The Case Against Educational Hysteria

Educational hysteria on college campuses is a short-sighted misdirection for the talents and energies of bright, ambitious students.

Protestors clash with police at UC Berkeley. Photo from Google Images.

Introduction

Three primary issues broadly afflict college campuses today: intolerance towards diverse thought, the devolution of social purpose, and the rise of the inconsequential. These phenomena contribute to the educational hysteria that is increasingly dominating the political, social and educational spheres of the modern American university.

They include trigger warnings for differing opinions, the non-ironic use of ‘safe spaces’ for pampered students amidst an international refugee crisis, and the rise of inconsequential microaggressions. An entire generation of future leaders is being influenced by and educated in an environment that is antithetical to America’s founding principles of individual liberty, self-reliance, and human dignity.

The increasingly prevalence of this dangerous educational hysteria is indicative of broader trends that, if carried on by members of this generation to political fruition, would wreak havoc on constitutionalism, government humility, and human freedom.

Amidst this hysteria, students and teachers should protect and promote free speech with two main goals: focusing on issues of actual consequence, and consistently applying rigorous analysis to such issues.

The Diversity of Thought

Many campus leftists preach endlessly about the virtue of tolerance, but their hypocrisy is best seen in their repudiation of and phobic responses to the diversity of thought.

Historically, innovation drives progress, and exchange drives innovation. In universities, this exchange is one of ideas. If we trade desserts, we each have just one dessert, but if we swap ideas, now we both have two ideas. Diversity fosters exchange, and diversity in thought is critical, because there is no diversity in echo chambers.

However, not a single member of Cornell’s Department of Government is politically conservative. Recent events have led to a re-examination of the situation. Yet as one student wrote, the real problem is that hiring conservatives would result in more white professors.

Although well-intentioned, he is misguided. He compares the percentage of minority faculty at Cornell to the percentage of minorities nationwide, and expresses outrage at the discrepancies.

It seemingly did not occur to him that the hiring pool for university professorships does not constitute the entirety of the American population. The relevant subgroup for comparison, to the extent that there must be one, is the segment of the population that has a Ph.D. Of course, this is the sort of distinction that does not lend itself well to the tyranny of simplicity.

Even more recently, the Student Assembly (SA) voted down a resolution that would have created a committee to study the issue of intellectual diversity amongst faculty.

With a charter that charges it with “the authority and the responsibility to examine any matters which involve the interests or concern the welfare of the student community,” the SA apparently decided that diversity in thought did not constitute such an interest.

No single occurrence at Cornell is more indicative of the sad state of tolerance on college campuses than the SA’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion voting against a resolution that sought to “investigate ways to increase and improve faculty ideological diversity.” Perhaps the one positive takeaway is that we have yet to devolve into the violence and absurdity of Berkeley.

As one astute eye noted on Twitter, academia is the only labor market in the world where conservatives see systemic discrimination and liberals say human capital explains the outcomes.

However, conservatives don’t want affirmative action, and this is not about pity. It’s about a glaringly hypocritical contradiction in the purported values of leftist students and cloistered academics that profess a love for diversity but live in a cocoon of agreement. In their repulsion to the very existence of dissenting opinions, they are undermining their foundational beliefs.

Such intolerance can be seen in the responses to writers and thinkers of the left who point out that college campuses are increasingly hostile to speakers, professors, and students who don’t share mainline leftist thinking. Nicholas Kristof, the farthest thing from a conservative, has written several columns about these issues in the New York Times.

The reactions of his fellow leftists range from mind numbing to blood boiling. This stultifying culture does not bode well for respect for the rule of law, individual freedom, or adherence to the meaning of the Constitution.

This hostility to conservative or even just non-leftist thinking has dangerous implications for openness and the freedom of speech on college campuses. Efforts to preserve and protect free speech cut across the political spectrum— this is a human issue, not a political one.

Ensuring free expression is consistent with Cornell’s very purpose: two of the University’s core values are to “Support free and open intellectual inquiry and expression,” and to “Embrace difference and diversity.” Yet diversity in thought is increasingly ignored or dismissed.

Apparently Cornell forgot about these core values during Senator Rick Santorum’s visit last semester, when a coterie of self-styled activists shouted expletives over him and constantly disrupted the 90-minute event. This led a university administrator to interrupt twice and read a statement about free speech, each time proving its impotence by failing to enforce any modicum of decency.

Far be it from campus activists to presume they might learn something from, or at least hear out, a former United States Senator and two-time Presidential candidate. When is the last time a group of conservatives attempted to stop a liberal from speaking?

The Devolution of Social Purpose

If one takes a step back, perhaps the rise of microaggressions isn’t so surprising. What is left for cliché campus leftists? The major fights of the last century, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights— have now largely been fought and won. These were important movements whose outcomes were not inevitable; they took effort, purpose, and direction, for which the world is a better place.

Conservatives too, to the surprise of cloistered campus leftists, dream of a world where race and sex are not barriers to opportunity, and where the biggest determinant of one’s success is how hard they work. However, rather than recognize Calvin Coolidge’s declaration that, “to live under the American Constitution is the greatest privilege ever accorded to the human race,” campus leftists, in their obsession with observable physical characteristics, have convinced themselves of the exact opposite.

Simultaneously, the success of these movements has led to the devolution of social purpose and increasingly questionable assertions of victimhood. This devolution is partly driven by proximity; because our immediate world is improving, the objects of leftist scorn become of lesser and lesser significance.

