If anyone wonders why I often write about the antics that go on in academia, it's not merely because I've spent 25 years as an academic -- and so I know the way the sausage is made. It is also because higher education in the United States provides nearly limitless fodder for astonishment, outrage or mockery. In any given week it's possible to find multiple instances of manifest silliness, absurdity, or worse.
This week is no exception.
Exhibit One: James O'Keefe's Project Veritas group released a video that shows administrators and faculty members at Vassar College and Oberlin College shredding the U.S. Constitution -- or promising to -- in response to a complaint lodged by one of O'Keefe's reporters posing as a student.
In the video, the student complains that pocket copies of the Constitution were being handed out on campus, and that this event was is a trigger event for her, causing a panic attack, blurry vision, hyperventilation, and self-inflicted confinement to her dorm room. The student further explains that she sees the Constitution as a "flawed," "oppressive" and "racist" document, and seeks agreement on that point.
Initially, it's unclear from the video whether the people with whom the student speaks really believe what they're telling her, or are just humoring her. (One professor at Oberlin seems to be struggling to maintain a straight face when first hearing the student's description of her reaction.) However, as the conversations progress, the faculty and administrators seem willing to encourage this delusion, agreeing with the student that the Constitution indeed is "an oppressive document," going on to suggest a number of possible remedies. Ultimately, two agree to shred the copy that the student has brought with her, as a form of therapeutic catharsis.
O'Keefe is pitching this as proof of academia's hostility toward the Constitution. I don't agree. But I think the problem it does reveal is just as serious, if not more so.
Much has been written in recent months about the epidemic of demands for "trigger warnings" on college campuses, and scholars of all political leanings have warned that the consequences of policies like these are detrimental to a culture of adult learning. When watching O'Keefe's video, it's hard not to agree with those who complain that the "trigger warning" movement is infantilizing college students. The complaints and aftereffects alleged by the student/reporter were so over the top, they could hardly be believable. And yet they were treated as credible.
Is this the level of emotional fragility that faculty and administrators routinely deal with these days?
Exhibit Two: At the opposite end of the spectrum is the upcoming "Sex Week" at Harvard. Apparently, the very same demographic that whimpers in abject terror at the mere mention of "triggering" words like "rape," "ghetto," "crazy" and "illegal alien" (or catching a glimpse of "We the People") is resilient enough to endure an entire week dedicated to discussions and demonstrations of oral and anal sex, masturbation, sex toys, "feminist porn" (I'll leave the dichotomy there to the gender theorists), bondage and sadomasochism, whips and flogging, and threesomes. (And so much more!)
For this privilege, dear parents, you can shell out a mere $70,000 a year. Don't think you can avoid it by sending your kids to a different or less expensive school; any number of colleges and universities now host comparable events.
Or how about Exhibit Three: the constant churn about sexual assault on campus, and the ongoing deprivation of due process of students -- largely male -- who are accused of sexual assault.
And all of this is without mentioning the perceived bias of faculty against conservative students, or conservative values generally. Examples are legion.
While tuition at American institutions of higher education has skyrocketed, the logic and common sense quotient seems to have plummeted. Doesn't anyone see that if we didn't encourage students to see sex as recreation, perhaps they wouldn't treat it as recreation? If we weren't hosting porn stars on campuses, maybe our students wouldn't have such a crushing pornography problem; a relatively recent Atlantic article reported that 62 percent of college men watch porn every week.
Do parents -- or others paying the tuition bills -- have any idea of the nonsense that takes place at so many colleges and universities? One can argue that nutty behavior goes on everywhere -- and that's true -- but you're not taking out a second mortgage to pay for it.
Academe is ripe to be disrupted. Faculty and administrators at "traditional" colleges and universities scoff at the notion that, for example, online education would ever replace the bricks-and-mortar, residential experience that has come to characterize college for millions of Americans.
I think that's a dangerous delusion. While it's unlikely that technological alternatives will do away with traditional college education in its entirety, I find it completely plausible -- and arguably desirable -- that more and more Americans will simply refuse to pay today's tuition rates for a four year experience that includes the promotion of pornography, orgiastic drunkenness, and an "education" that undermines the values families have worked hard to instill in their children. Like it or not, that will force many institutions to change their ways, or die out.