In Honor of the Class of 2020, Some Scalding Coffee
In 2020 many memes pay homage to the high school and college seniors who were supposed to have a commencement and walk up in robes and square hats to receive diplomas. That is how civilized societies reward teenagers and young adults for wrapping up four years of general education. But the coronavirus changes everything, in the way money behaves in the Cyndi Lauper song “Money Changes Everything.” I wish I could be like the millions of people who can turn out a fulsome praise to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy.
Instead, I’d like to pay honor to the class of 2020 by giving them the precious gift of honesty. This crop of graduates has been lied to, probably more than any other. I should know, because for all the years they’ve lived, I was inside the machine that manufactured the lies.
This year I graduated at the age of forty-nine in my own way. After twenty years of teaching college students, I finally left my last academic job and moved on from academia. I watched twenty classes of students move through the system while these current graduates incubated. My departure was as unceremonious as their non-ceremonies are going to be.
So here’s some truth that needs to be told: Your teachers didn’t know what they were talking about most of the time. I know you may have liked many of them, but that’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome you get from the deliberate mental work the institutions do on you. You’re in school and they are the ones to whom you are captive. That’s why they may have seemed so kind; they needed you to give them high teaching evaluations so they could be promoted.
The people who taught you English were trained by unhinged Marxists who never made them read much classic literature before throwing them in the classroom to teach you. They rarely studied any foreign languages so had no grasp of world literature or classical literature. They were trained to disregard the Christian Bible so they lacked any meaningful connection to the thousands of years that the Bible and churches influenced artistic expression. The departments that hired them wanted chatty courtiers who could talk about glossy critical theories. Search committees didn’t hire literature professors who had a broad background, largely because the people on the hiring committees lacked the range to understand what they were talking about in job interviews. So you got the teacher who showed up talking about feminist readings of Jane Austen novels, like a million other grad students.
I know this because I sat through graduate school in the 1990s and went to conference after conference with English teachers. They did master’s theses and doctoral dissertations on idiotic pet theories that fascinated their advisors. In order to fund their reckless forays into illustrated children’s literature, erotica, music videos and other esoteric tomfoolery, they held their noses and studied composition and rhetoric so they could get jobs teaching young people how to write papers. So you were the cash crop that funded their dilettantism. If they made Shakespeare, Milton, and Henry James feel accessible to you, that’s likely because they were going off the Sparknotes just as you were. They made it accessible because they only knew as much as you did about the texts.
Most of what they told you about how to write is awful advice. The “rhetorical fallacies” like the straw man, red herring, and post hoc ergo propter hoc, are actually effective forms of persuasion that have served great commentators well from Demosthenes to Malcolm X. Ad hominem attacks make the world go round, contrary to what you’ve heard; the Declaration of Independence, remember, was a long personal attack on King George III. The human mind doesn’t react well to dry, dispassionate five-paragraph essays written by people who were forbidden from using “I” and discouraged from suggesting anything interesting or new. Once you graduate from college, nobody will ever ask you to write a 5-7 page paper with a topic sentence and formulaic presentations of evidence. Your teachers had to consume large amounts of alcohol to read those papers you hated writing.
Some of your English teachers may have followed their own suffocating rules of composition. If they did, they joined the ranks of those who write 25-page articles that take four years to get into print at a peer-reviewed journal, to be read by three grad students who stumbled on it on J-STOR when they were looking for something else. Most of your English teachers, though, broke the rules if they wrote anything impactful. They rolled up their sleeves, jumped on social media, and started flinging irresponsible mud at people over topics they felt emotional about. In other words, they were like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Emile Zola, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell. Passionate people worth studying.
But no matter how much you rave about the way your English teachers loved you and changed your life, the truth is they were horrible people. I worked alongside them for two decades. These are people who would strangle kittens for tenure. They pulled childish tricks to rig their student evaluations and nominated themselves for excellence in teaching awards. For all their prattle about sexual and racial equality, they zipped their mouths about colleagues abusing students. They did nothing when tenure review boards went after minority teachers. If it seemed like you had very few teachers of color and all the ones you had focused on ethnic studies, that’s because all the classicists of color were driven out of the academy for being self-hating Uncle Toms. Trust me. I lived that ugly routine at four different colleges.