Thus we get microaggressions, hoaxes, trigger warnings, privilege rankings, safe spaces, and a smattering of political correctness so suffocating that declaring, “all lives matter,” as Martin O’Malley did during his Presidential campaign, is controversial. And this occurs despite ongoing existential issues around the world where millions of people, thousands of miles from Ithaca, live and work in conditions that would be unrecognizable to the average American.

Anyone who questions this devolution should look no further than Wesleyan, which constructed a house for LGBTQQFAGPBDSM students. That is not a typo.

This identity fragmentation is a major threat to the future of limited government and constitutionalism in America because it serves to rationalize the imposition of higher authority to solve increasingly inconsequential issues. When intolerant and self-righteous people convince themselves of their moral and intellectual superiority, history suggests that bad things tend to happen.

Students at Brown once famously complained that their class work was getting in the way of their activism. For most Americans that was a head-scratching moment, but for those who follow campus life developments, it made sense: the outrage industry is profitable and growing— why let a rigorous education get in the way?

Perhaps leftists sense this devolution subconsciously. Activism has a new offshoot, #hashtavism, which consists of hash-tagging your thoughts and feelings on Twitter and Instagram, in an attempt to change the world from the comfort of one’s own couch.

This assertion of victimhood is unproductive and ignorant. 70% of American adults do not have a college degree, but rather than having their presence at college inspire a sense of connection with and gratefulness for the opportunity, many students cling to hyperbolic exaggerations of their despair.

Thus they rage against the oppression of a university while simultaneously benefiting from its services and promoting themselves by demanding the imposition of restrictive rules on the actions of their peers. This precipitous decline in identity with and respect for large institutions is a major driver of the divided state of our country.

What happened to the defense of institutions and ideals? When did skewering your peers, the administration, and anyone who disagrees with you become not just a common but celebrated occurrence on college campuses? How did violently disrupting, protesting, and stopping a speaker from giving a presentation become a legitimate practice in a democratic society? When did enlightened indignation become the desired end of a world-class education?

Perhaps these are questions without answers, but that is less upsetting than their having to be asked in the first place.

The Rise of the Inconsequential

Chief among the many disconcerting trends in academia today are ‘microaggressions,’ and their finger-pointing pervasiveness is dangerous to open expression and destructive not just to campus climates, but to American political life at large.

A microaggression is considered a verbal or nonverbal slight, intentional or unintentional, which is perceived as communicating negative or derogatory messages on the basis of an individual’s or group’s identity.

Here are a few examples:

A Spanish-themed fundraiser for foster children was canceled because a promotional poster featured maracas; a Princeton student from the deep south was asked to pronounce “cool whip” because it sounded funny with his accent; a professor at UCLA commented on an essay that the word “indigenous” is not capitalized; a group of students considered removing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote because it was not inclusive enough; and a professor threatened to lower the grade of any student who used the term “illegal alien.” Of course, the microaggression in that last example was the use of the term illegal alien, not the professor’s Orwellian threat to lower the grade of a non-conformer.

The list goes on:

Students at Edinburgh complained when someone raised their hand because it connoted disagreement; the University of New Hampshire, funded by the state whose license plates read “live free or die,” published a speech guide that declared the word American to be problematic; and of course here at Cornell University, two football players wearing sombreros produced a greater output of moral fury than the mass slaughter of innocent civilians in war-torn Syria.

These examples represent an abdication of responsibility for the world, and a heart-wrenchingly useless misdirection of the energies and talents of intelligent, ambitious, and well-intentioned people, who should be solving complex and debilitating problems, not creating more of them.

Countless times I have been asked— in an incident many would consider a microaggression— if I am Spanish or Mexican, despite having no Hispanic heritage (my Italian ancestors shortened their name when they immigrated to America). This does not bother me, nor do I consider the asking of the question inappropriate.

Microaggressions don’t translate to the real world, nor do they concern the millions of people actively engaged in contributing to the betterment of society.

Our Future

Above all, introspection and a broader perspective are necessary to combat the rise of the inconsequential, the devolution of social purpose, and intolerance towards diverse thought. This educational hysteria has the potential to seriously harm American ideals like individual liberty and limited government.

Regrettably, social media and the ease of faceless communication, despite being powerful tools for connection, have led to the formation of online echo chambers, and an erosion of thoughtfulness, introspection, and general decency.

While this educational hysteria grips Ithaca, Cornell alumni are engaged in meaningful and productive activities around the globe, like serving their country, creating new businesses, raising families, or helping others reach their potential in life.

In writing against the proliferation of microaggressions and other means of educational hysteria, I do not pretend that America is perfect, or that there are not issues of race in society. Rather, I seek to emphasize unity over difference. The things we have in common, like hope for the future, are far more important than self-promotion through demagoguery and intolerance.

Moreover, the judgment of someone’s intentions, actions or beliefs on the basis of their observable physical characteristics is one of the most misguided, destructive, and divisive forces in history, is irreconcilable with Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work, and should have no place in American life.

Committed administrators, professors, and students must serve as a bulwark against this erosion of bedrock principles. This is important not only because of the changing demographics of our incredible country, but also because the world is shrinking— technologically, economically, and politically.

Individuals should focus their attention on issues like expanding tolerance, promoting freedom, and ensuring human dignity. Unlike microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, they actually matter for the improvement of the world we live in.

Hasta la vista microaggressions.

Given the author’s affinity for the freedom of speech, thoughtful feedback is encouraged.

 

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