In the first semester of my freshman year, twenty-five years ago (!), I took an intro to public communications class where one of the assignments was to deliver an effective persuasive speech on a current and controversial topic. Someone had gotten me a gift subscription to Insight magazine when I went to college; more conservative and less highbrow than US News and World Report, it was a poor source for research, but it had two virtues Freshman Me appreciated–it was free, and it was readily available(in my dorm room as opposed to all the way across campus in the library). That week’s issue was a SPECIAL REPORT on “P.C. Run Amok.” Boom. Speech topic. I would declaim–nay, hold forth like modern-day Demosthenes–on the “scourge of political correctness” currently prevalent on college campuses. I don’t remember much about my “research,” other than quoting Donald Kagan a lot (YALE. SMART GUY), and I’m quite sure my speech was that special type of bombastic, sanctimonious, faux-outraged crap that only a clueless white boy could muster up. Like a lot of things (read: most of them) from my freshman year, I’d like to pretend that this never happened. Yet it did. And I’ll own it, if only as a benchmark to assess how much higher education has done for me since.
I tell that story here because it illustrates just how long this apocalyptic narrative of political-correctness-as-existential-threat-to-higher-education has persisted. The narrative was well-established by the early 90s, clearly. Indeed, since Buckley’s God and Man at Yale the chattering classes of the American Right had honed their saga of us-against-the-liberal-thought-police to a keen edge (upon which Freshman Me promptly impaled himself). When you step back and look at it, though, this whole siege mentality is rendered quite absurd: rich, white (mostly) males at rich (mostly) white elite institutions see themselves as victims, their sacred ideals mortally threatened. And who’s made them victims? Why, people who are “professional victims,” of course! These women and these minorities and these non-traditional students have the temerity to seek ideas and curricula that include them and their experiences, too! HOW DARE THE HOI POLLOI ASK FOR THE THINGS THAT WE HAVE IN ABUNDANCE
And that brings us to the latest entry in the Outrage Olympics, Aggrieved White Guy Division. Writing in the USA Today, the processed cheese food of American journalism, Glenn Reynolds tells us exactly “How PC Culture is Killing Higher Education.” In a
slightly unhinged screed article that quotes no one but white guys Of A Certain Age, Reynolds warns college presidents that they risk the very fate of their institutions if they tolerate the sort of foolishness being practiced by Kids These Days™ at Emory University. You’ve probably heard about the Trump-slogan-chalking and the student backlash against it at Emory, and divorced from its context, yes, it looks a bit silly. But everything has a context, and Emory’s case is no different. Yet why waste time and precious column space with things like perspective and nuance when it’s so much easier to go for the kill-shot and laugh at a bunch of rich kids who get their underwear in a bunch because they don’t want to hear arguments they don’t like. Waaahhh. Go home to mommy and daddy you little commie punks. Reynolds sees this as silly entitlement (and if there’s one thing an older white male who holds an endowed chair at a research university would know, it’s entitlement). He warns administrators that we have enough problems without having our reputations sullied by children acting foolishly. Tell them to suck it up, Reynolds chides us; college isn’t for coddling. Get these pansies a backbone before they graduate, for cryin’ out loud! Since we’re working in the idiom of all this manly-man posturing, I have one thing to tell Reynolds and his ilk:
Shut. The Fuck. Up.
