I went to a pretty unheralded little college in the middle of nowhere.
And it was one of the great experiences of my life.
It wasn’t that I learned things that directly helped me in the job market; my BA in English with minors in History and German didn’t kick open the doors of corporate America. Or non-profit America. Or anything.
But it taught me to think. Think hard. Sometimes to think hard about things I didn’t already know, or actively doubted. I had to study things – Freud, Nietsche, Marx – that I found disagreeable, and learn to understand them. I hard to confront ideas that didn’t comport with what the 18 year old me know about the universe. Sometime in my junior year, that cognitive dissonance led me, who’d grown up in a Democrat family, and who had written a Federalist party platform at 1980 Boys State that would have made Alexandria “Tide Pod Evita” Ocasio Cortez’ leg tingle – to vote for Ronald Reagan.
I was uncomfottable.
College kids today, increasingly, are deprived of this experience:
Post-secondary eduation in the US has gone through three borad eras;
- Christian education
- Gentlemens’ (and womens) education
- Consumer education (in the post GI-Bill era, where the student was looking for a good value for their money and time)
…and, well, something new.
What is that something new?
Elite private education in America is on the cusp of this new era. The controversies over free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like are symptoms of this shift. They are currently considered controversies because the colleges are in transition, and many do not realize that the old standards no longer hold. Once the transition is complete, the “correct” side of the controversies will become central to a school’s identity — just as faith was to the Christian college, self-confidence was to the gentlemen’s college, and alumni devotion and achievement were to the consumer’s college.
Some have suggested naming this new college “the therapeutic university” or “the woke college.” I prefer “the comfort college,” because it combines the emotional component of the first with the political elements of the second. Our students are comfortable in their opinions but uncomfortable with their lives, finding their world and the Williams campus a threatening place. Once Williams’ transition to comfort college is complete, the students will expect to find their college truly comfortable in all respects.
And key to intellectual comfort is the suppression of all cognitive dissonance:
The slogan of the comfort college is “diversity and inclusion.” And just to be clear: The presence of previously underrepresented groups is vital, necessary and welcome. What’s more, insensitivity toward people’s identities should be self-censored, and social pressure to do so is a helpful tool.
But another agenda, an agenda that runs counter to true diversity and inclusion, has (often silently) accompanied these positive changes. At some point along the way, this laudable attention to the language of inclusion turned from a psychologically realistic sensitivity into a harsh and confrontational tribal marker. Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.
The lack of cognitive significance in tribal language is a symptom of the deeper disease: the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge. Students are now absolutists. Students, administrators and some faculty know what is right (and who is wrong). Any challenge to their views cannot be in pursuit of knowledge or even clarification. It can only come from the desire to crush and oppress.
I started this piece thinking that the future is going to be run by “elites” whose beliefs haven’t been forced to change since high school.
Given the totalitarian aspects to this change, maybe junior high is a better analogy.
Remember my definition of “Urban Progressive Privilege“; it’s a characteristic of people who can count on their worldviews remaining unchallenged throughout life.