What’s Roiling American Campuses

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

There is shouting and screaming; there are complaints, accusations and protests; there is a student hunger strike and a university president who resigned. But there are no sit-ins, no occupations, no fights with police. There is no violence. No physical violence, at least. This is an outcry against the treatment of students of color, the media reports. Or is it just about political correctness in the country that is getting more  politically polarized? A good reason why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past. This hostility, and the self-righteousness fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to any moral crusade.

The new turmoil moving across American universities has spread from Yale and the University of Missouri to Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna. On Facebook, students and young alumni around the country have asserted their solidarity with protesters. And yet, when it comes to reporting and analyzing the facts, interpretations vary widely.

The way the Vox puts it, the racial reckoning on campuses was long overdue and it is perhaps students’ response to the police violence in Ferguson and the mass murder in Charleston.

Over the past year, Americans have paid more attention to the role racism continues to play in everyday life, from the lingering symbols of the Confederacy to disparities in the criminal justice system. Now,that scrutiny has focused on universities. And while college leaders like to think of their institutions as progressive places, colleges, like other venerable American institutions, have both a past and a present laced with racism. For the first time since the late 1960s, students are forcing them to grapple with it seriously.

The “Black Lives Matter protest spread on to university campuses, hints Vox, partly because it helps to underline the fact that “some of the wounds the students want addressed are old ones. After the Charleston shootings, the persistence of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and defenders of slavery on college campuses drew public attention. The nation’s most prestigious universities were built with slave trade money and in some cases slave labor — a history that many universities, including those in the Ivy League, weren’t willing to explore until the 21st century.”

At Yale, for instance, the discussion was triggered by the letter that the university’s administration sent out to students before Halloween, advising them on how to dress in funny costumes while avoiding racial offenses at the same time. The discussion and the protest started at Silliman College, a dormitory within Yale that was named for a faculty member whose family paid for his Yale education by selling off two of their slaves. Silliman later became an opponent of slavery. But he also opposed establishing a black college in New Haven and advocated for shipping freed slaves out of the U.S. because there was no place for them in American society, writes Vox.

Is Vox right? Are the students aware of this past, and are they ready to bear on their shoulders the injustices that American society is discovering belatedly, during a period when the whole country seems to sliding towards decline? Are these angry students ready to rewrite not only the manuals of American history, but the topography of the colleges at Yale, as Vox seems to suggest? We do not know because in spite of all the news coverage, information still varies and seems to be incomplete, making more clear-cut analysis difficult.

However, regarding situation at Yale, it exploded with second letter, written and sent out to the students by Erika Christakis, the associate master at Silliman College. According to an interview with one of the students published by Broadly, Vice’s “women’s interest channel,” Christakis was arguing that students should be able to wear costumes that offend. In a letter of her own, “she mused about the appropriative nature of ‘a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day’ and how she enjoys mimicking accents. That is to say, she missed the point completely. She even advised students who are offended by another’s costume to simply ‘look away.’ In her job as associate master, a role that has come to serve parent-like function at Yale — the master and associate master even throw Halloween parties — Christakis is meant to foster an encouraging environment for students. But in standing up for the ideal of ‘free speech,’ many students argue, she turned her back on the students of color she is also supposed to represent,” the student told Broadly’s Gabby Bess.

After publishing the letter Yale’s students have challenged Christakis and her husband, saying that they made a fateful mistake. When the latter tried to reason with the students, he was attacked and insulted by one of them. “In your position as master,” the student said on video, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”

“No,” he said, “I don’t agree with that.”

The student explodes, “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”

This short but verbally very violent moment may have serious implications on the way the whole Yale situation will be interpreted. Let me quote just the most disparate views on this incident:

First let’s take a look at Conor Friedersdorf’s long, complicated piece, which brings a different view from the above quoted student. It seems to me that Friedersdorf does not get right to the point. While the episodes of racism and intolerance towards minority students on the campus have been long recorded and should therefore not be tolerated by university leadership, it is also incredible how thin the sensitivity of the activists have become. After I watched the video, I was shocked not only by the verbal violence but especially by the expectations the young student expressed towards the teacher. The request that the role of the professors was to create a comfort zone and a replacement home for the students is equally as shocking and wrong as racial segregation.

I find very insightful Jonathan Rauch’s comments on that instance of what seems to be this new generation’s sensibility in a complex multiracial society. A society that, despite political declarations from decades past, has never became a real melting pot, but is becoming more and more polarized.

“The self-infantilization on display in this tirade lacked even the dignity of a sinister ideology. Its point was more like: ‘I want my mommy,’”analyzes Rauch who then points his finger towards American families:

But if students feel the modern university’s job is to create a “place of comfort” rather than an “intellectual space,” that is hardly all their fault. Many parents of my generation make it their business to spare their children any exposure to upset and risk. Then kids and parents alike are wooed by colleges that promise idyllic experiences at very steep prices.

Yale, for example, markets its dormitories, or residential colleges, as “little paradises.” No wonder if some students expect college to provide shelter from intellectual and interpersonal storms.

And no wonder the movement for “trigger warnings”  and safe spaces is gaining traction at colleges around the country. Trigger warnings supposedly help students cope with (or avoid) exposure to upsetting ideas and images; their other purpose, I and many other free-speech advocates believe, is to chill the presentation of controversial material. Either way, they seek to make higher education emotionally safer by making it less intellectually dangerous.

This quote is not to reduce the importance of the increasing racial intolerance in this country, but just to add a perspective that cannot be left out if we want to get below the surface and understand what’s really happening on the amaricen campuses. It is not only about racism.

For more on the subject I would highly recommend an Atlantic Monthly article that was published before the tensions at Missouri and Yale began. “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is interesting from various points of view. The authors are talking about the generation that is just about to graduate from American universities. They called them Facebook graduates:

These first true “social-media natives” may be different from members of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conflicts. We find much to like about these trends; young people today are engaged with one another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them.

This approach at least leaves us with the hope that the “social-media natives” will finally be the generation that will overcome the problem of racial segregation.

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