Don’t “OK, Boomer” Us

Carol Iannone*

If years ago you had heard of affluent college students screaming curse words at professors, demanding immunity from criticism, shouting down speakers deemed offensive, seeking therapy after a presidential election, and insisting that monuments of historic figures be torn down or renamed, who would have thought that campus authorities would respond sympathetically, providing the students with safe spaces where they are assured not to hear a discouraging word, and giving them toys and coloring books, counselors, puppies, and sedatives to calm their nerves? Would anyone have guessed that if students took offense at being asked where they come from, or being told that in America you can succeed if you work hard, or hearing that rewards should be allotted on the basis of merit (“microaggressions”), campus officials would respond by enforcing stringent speech codes, implementing sensitivity training, and mandating workshops to squelch such thoughts?

At one time the response might have been “Cut the nonsense! Act your age! Grow up!” as Joseph Epstein exclaims at the end of “Immaturity on Campus,” the first entry in this issue’s special feature titled, simply, “Immaturity.” Like the sought after document in plain sight in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” that the police can’t find because they assume it’s hidden, the explanation for the bad behavior we see on campus today, the answer to the campus chaos we’ve been witnessing for some years now, is simply that, a colossal lack of maturity—nurtured, indulged, and cultivated, instead of challenged.

Admittedly, this judgment is far from the lofty explanations we usually hear for campus misrule—the students’ towering rage at injustice and inequality, for example, not to mention marginalization, exclusion, patriarchy, racism, sexism, white privilege, and climate change. As Greta Thunberg, the self-important teenager (and Time person of the year) who harangued the whole world for ruining her childhood and robbing her future later told her followers, “the climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, of justice and of political will. Colonial, racist and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled it. We need to dismantle them all.”

Indeed. When Ruth Wisse was interrupted by protesting students at Bard College recently, she was told that school policy permitted the protesters to remain in the room. “The policy seemed to me ridiculous,” Wisse wrote later. “I mused to the dean that if I ran a school of higher learning, I would include with letters of acceptance a warning to incoming students to consider whether they were ready for college. Unless they could confront material they considered offensive, they should defer for a year or until they matured.”

An instructive idea, but it wouldn’t work, of course, for it’s not just the students who are the problem, but the entire campus population that labors under an enforced immaturity. It’s as if Tocqueville’s caution about democracy producing perpetual childhood had come to pass. Thus, we repel the casual brush-off embodied in the 2019 catch-phrase, “Ok, Boomer,” “a dismissive eye-roll in eight letters,” as the Christian Science Monitor describes it, signifying millennials shrugging off the perennial complaints of baby-boomer elders.

Although these trends toward childish acting-out have been developing for decades, there does seem to have been an acute acceleration in the past few of years. At his retirement from thirty years of teaching in 2002, Epstein happily recalls: “Smartphones had not yet become universal. Political correctness was still in its incipient, not yet in its tyrannous, stage. I did not have to undergo sex sensitivity training, which I could not have done with a straight face. In the classroom professors, not yet students, were still in control.”

We could speculate about the reasons, but the fact is that we see marked changes in the new century that we didn’t see in the old. The left-right imbalance of the faculty is greater, the neo-segregation of black students especially, but of other groups as well (as detailed in NAS’s report, Separate but Equal, Again: Neo-segregation in American Higher Education), is more blatant, grievance and victimhood studies have proliferated while the traditional liberal arts disciplines have been ever more eviscerated, and even the STEM fields began to be targeted by PC and faulted for statistical discrepancies by race, ethnicity, and sex. All this seemed to pass some kind of tipping point, so that “diversity,” once a supposed plus factor in higher education had become its major purpose.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the change is the growth of an entire diversity bureaucracy on many campuses, especially the most prestigious. It is worthwhile contemplating this list of diversity hires and appointments at Yale compiled by Heather Mac Donald in the Wall Street Journal (April 23, 2019):

