What's Wrong With Academia?

Laura Hollis
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Posted: Jun 11, 2015 3:36 PM
What's Wrong With Academia?

Over the past few years, we've more frequently seen articles and editorials about the increasingly hostile climate at our colleges and universities, with a new one appearing almost every week.

Student concerns -- particularly regarding sexual assault -- have been front-and-center. Victims (real and self-proclaimed) of sexual assault grab headlines. Meanwhile, there has also been a spate of lawsuits filed -- and often won -- by young men falsely accused of sexual assault and deprived of due process.

But concerns being raised by faculty are increasing in number as well.

Last year, Professor Laurie Essig from Middlebury College wrote a widely circulated essay, "Trigger warnings trigger me." Essig was aghast at students' distorted sense of personal distress and the curricular accommodations they were demanding as a result. She admonished her readers that, "Trigger warnings are a very dangerous form of censorship because they're done in the name of civility."

Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis captured people's attention in February with a witty but scathing indictment of what she called "sexual paranoia" on college campuses; she suddenly found herself the subject of indignant student protests over her "terrifying" views and slapped with a Title IX lawsuit. She was cleared after an investigation lasting several months, but her recent description of the vague charges and amorphous, impenetrable Title IX procedures serves as a cautionary tale.

Kipnis was brave and defiant. Case Western law professor Jonathan Adler wrote this week that the action filed against her was absurd. But many faculty have neither the intestinal fortitude nor the resources to face such an inquisition. Pseudonymous author and college professor Edward Schlosser describes common fears in his column for Vox last week. Titled, "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me," Schlosser's essay points to a shift in emphasis from quality of teaching to sensitivity to student feelings, and the professional consequences for teachers. He writes: "Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, (today's) complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student's emotional state. ... And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow."

In the comments that follow these articles, many readers observe (often gleefully) that liberals/progressives have dominated academia for decades, and their pet theories are now coming back to bite them.

This ill-placed schadenfreude nevertheless raises a valid point with some historical precedent. Academic movements seem to share a common trajectory with leftist political revolutions: They have their origins among intellectuals. They purport to remedy some grave wrong. They sound reasonable -- even desirable -- initially. And yet they tend to spin out of control, devolve into reductio ad absurdum and "eat their own." Communists had their "thought crimes" and purges. Today's insufficiently radical traitors to the academic cause get skewered on social media.

Except that the revolution isn't just virtual. As the authors cited above observed, "sensitivity" and "civility" have become euphemisms for a very real, pervasive intolerance that has long-term implications for students and faculty. And to that disreputable lexicon, we can now add "privilege" -- the latest ingredient in a fetid stew of resentment mongering and helplessness training. America has a fully mature grievance industry, and academia is its largest manufacturer.

There is a reason that leftist revolutions took root outside of the United States but have failed to get traction here. Identity politics is ultimately antithetical to the American philosophy, not because America has never had discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic identities (please!), but because the underpinning of the American idea is that anyone can do anything, not that most people can do nothing.

As educators, we are at our best when we teach people how to overcome adversity, not wallow in it or use it to excuse our own shortcomings. We do our students a grave disservice when we undermine others' success instead of inspiring those who have not yet enjoyed it to achieve it.

And the race to be the angriest is a dangerous one, as academics are now discovering to their chagrin.

There is a saying attributed to Karl Marx: "The last capitalist we hang will be the one who sold us the rope." A contemporary version of that might be, "The last intellectual we persecute will be the one who taught us to do it."