You may think of yourself as liberal or conservative, but you’re probably neither. If you were a true leftist, you’d be staging protests against the abusive student debt and the hideous labor conditions of academia. You’d care about the adjuncts who teach 70% of your classes. When I was in college we built shanties to protest South African apartheid and some of us shouted at deans over campus governance, instead of working with “deans of diversity” to hold harmless parades about safe spaces for people of color and transgender track and field runners. The left you know is a phony game of distraction, designed to keep you unworried about the tuition they’ve extorted from you. Most of what the left preaches, whether it’s green energy or MeToo, ends up being consumerism and celebrity culture, which is really the same thing. Buy a Taylor Swift CD to show solidarity because someone grabbed her at a concert in Colorado. Log onto Google with your smart phone to learn about windmills and solar. Let’s pretend a Twitter mobbing against someone who said something homophobic in 1991 is left-wing activism… not.
I wrote Wackos, Thugs, and Perverts in 2017 to roll out the three basic flavors of educational progressives: wackos who are simply lunatics, thugs who will engage in all kinds of unethical behavior for a quick buck or power, and perverts who project their unhealthy obsessions onto their academic expertise. That’s the left you’ve seen. You’d be triggered in a nanosecond if you had to speak to an actual radical from the 1970s who wanted to push for social change. You’d probably accuse the person of mansplaining.
Even if you think you’re conservative, you’re probably not that either. Maybe you read the Daily Wire and love hearing Ben Shapiro say “facts don’t care about your feelings.” But if you were conservative, you’d be courageous enough to stand up for traditional values. In educational settings the few self-identified “conservatives” tend to come in three flavors: creeps, cretins, and cowards. The creeps were the libertarian profiteers who saw money to be made in the aftermath of pseudo-liberal destruction in the academic world; they make a living by dressing-up pro-corporate propaganda in Christian platitudes so it can be sold as Reagan’s three-legged stool to people who have no memory of what that was. The cretins were conservatives who had no concept of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and glommed onto numerous creeps (see prior sentence). The cowards were people who knew what traditional values were but didn’t want to jeopardize their chance of going to Harvard Law School or something.
All three of these conservative characters were completely useless. That’s why their movement got nowhere even as Ben Shapiro got invited to speak at campus after campus.
Whether you thought of yourself as conservative or liberal, you were really pseudo-libertarian, which is the default setting of both the Millennials and Generation Z. You wanted the experience of low-cost piety and reckless self-righteous adventures that involved no risk to yourself. You wanted to be able to snitch on your teachers and get them fired but you also wanted a small and non-intrusive government that would allow your gay classmates to make out at the senior prom. This is not your fault. During the last twenty years the entire educational system was rigged to foster that behavior in you because it kept you self-absorbed and ultimately unwilling to question the status quo. Other generations, like mine, rebelled against our teachers to feel cool. Your generations aped and flattered your supposedly progressive teachers to feel rebellious, which wasn’t necessarily cool, just the perpetually new normal.
As you get ready to start the next phase of your life, you are blessed to have had coronavirus overshadow your graduation. You have had a wakeup call that I haven’t seen students receive in twenty years. When I tried to explain to previous classes that experts were not as knowledgeable and all-powerful as people assumed they were, they wouldn’t believe me. The whole system told them that the APA, AMA, NEA, MLA, ALA, NEH, NIH, CDC, DOJ, and the rest were the gold standard. Now you’ve had your commencement canceled because these experts said everyone had to stay home for two months, since they couldn’t think of anything else to do about a virus. You sat at home wasting day after day with nothing to do while the experts couldn’t pull together a large-scale triage system, distribute reliable antibodies tests, or find treatment for people who got infected. After billions in science funding, this. If you’re paying attention, you’ve realized they’re a clown show.
What might feel scary to you could also become a sense of liberation. You hold a golden place of history. God gave you a graduation present: insight into the inner workings of a society that had spent at least sixty years convincing itself that their lies were real. In truth, human beings are still fragile organisms who can’t be saved by experts, degrees, courses of study, diplomas, transcripts, papers, conferences, or grades. People who seemed all-powerful and unquestionable to classes that came before you now stand exposed for being less than a wizard behind a curtain. They’re the bobblehead behind a telescreen (pace Orwell).
Please forgive me for speaking so frankly to you. You’ve been had. But you can’t be had any longer, since everything is breaking down. You didn’t ask for my advice but I’ll give it to you. You should stand up and fight the system at this point, whether you’re left or right. Past generations risked their safety to engage in real civil disobedience. Read Thoreau if it helps. When you’re young and not set in your career, you have more freedom than you can imagine. I wish I’d taken a stand for my beliefs at 19, so I didn’t have to take the stand at 49 with two kids, a wife, and a mortgage to worry about. I don’t regret my choices but my timing. If you don’t avail yourself of your freedom now, chances are you’ll be part of the machine for the rest of your life. And the machine is broken.