a deputy provost for faculty diversity and development; the president’s committee on diversity and inclusion; the president’s committee on racial and ethnic harassment; the diversity and inclusion working group; the Yale College Intercultural Affairs Council; the director, representative, and support specialist of equal opportunity programs; the chief diversity officer; the associate dean for graduate-student development and diversity in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the assistant director of diversity in that same school; the associate dean for graduate student development and diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; the assistant director of diversity and inclusion in the Law School; the director of community and inclusion in the School of Management; the deputy dean for diversity and inclusion in the School of Medicine; the assistant dean of community and inclusion in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; the associate vice president for student life (a diversity function); the Student Advisory Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; sundry Title IX coordinators; and the directors of the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, the Latino Cultural Center and the Native American Cultural Center.

And this is a growing organism. Due to a minor dust-up built into a racial incident in May of 2018, Mac Donald explains, “Yale will create a costly new diversity sinecure: a deputy secretary for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The university will also hire a cadre of diversity ‘specialists’ to teach the Yale community about a ‘culture of belonging,’” in the words of Yale President Peter Salovey.

And we’re not done yet! “In addition to the new hires,” Mac Donald continues, “the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration will receive further funding for diversity events and speakers.”

If we thought radical faculty was a bane, this proliferation of bureaucracy is that much worse, because it creates a kind of self-contained fortress mentality, and its personnel seem to arrive without much teaching experience and with little more than a tangential relationship to the traditional liberal arts disciplines, although with plenty of training in . . . diversity. And they have the vocabulary to package their threadbare ideas in comfortable procedural jargon.

Abigail Thompson, chair of the mathematics department at the University of California Davis, criticized the mandatory “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” statements that for some years have been required of candidates for faculty positions at eight colleges in the UC system and at many colleges throughout the country. (It is worth pointing out that mandatory pledges of diversity are now also required of all faculty in the UC and California state systems. “Anyone hired, retained, or promoted as a faculty member must explicitly demonstrate in his dossier a commitment to advance diversity and equitable access in education,” explains Charles Geshekter in “Diversity Discontents,” (AQ Summer 2019). Thompson argues that the statements demand commitment to a political ideology, “one based on treating people not as unique individuals but as representatives of their gender and ethnic identities.”

Thompson’s remarks appeared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (December 19, 2019) and garnered a letter a few days later from Renetta Garrison Tull, Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Davis, and Gary S. May, Chancellor. They characterize Thompson’s argument as “illogical and rhetorically inflammatory, and reminiscent of historical attempts to blunt substantive actions aimed at desegregation and broadening participation,” words which, let’s face it, constitute a veiled charge of racism. They continue:

The tripartite mission of the University of California is research, teaching and public service. Given the totality of our mission, serving our student body is a top priority, and contributions to diversity are as important to that end as research and teaching. Indeed, not asking questions about a candidate’s readiness to serve the diverse population of students in California, the most diverse state in the nation, would be negligent.

Respecting and understanding students and colleagues from all backgrounds may come naturally to many. But engaging colleagues and having the ability to recognize and correct inequities is a skill. Actively using inclusionary practices to engage students from different backgrounds is part of the skill set we expect from faculty.

University of California policy states that diversity is “integral to the University’s achievement of excellence,” and enhances “the ability of the University to accomplish its academic mission.” True commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is active, not passive.

A correspondent of mine characterized this letter in an email: “In my opinion, two . . . career bureaucrats with minimal classroom experience witlessly spewing the party line that keeps them well above the $250,000 salary line.” (In the case of Mr. May, at $495,000, according to the Sacramento Bee.)

