Back to school is going to get ugly this year.
Late summer is a nice time on college campuses. Summer session and sports camps wind down, and professors head for the lake. But social justice warriors who are busy parlaying race, gender or oddity into tenure or turf don’t take vacations. Transformation is what they do.
Race and gender remain flash points. But keeping the racial-tension flame turned up requires ingenuity, since U.S. colleges and universities have spent the last generation or two tipping scales in behalf of access and opportunity.
White privilege is the left’s most recent avatar. On this account, white people have a universal moral obligation to recognize their unfair racial advantage, and schools must make the idea a rubric inside and outside the classroom.
Moreover, trying to avoid race-based harangues or disagreeing with race-based indictments betrays white fragility, which is an ancillary of white privilege. This state of affairs, it is argued, “protects and insulates white faculty and students — all whites — from race-based stress.” Many college administrators concur, since they are caught up themselves in perpetual-motion identity issues and seek to do their job as a political ministry.
As campus officials exhaust precious time and energy, the Western canon and academic rigor continue to fold. Entire fields demand students and junior faculty embrace postmodern axioms uncritically, above all, on matters of race and gender. Heretics are ruthlessly punished or expelled.
A large number of students of color and their allies are plenty unhappy. That’s been amply documented. Antagonism is their calling card. But what makes these students unhappy, perhaps institutions cannot cure. Whatever’s been done, and not done, a rapidly expanding number seek to cast-off the “white” corpus of knowledge that colleges and universities curate and convey.
The claims can be antic. Medieval studies stands accused as a field infected by scholars “attracted to medievalism because of its focus on whiteness and Christianity,” and “used by white supremacists to advocate for a return to racial, ethnic, and religious purity,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Think back, just the last two or three years. In 2014, upon taking office, the ambitious new Harvard College dean, Rakesh Khurana — an organizational sociologist and professor at Harvard Business School — declared solidarity with Black Lives Matter, announcing a college-wide transformation and paradigm shift to diversity.
In the following year, BLM-inspired demands at colleges and universities nationwide multiplied. They included expanded faculty employment on the basis of race; more black-centered courses and extracurricular support; testing and marking systems based on race; increased black financial aid, and curbs on the expulsion of black students for academic failure.
To no avail. Amid campus unrest, the University of Missouri football team brought down the university administration. In a widely circulated video clip, the Shrieking Girl confronted sad-eyed Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis with her hysterical bill of complaints. Other students menacingly encircled the forlorn, puzzled scholar. They didn’t look like Dink Stover, and God forbid they should. Some looked ghetto, actually.
Gonzaga University hired Prof. Melissa Click, the face of the Mizzou mob, which seemed odd for a provincial Jesuit school. But lo and behold, it turned out, Gonzaga’s president and trustees were more interested in their lucrative basketball franchise than academic stewardship. They had years earlier surrendered to a powerful leftist faculty coalition.
At Berkeley, a masked throng shut down speakers and set the campus aflame, making a cult hero and best-selling author out of exhibitionist Milo Yiannopoulos. Social critics with unpopular views on social class and the police met haters at Middlebury and Claremont. For a capper, after protesting a racial event, Evergreen State College biology professor Bret Weinberg faced a mob out to do him harm and an institution unwilling to protect him.
Politics and optics wash everything on campus. Constant signaling and test-passing are part of any successful professorial career. The tenured insane thrive, making and breaking careers. The learned professor — deeply trained and dispassionate — is still there, but as likely as not, retiring in favor of an intersectionally gifted specialist in Senegalese hip-hop — or whatever — something that fits with the optics. The postmodern idiom means that you don’t need to make sense or know much, especially if you hold the right ascriptive cards.
Harvard or Podunk State, it doesn’t matter. Institutional loyalties fade. Podunk hires adjuncts and academic gypsies. Top scholars who are devoted to teaching, the life of the mind, and serious knowledge do their best to stay out of the hive. They self-censor to keep their apple carts upright and the crazies at bay. Enabled by the Internet and global travel, they look outside their own departments for collegiality and substance.
College presidents and governing boards don’t want to be the next Mizzou or Middlebury. Trustees and faculties remain perplexed and shaken. They are uncertain how to keep the lid on. Campus power struggles and white shaming have not ended. Brace for more campus folly in coming weeks.
Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA (Creative Commons)