Campus culture has been much-discussed in recent weeks, as a growing consensus has emerged that today’s college students, though well-meaning, are often prone to overreaction and oversimplification of complex political and moral issues. The result is hurt feelings in the campus community and, all too often, shattered careers for professors.
Let’s grant that this diagnosis is partially correct. It does seem to be the case that campus political activism is often characterized by lack of nuance and by massive impatience. Student groups sometimes seem to choose “targets of opportunity” without any clear overarching strategy. Online activist culture has arguably contributed to this situation by substituting clever memes and carefully orchestrated outrage for actual political analysis. The result is an approach to political advocacy that does little to foster a community based on dialogue and mutual understanding.
The thing about this diagnosis is that, aside from the online aspect, pundits from time immemorial have said similar things about college students. This is because college students are adolescents who have often been thrown into a very intense and confusing social situation without much in the way of preparation. Simplistic moralizing and group identities based more on common enemies than shared substance are part of the natural growing pains. I went through a phase much like that described by the David Brookses of the world, and now I’m not like that anymore. Surely many of us can say the same, if we’re honest.
The hope, obviously, is that the end result of a college education would be, in part, a more sophisticated grasp of political realities, institutional structures, moral ambiguities, etc., etc. For me, the question is not whether college students are acting like college students, but whether our institutions of higher learning are helping them toward that laudable goal of political maturity.
And this brings me to the last segment of the punditical concensus: the ruined lives of professors. I think we need to recognize that students do not have the power to hire, fire, or discipline professors in any college or university in this land. That power is vested in some combination of the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Trustees. There is no necessity for those with actual power to use it to deal out draconian punishments for trivial offenses against the profound moral standards some student happens to have read about in a blog post that morning. Part of being the adult in the room is knowing when to tell someone they’re overreacting. If it really is the case that the situation is “worse” today, surely this overindulgence of petty complaints is a contributing factor.
Of course, here someone could say that those poor harried administrators are responding to market forces in our bold new neoliberal world of student-customers who are always right. What’s strange to me, though, is that students are always right about very trivial matters, but in the eyes of administrators, they are only very seldom right about much more serious offenses. When a professor is accused of sexual exploitation of students, for instance, suddenly he can count on institutional backing and the glories of tenure. There is a similar mismatch between students who are uncomfortable reading Huck Finn (always right!) and those who are uncomfortable being in class with a fellow student who has raped them (let’s not be hasty…).
One almost begins to think that administrators are opportunistically deploying student complaints as weapons in their ongoing war against faculty job security, while taking an equally opportunistic approach to more serious accusations that could significantly damage the institution’s reputations. And maybe part of the education we as faculty can provide to students is how to recognize these dynamics and start fighting the real enemy.