Diversity, social justice, redistributive justice—there are other names—means that for society to be just and equitable, all goods should be proportionally distributed according to group, defined mainly by race, ethnicity, and sex, but also other factors. (To the extent that these proportions were lacking in the past, that too is cause for ongoing condemnation and redress.) Any arguments that this kind of exact redistribution is impossible due at least in part to manifest and documented group differences are themselves to be dismissed as functions of white privilege, as are such values as merit, standards, objectivity, and even individualism. Despite the prodigious efforts of Heather Mac Donald and others to show that disparate group outcomes do not signify discrimination, a new book by journalist Pamela Newkirk, Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion Dollar Business, can just blandly advance the idea that statistical discrepancies (i.e., too many white people) in areas ranging from arts attendance (which is entirely voluntary), to full-time professorships, to newsrooms, to film, to fashion, to law partnerships, and more, indicate that prejudicial discrimination persists and must be addressed by ever more aggressive affirmative action. Any notion that statistical disparities are the result of merit, proclivity, interest, preparation, ability, achievement, culture, background, history, are simply set aside.

It was precisely criticizing Sarah Lawrence’s Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement that got political science professor Samuel J. Abrams in trouble with the college. In “Maturity, Immaturity, and Indoctrination at Sarah Lawrence College,” the next entry in our feature, Mitchell Langbert, who received part of his undergraduate education at the formerly all-female school, examines the extraordinary demands of Sarah Lawrence’s student led protest movement calling itself the Diaspora Coalition. Demands ranged from the free provision of fabric softener to insistence that the college “confront how the presence of Sam Abrams . . . affects the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students.” Sounding the “tyrannous” element of diversity noted by Joseph Epstein in his article in this issue, the students effectively discount freedom of speech as a cover for violence, claiming that Abrams’s op-ed, which decried the one-sidedness of diversity programs at the college, “threatens the safety and wellbeing of marginalized people within the Sarah Lawrence community by demonstrating that our lives and identities are viewed as ‘opinions’ that we can have a difference in dialogue’ about, as if we haven’t been forced to debate our very existences for our entire lives.” Langbert traces the student activism of the Diaspora Coalition to the pernicious ideas of John Dewey (who is due for a revaluation, given his latent influence on modern philosophies of education.)

Craig Evan Klafter’s “Undergraduate Education and the Maturation of Students,” leads us to see that the main cause of campus immaturity is the decline of the liberal arts themselves, for properly speaking, “the maturation of students is the primary purpose of college education, with knowledge transfer a byproduct of that.” The intellectually immature, argues Klafter, are those who become “uncomfortable when their religious views and subjective certainties [are] questioned.” By contrast, a liberal arts education cultivates “intellectual maturity—the capacities to tolerate uncertainty; to withhold assent; to withstand contradiction; to know the limits of one's knowledge; to have rational control of one's beliefs, values, and inferences; and to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, and viewpoints.”

For that matter, in “Humanistic Inquiry: Reconciling Reality, Knowledge, and Imagination” John A. Berteaux explains how hard-won was the ideal of “tolerance” itself—once an inspiring word that might now be dismissed if it means listening to anti-PC arguments—following the devastating religious wars in Europe.

“Cultural Appropriation, Futbol Lady, and Soccer Man” offers a bit of unexpected humor, as Howard S. Schwartz considers the implications of a culturally sensitive Hispanic student objecting to non-Hispanics using Spanish words. (In a slightly different vein, this reminds me of a friend who was set upon by a speaker for pronouncing the speaker’s name with an English accent, Colon, sort of like cologne. “I told you my name is ColON!” the speaker roared. My friend properly asked if he was expected to use a Spanish accent since many English speakers Anglicize Latin-language words. Grow up, Señor Colon.)

John Oakley Beahrs’s professional psychological insight will seem like the most plain, bracing, and blessedly old-fashioned common sense in “Societal Immaturity: Failed Limit-Setting and Regressive Destabilization.”

On a different note, recent graduate of The King’s College Jane Clark Scharl can sympathetically examine the sources of the contemporary student’s fragility in “Lonely and Scared: College Students’ Culture of Immaturity.” Indeed, we might be able to see the manipulation behind the puppies and coloring books in the safe spaces—better to soothe the agitated young people than to help them think through the distortions of reality with which they are confronted.

