatever it is, though, it's hard to imagine a depiction of anyone which could not be said to "exoticize" that individual, or his or her race, gender, or class.

A Jewish student was told he cannot have certain opinions because his “culture has never been oppressed.” After he criticized a sexual harassment policy that would have classified “flirtatious speech” as harassment, Aaron Pressman reported, “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.” He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand — your culture has never been oppressed.'” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?'”

This criticism of Pressman was odd in light of the fact that one Oberlin professor reportedly posted anti-Semitic messages on Facebook. “[Her] posts suggested, among other things, that Zionists had been involved in the 9/11 plot, that Isis was a puppet of Mossad and the C.I.A., and that the Rothschild family owned “your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” This professor wasn’t terminated and perhaps shouldn't have been, but evidently had she been as insufficiently supportive of black students' concerns as she apparently is of Jewish students' concerns, there'd have been calls for her dismissal.

In any case, the notion that unless you belong to a group that has suffered you cannot understand their angst and are not entitled to speak out about their problems is one of the oddest flowers in the ideological greenhouse. Besides, who cannot lay claim to membership in some group that at some point in history has been "oppressed"?

One student leader is “tired” of listening to dissenting opinions. “I do think that there’s something to be said about exposing yourself to ideas other than your own, but I’ve had enough of that after my fifth year,” she said. Apparently she thinks there should be a statute of limitations on free speech and dissent. Perhaps students should have to suffer disagreeable opinions for four years and then after that grace period every opinion should agree with hers.

Students wanted to eliminate bad grades. “More than thirteen hundred students signed a petition calling for the college to eliminate any grade lower than a C for the semester, but to no avail.” According to the New Yorker they didn't want their grades to decline while they were devoting their time to activist causes.

They hate capitalism at Oberlin. A student leader stated that higher education is a “tool of capitalism” that “can’t be redeemed,” even though capitalism is closely associated with the kind of free speech that allows students to become activists in the first place. Meanwhile, socialist and communist countries — think Mao’s China or Lenin's Russia — frequently throw dissenters in jail, although many of these students may not even know this, given how open they seem to learning new things.

These students don't see their university years as a wonderful opportunity to learn but rather as an opportunity to vent. They wish to turn universities into summer camps for radicals where they can gather to rage against the machine and all that. And when they graduate what will they have prepared themselves to do in life, other than to become themselves poorly educated college professors who will continue the cycle of educational malfeasance and decline?

Permit me to suggest a modest proposal for disaffected students. It's similar to the course of action what people are advised by progressives to follow if they find that they don't like salacious television programming, or movies, or the laws regarding abortion. It's this: "Don't watch, don't go, don't have one."

University students who don't like the curriculum, who don't like a college's atmosphere, who don't like having to pass courses, simply should not go to a school which features these characteristics in the first place, or, having made the mistake of enrolling, they should transfer out.

Better yet, they should realize that their anxieties often appear peevish, self-absorbed, and childish to those who work for a living or who don the nation's uniform, that to these folks many of the concerns expressed by the Oberlin students seem akin to a child's fear of the goblin under the bed at night, and that the students should work harder to outgrow these preoccupations.