The culture has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Some of the changes have been so subtle as to be almost undetectable. But one change has been so dramatic that few people could deny or ignore it –although opinions vary as to the desirability of its effects on the larger culture. The change I am talking about is the increasing tendency of people (especially men) to share their feelings instead of their thoughts when discussing intellectual matters.
This trend is especially noticeable to those of us who grade papers for a living. Recently, I was reading a case brief in which a student kept telling me what he felt the Supreme Court case meant and what the Court felt about the legal issues at hand. In his defense, part of the problem is that Supreme Court Justices do sometimes inject their feelings into Court decisions. Some, like Anthony Kennedy, mindlessly emote about one’s right to “define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”
But the problem extends far beyond the study of the law. English department are becoming increasingly entrenched in a postmodern worldview that considers the endless study of personal narratives to be a legitimate source of intellectual inquiry. The disdain for generalizations is rooted in a professed belief that there simply are no general truths. I say “professed” belief because the English professors don’t really believe what they are saying. They believe that at least some of the things they say are generally true. Otherwise, they would not be professors.
Even today’s honors students are prone to back their positions with thoughtless emotion. A student in one of my honors classes justified her support for affirmative action by saying “I just feel so strongly about issues of social justice.” I asked her whether she thought it reinforced racist notions of black intellectual inferiority.” Her response: “But I just feel so strongly about issues of social justice.”
This endless emoting colors the debate on a variety of issues outside the classroom. Speaking of color, I recently joked that we are on the verge of bringing back “colored” restrooms as our campus becomes more and more segregated. This prompted a call from a black female student who went on and on with a detailed emotional account of what it felt like to be black on a predominately white campus. After about fifteen minutes on the phone I just hung up. I wasn’t being rude. She was yelling. Besides that, I felt like I was going to puke. I guess I have feelings, too.
The most dramatic display I ever witnessed in this regard occurred at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) shortly after a speech I gave on the topic of campus speech codes. During the Q&A, one student asked whether I supported reinstating slavery. Another student asked whether I was in favor of straights beating gays with baseball bats. My responses to both questions were similar: I asked each to sit down after letting them know they should be ashamed of themselves for asking such absurd (and accusatory) questions.
The response to my response was interesting. First a young man got up and told me that he felt I had been too harsh on the two women who had accused me (respectively, but not respectfully) of supporting slavery and aggravated battery. When I asked whether he had a substantive remark he sat down. But he got up again, stood in front of the microphone, and shared his feelings about my rebuke of the two aforementioned women.
A few minutes later, he made his way to the microphone for the third time for another emotional outpouring. Then, after the speech he interrupted my book signing to share his feelings for a fourth time. It was really weird. I mean, it felt really weird. And my feelings count, too.
I walked out of the auditorium that night surrounded by five armed police officers. We passed a glass display case that had been shattered by students who spray-painted a swastika on the flyer advertising my speech. Just as we were passing that shattered monument of left-wing emotional sensitivity an assistant dean caught up with me. He shook my hand, and thanked me for coming to UNH. But then he ruined the moment by saying that he felt I needed to be “more sensitive towards the students who did not share (my) views.”
I guess some college administrators feel a need to protect students who throw bricks through display cases and spray-paint over speech that offends them. Personally, I think they need to be incarcerated.
That night at UNH a good discussion of an important topic was hijacked by self-absorbed students who could not stop talking about their feelings. One could almost say that higher education is over-run by students who are possessed of an endless range of emotions and a boundless desire to share them with others. But one emotion is notably lacking from their repertoire: Humility.
It’s really easy to sit around and talk about your feelings. It means never having to defend an idea on its own objective merits. It means our nation can continue to feel smarter while its collective mind continues to atrophy.