After the infamous imbroglio involving Charles Murray, some of the faculty of Middlebury College issued a manifesto upholding free speech. A group of the protesting students responded with their own arguments in defense of their position. We can give them credit for at least trying to engage in dialogue, as opposed to shouting the f-word, but Elizabeth Corey challenges their claims and rounds out our special feature in “Middlebury College and Liberal Education.”

In the article “Prejudice and Victimization Themes in New York Times Discourse,” David Rozado offers some original research into the expanded usage of certain key terms in the so called paper of record over the past fifty or so years, “words that describe negative human experiences and prejudice such as racism, sexism, homophobia, oppression, bullying, or marginalization.”

Prominent climate change alarmist Naomi Oreskes took the opportunity of an article in Nature to attack NAS’s report, The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science. For John Staddon, in “Facts vs. Passion: The Debate over Science-Based Regulation,” her effort is “an embarrassment,” “a testament to political passion rather than the legitimate scientific criticism it pretends to be. The fact that a scientific journal of the highest rank agreed to publish it shows how widespread that passion is and how deeply it has become embedded in the scientific establishment.”

In “Federally-Funded Middle East Studies Centers Need Scrutiny,” Winfield Myers names the names of the scholars who have corrupted many Middle East Studies centers, undermining their federally funded mission to serve the scholarly and security interests of the U.S. and its allies by advancing one-sided, anti-Zionist ideological priorities.

In “The Rediscovery of Curriculum,” a review essay on The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System, Mark Bauerlein notes that while author Natalie Wexler exposes the whole recent trend to teach reading through reading comprehension “strategies” as a failure, she cannot move toward endorsing a content rich curricula, since that would clash with diversity and multiculturalism. Bauerlein takes this as emblematic of why liberals’ admissions of progressive failure, although welcome, can take us only so far.

In “Race and the Constitution: Liberal Historians Correct the Left,” NAS’s director of research David Randall adds another entry to NAS‘s 1620 Project, a compilation of readings and documents to counter the fraudulent New York Times 1619 Project. This is a review essay of two books by men of the left that in different degrees counter 1619 claims, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz, and The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, by Eric Foner.

Do you remember when “culture” was a dirty word, a supposedly coded way to talk about race? That prohibition managed to paralyze some important discussions, but the word has made a comeback even in the face of menacing political correctness. Ricardo Duchesne challenges some of the ideas in Lawrence M. Mead’s already challenging new book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Differences and American Power.

In his review of Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Glynn Custred notes how contemporary intellectual fashions shape the story Charles King recounts of twentieth century anthropology, which wore out its usefulness long ago.

In additional reviews, Dave Huber, twenty-five year veteran of Delaware’s public schools, is delighted to read longtime NAS member Sandra Stotsky’s The Roots of Low Achievement: Where to Begin Altering Them. Unlike Natalie Wexler, the subject of Mark Bauerlein's review essay in this issue, Stotsky is straightforward in rejecting unsuccessful methods and in clearly advancing what works. And Donald M. Hassler looks at David Randall’s new book, The Concept of Conversation: From Cicero’s Sermo to the Grand Siècle’s Conversation.

Paul Hollander’s name could be found on AQ’s masthead from the first issue and he was an occasional contributor as well (especially delicious is “Acknowledgements: An Academic Ritual,” Winter 2001-2), and an NAS advisor from its founding to boot. We mourn his passing in 2019 and our memorials come from Steve Balch, David Gordon, and Juliana Geran Pilon, a new contributor.

Robert Maranto and Donald M. Hassler contribute poems. Short Takes include “What Gone Girl Tells Us about Feminism,” my piece on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller novel from 2012, Gone Girl, and the 2014 film of the same name for which she wrote the screenplay; and James V. Shuls, “Higher Education Needs Conservative Voices,” which goes against current wisdom (and Harvey Mansfield’s advice to get tenure and then hoist up the Jolly Roger) to argue that conservatives in academia, however scarce their number, must come out of hiding. The issue closes with Peter Wood’s latest Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.

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