The most immediate problem of sloppy hit-pieces like Reynolds’s is their sheer laziness. Find an episode of controversy on a campus (if it’s a negative reaction to right-wing stuff, all the better), deploy the students-as-coddled-whiny-special-little-snowflakes trope, watch the clicks roll in and the derision flow. Cash check, repeat. And, in the process, continue to encourage the worst stereotypes held by those who would eviscerate the funding of higher education and make more grist for the neoliberal mill. Reynolds poses as a friend to higher education, but his piece–and the PC-scare genre as a whole–is a mockery of what academia stands for. In his belittling of the Emory students’ perspective, Reynolds closes the door on any conversation. In his blithe dismissal of their perspective as “silly,” Reynolds effectively declares those students shouldn’t even be there. It should give one serious pause that none of these anti-“political correctness” hype pieces are written by people from underprivileged or underrepresented groups, and that the incidence of these pieces has increased in direct variation to the diversification of the academy. It should also trouble us that they tend to issue from bastions of academic elitism. Reynolds is just the latest example of someone who probably interacts with fewer students in a whole year than many of us see in one lecture section of the survey course. If there’s anyone who’s emblematic of the detached-and-cloistered-in-the-ivory-tower stereotype in this equation, it isn’t the students. The real issue, one senses, for these avatars of “rigor” and “not coddling” students is that their voices aren’t the only ones in the forum anymore. When you’re accustomed to privilege, even equality feels like oppression.
If you want to really see “delicate little flowers” whining about their feelings, try talking to white conservatives about white privilege.
— Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) March 28, 2016
I’d like to offer a different portrait of “today’s student,” based upon actual experiences and interaction as opposed to ginned-up outrage over imaginary threats to white-guy prerogatives. Rather than lacking in “grit” (the new buzzword which has already reached the point of diminishing returns), today’s students tend to be amazingly resilient. Find me another generation of students that has had to deal with abysmal funding for higher ed and student aid, having to work more hours than preceding cohorts to finance their education, a stagnant economy and jobless “recovery”–and their elders telling them at every turn how they don’t measure up. The coddled-student crowd points to the unprecedented levels of stress and mental health problems faced by this generation of students as proof of their inadequacy. I’m more focused on how amazing it is that, despite the manifold difficulties they encounter, students facing these issues persevere in the first place, many of them eventually thriving, persisting, and graduating. There’s your grit. I have personally taught students who have succeeded in my courses despite being diagnosed with cancer, going through separation from abusive partners, being primary caregivers to younger siblings while a parent is in prison, suffering injuries in a car accident, entering therapy for mental health matters, taking night classes until 10 PM and then working third shift at the refinery, working two (or more) jobs, not having a car and biking over 10 miles to campus, being temporarily homeless, kicking a heroin addiction, finding racist graffiti on their car, losing their visa, losing a parent, losing a sibling, losing a spouse, losing a baby, and losing their financial aid. For every student who may have acted entitled, or come off as coddled, I have had literally thousands who have overcome significant obstacles to achieve their educational goals.
Where the Reynolds crowd sees professional victims ready to be offended at the drop of a hat, I see students who deal with a daily onslaught of racist microagressions, the cumulative effect of which I can’t even comprehend. I see students who’ve sacrificed time, money, leisure, and sleep to do right by their academic goals. I see students who’ve had to deal with the slimy advances of a predatory professor (whose colleagues almost always turn a blind eye). I see students who’ve been told time and time again that they don’t deserve to be here, that they’re the products of a dumbed-down system, that something other than merit got them in, that they’ll never match up to their predecessors, that they don’t know the meaning of work, that they can’t write, appreciate literature, do math, or care enough about their education. So excuse them if they get mad when pro-Trump graffiti shows up on their buildings, or if their university offers a prestigious speaking slot to a toxic pseudoscientific charlatan. They’re over this shit. And I’m right there with them.
The last thing higher education needs is one more old white guy bleating about “political correctness run amok,” when it’s just a slightly more genteel phrase for “people not like me getting all uppity.” If you’re upset about other people winning in the marketplace of ideas, maybe it’s because your ideas suck. If you think today’s students are coddled, and don’t have “grit,” you either don’t teach or aren’t paying attention. To see students calling out power inequalities and inequitable behaviors is not some sort of failure, but a triumph of critical thinking and intellectual agency. If you think students calling institutions, their administrations, or other authorities out on bad thinking, institutional inequities, or general bullshit is “silly,” or “killing higher education,” maybe you’re the delicate little flower who can’t abide an intellectual challenge.
There are many threats that we face in academia. PC-spouting coddled students is not one of them. We need to ignore these weaselly attempts from retrograde malcontents to divert attention from the real issues we face. It’s time to get real and get to work.