A new academic year is upon us and with that comes one of my favourite rites of the season – the arrival of the What’s Wrong With Universities Today? newspaper column.
Ah, yes, draw out the fainting couch because there is no sign of autumn quite like when aging denizens of mainstream punditry turn their attention to the incoming class and wonder aloud as to why ‘these kids today’ aren’t more like the ones they knew in their university years. And nobody does this better than the Maven of Hyperbolic Histrionics, Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail.
Let it be known: She did not disappoint again this season.
It goes without saying that Wente’s most recent column, Welcome to college – and the thought police, is exactly what you would expect. I would summarize her points here, but you already know them by heart. Microaggressions. Trigger warnings. Victim culture. All the classic hits.
The recipe to cook up these columns is simple: Use random examples of campus silliness from across North America without developing a connection or trend. Sprinkle in at least one ‘they just don’t make students like they used to’ lament. Top it off with a wildly overblown conclusion.
Wente is a master of that final step. As she concluded her weekend column:
“So that’s what you can look forward to at university, you guys. Groupthink, censorship, intellectual tyranny and continual assurance that the world we live in is a dark and dreadful place. Have fun! And don’t forget to Skype.”
Seriously, Ms. Wente, all of that because, as one of your examples pointed out, one insignificant university in central Massachusetts doesn’t think it is “okay to sing along with music that uses the ‘n’ word if you are white.” Essentially the end of Western Civilization because they don’t want Cindy from Connecticut belting out 2 Chainz in the quad.
See why I love this time of year so?
Her weekend column is the latest in a long line lambasting the latest crop of university students as weak-minded – a line of complaints extending back generations. I remember wringing my hands over Dinesh D’Souza’s 1991 book Illiberal Education which professed to “document how the politics of race and gender in our universities are rapidly eating away traditions of scholarship and reward for individual achievement.” Sound familiar?
Frankly, there is nothing new in this discussion. But every year, we continue to have it.
And I get it. Some of the stuff universities do looks ridiculous in the outside world. We’re our own worst enemy when it comes to the non-problems we rush to address or the deep-set problems of humankind we think we can solve via a working group. But that is what happens when you develop a concierge campus culture and the bulk of your clientele is 17-21 years old – you end up charging hills not of your own making.
But when people like Wente focus on isolated incidents of well-intentioned silliness and then extrapolate a larger indictment on the entire system, that is just lazy. That would be like saying if a single columnist was caught plagiarizing a few columns then all journalism was useless. Just not so.
Admittedly, the examples she brings up aren’t exactly the next Civil Rights Movement. There will be no Rosa Parks for microinsults. But these issues are important to some people in the moment. Naive-yet-well-intentioned righteous indignation is part of growing up. There is nothing wrong with universities and their students trying to make a more inclusive environment. No matter what cranks like Wente say every year.