As a teacher, I read a lot about college education and it seems to me that in recent years the college system has lost its way. When I went to college nearly twenty years ago, the emphasis was on learning how to think about the world around us. We were challenged to explore it, to ask questions, to debate our findings in a scholarly manner with our professors, and we emerged from our college experience being much more educated than when we went in. That is no longer the case in the United States. Instead of teaching their students how to think, colleges and universities are teaching them what to think.
For example, universities and colleges first started having safe spaces twenty years ago. Usually, this was a room or a house that was designed for minority students. It was a place where they could sit, shoot the shit, and study in a place that was welcoming. That didn’t mean, however, that someone who wasn’t gay, black, or white wasn’t allowed there. A friend of mine, who was a staunch Catholic, worked at one of these places for an entire summer and, as far as I can recall, was never called out for his religious beliefs or the fact that he was a straight white male working in a safe space.
While safe spaces were once confined to a room or a house, it is now the entire campus that is a safe space. This necessarily means that there is more pressure on the faculty at a university to tow the party line. It means that scholars who are not politically correct in their views are forced to either be silent, to quit their jobs, or to acquiesce to the party line, or to face the consequences. The spirit of inquiry that has characterized universities for centuries has been stifled because of political correctness. Certain works of literature and art are thrown out the window because they are deemed to be racist or misogynistic, the same goes for history and psychology and almost every other subject that you can imagine. Censorship and trigger warnings run rampant and God forbid if someone decides to question what they are being fed. This person will be thrown out of the university without so much as an administrative hearing.
Following the election of Donald Trump, various universities sent out letters to their faculties asking them to be more sensitive to their students following the election and that they should waive academic standards for those that might have been triggered by it. I was in college during two election cycles. Nothing of this kind ever happened. No one went to the professor’s office, knocked on his or her door, and said that they couldn’t take a final exam because they didn’t like that George W. Bush or Barack Obama was elected president. Professors weren’t required by the faculty senate or the administration to be more sensitive. Life rolled on as usual and students continued to take their classes no matter what the election results were.
A similar story has to do with the renaming of Calhoun Hall at Yale University. Since Senator Calhoun was pro-slavery, his name on a building triggered certain African American students. They didn’t like this, protested to the university, and the university decided to give in to them and to rename the building in honor of an African American graduate instead. In the past, things like this wouldn’t have flown. If you didn’t like that a residence hall at a university was named after George Custer or Fr. Pierre Jean DeSmet, you kept your mouth shut and you dealt with it. The battle was not worth the fight and the university probably wouldn’t budge either because it had more of a backbone.
When I was studying for my Master’s degree at a Catholic college, there was an annual debate about whether to have The Vagina Monologues staged on campus around Valentine’s Day. This debate spilled into the student newspaper and it was hotly discussed at faculty senate and regents meetings. In the past, the group that sponsored and ran this play was forced to take it to an off campus location. The play, according to members of the faculty and the university, was deemed obscene. Today, the play can be seen at the university’s central play house and there is not a darn thing that anybody can do about it. The university president, the faculty and the staff, and the Board of Regents caved because if they didn’t allow the play to be hosted on campus, the university could be sued.
Professors are much more interested in protesting the latest political injustices now than they are in teaching. In California, I took a graduate level seminar on politics and literature during the Renaissance. For the most part, politics was what we talked about. We talked more about what The Book of the Courtier was about in terms of sexual mores than we did about the contents of said book itself. We read Utopia and we sat around the table talking about how to advise a politically correct Renaissance prince. The course culminated in a post-colonial discussion about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the racist portrayal of Caliban in that play. Indeed, every subject imaginable is now viewed through a politically correct prism because every act is a political act.
A final problem with modern university education is that it doesn’t seek to educate the whole person. Many colleges have thrown out their core curriculums and honors courses because they are discriminatory against certain minorities. Education has become oriented towards the lowest common denominator and if a student wants to learn about Chekhov or Balzac or the structure of Wagner’s Ring, they are forced to do it on their own by looking up the books in the library, reading them, and trying to assimilate them without a helping hand from the faculty. Indeed, their university experience won’t change them or impact them in any meaningful way apart from them being brain washed, politically correct automatons.
The saddest part about university education today is that a safe space cannot possibly prepare a young person for the real world. The real world is not a safe space. There are many things out there that are offensive or microaggressive or however you want to term them. If a young person spends his or her entire life in a bubble during college, they will not know how to deal with anything or anyone outside of that bubble. Indeed, a university education today isn’t worth the student loans that young people shell out for it. It’s better to read the complete works of the great writers on a Kindle than to attend a university where politics is the name of the game.