Why Are University Students So Stupidity-Friendly?
The contemporary political landscape is mired in a tsunami of bad ideas. Who would have ever anticipated that defunding police departments, emptying out prisons, eliminating cash bail, free health care, free college, looting as a legitimate form of social protest politics, among other screwball ideas would go mainstream? Socialism? How did views resting on blatant falsehoods jump from the academy’s ideological wet markets to the New York Times?
A full explanation must wait until passions cool, but in the meantime let me offer a personal account based on decades of university teaching where this nonsense initially metastasized from a few quirky campus ideas to a conquering idiocy.
I began teaching government at an ivy league school in 1969. Yes, the students were exceptionally bright, but the faculty were unafraid of pushing them hard and an occasional Marine drill sergeant mentality was necessary. Stupidities were immediately confronted, often sarcastically and grading was tough. Some colleagues especially relished slicing and dicing fools, and students years later, would praise these martinets for “making me think and work hard.” Survivors could boast of a world-class, rigorous education.
Matters began shifting in the '70s as some faculty conflated easier grading (which facilitated student draft deferments) with opposing the War in Vietnam. Affirmative action admission now appeared and while these admittees lagged far behind regular students, most faculty anticipated no long-term harm, believing that blacks would eventually catch up. In any case, faculty still confidently dominated, students were still considered ignorant, and periodically informed of their failings.
Almost imperfectively, however, matters began shifting and eventually set the stage for today’s mass-produced university manufactured foolishness. The introduction of student course evaluations was critical. Their original purpose was to quantify instructional excellence and thus provide sharper standards for promotion and tenure and, especially, salary increases. After all, teaching performance was central to a university’s mission and its accurate calibration would help reward good teachers and punish bad ones. Evaluations quickly became mandatory.
Unfortunately, professor who still embraced the Marine drill sergeant approach were severely disadvantaged, particularly since all ratings were anonymous. Hard to achieve high ratings by assigning hard readings, giving low grades, imposing a no-nonsense excuse policy, and requiring mandatory attendance. Most of all, since course evaluations invariably asked, “Did the instructor respect your opinions?” sharp-tongued professors embarrassing students for their foolish utterances were penalized. No savvy instructor would now challenge a student who “explained” that socialism could end homelessness by eliminating all rent. If he did, the humiliated student would anonymously write how she felt ashamed, cried herself to sleep and felt diminished self-esteem. Tellingly, the professor had no right of appeal, even to dispute the facts nor could he or she insist that frankness promoted learning. For untenured junior faculty, a few such “troubling” complaints could be career-ending.
The rise of enrollment-based budgets exacerbated this trend. Save for well-published or grant-getting “star” faculty, filling classroom seats became mandatory. This bean-counting mentality reinforced the growing “customer is always right” philosophy, so yet more pressure for grade inflation, shortened reading lists, painless exams and no-brainer writing assignments. Especially as college tuition soared, and fewer and fewer students could pay upwards of $60,000+ per year, catering to “customers” became even more important.
Meanwhile the growing number of “gut” identity/grievance politics courses put yet more pressure on professors teaching in the traditional social sciences and humanities. With enrollments already in decline, why assign the tough-to-read Federalist Papers when competitors over at Latinx Studies offer screeds written at a fifth-grade reading level denouncing American colonialism while handing out easy “A”?
The admission of thin-skinned “woke” minority students was a game changer. In the past, excessive intellectual toughness or even abrasiveness might once get you a smaller salary increase due to low teacher rating. But being tough on these recruits could get you fired or instigate a campus riot. Retention was an extremely high priority and it would take only one or two offended students to cause an incident that could bring endless administrative hearings and involve costly legal fees. Anything could be the trigger—saying that Malcolm X was a convicted felon or denying that slaves built America. No offense could be too slight.
Far the most serious, however, was inadvertently wandering into Politically Incorrect territory, easy to do since no-go territory constantly shifts. Alas, the conveyance of knowledge scarcely justified violating a boundary. A single word could now doom a career. Nor did it make any difference if the utterance was factually and scientifically correct or if the instructor was an internationally known expert on the subject. My former colleague—Professor Stuart Nagel—a liberal who authored 100+ books, who once risked his life in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, was falsely accused by some black students of “workplace violence” after a heated but totally non-violent after-class discussion. He was without notification removed from his classes, he sued for re-instatement and after a settlement was forced out of the university. He eventually committed suicide. Hard to miss the point here.
Under these circumstances, instructors rationally avoid all “controversy” and anything that might, someway, somehow be construed as offensive. Never disagree on anything with any student that might be viewed as personally upsetting lest the offended student alert the Dean of Diversity that they felt unsafe and needed professional counseling to heal. Forget about playing Devil’s Advocate to provoke lively discussion. This is a world of feelings über alles, as if feeling passionately enough about something made it true. Meanwhile at least some students were incapable of distinguishing what the professor explicates as an idea versus what the professor personally believed. The sentence “Slavery had its defenders” can be misconstrued as “I support slavery,” and good luck trying to explain the difference to a distraught youngster. If all else fails, assign a woke textbook and read it to the class.
Many of today’s college graduates outside the hard-nosed STEM fields resemble laboratory rats especially bred in super-sterile settings to lack any immunities. Save for the handful who might have conservative or otherwise unpopular views, these students have navigated college without being challenged or encountering “hurtful” contrary views thanks to timid trouble-avoiding instructors. If after college they are told that everybody should receive a free college degree, they are incapable of asking why, what will it cost, who benefits and who loses, how will it be administered, and what are its long-term economic and social consequences. What is important to these vulnerable laboratory rat-like youngsters, is that “free college” feels good, is endorsed by nice people and who could oppose free stuff? If people object, label the objection hate since you have learned to find disagreement uncomfortable, and just shut the haters down. In fact, many of today’s students may no longer even be capable of intellectual give and take let along grasping the idea of honest disagreement. Imagine an entire nation of such gullible folk?
Image credit: Public Domain Pictures / public domain