Will: Did academia help elect Donald Trump?
WASHINGTON – Many undergraduates, their fawn-like eyes wide with astonishment, are wondering: Why didn't the dean of students prevent the election from disrupting the serenity to which my school has taught me that I am entitled? Campuses create "safe spaces" where students can shelter from discombobulating thoughts and receive spiritual balm for the trauma of microaggressions. Yet the presidential election came without trigger warnings?
The morning after the election, normal people rose — some elated, some despondent — and went off to actual work. But at Yale, that incubator of late-adolescent infants, a professor responded to "heartfelt notes" from students "in shock" by making that day's exam optional.
Academia should consider how it contributed to, and reflects Americans' judgments pertinent to, Donald Trump's election. The compound of childishness and condescension radiating from campuses is a constant reminder to normal Americans of the decay of protected classes — in this case, tenured faculty and cosseted students.
As "bias-response teams" fanned out across campuses, an incident report was filed about a University of Northern Colorado student who wrote "free speech matters" on one of 680 "#languagematters" posters that cautioned against politically incorrect speech. Catholic DePaul University denounced as "bigotry" a poster proclaiming "Unborn Lives Matter." Bowdoin College provided counseling to students traumatized by the cultural appropriation committed by a sombrero-and-tequila party. Oberlin College students said they were suffering breakdowns because schoolwork was interfering with their political activism. Cal State University, Los Angeles, established "healing" spaces for students to cope with the pain caused by a political speech delivered three months earlier. Indiana University experienced social-media panic because a priest in a white robe, with a rope-like belt and rosary beads was identified as someone "in a KKK outfit holding a whip."
A doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, uses "feminist methodologies" to understand how Girl Scout cookie sales "reproduce hegemonic gender roles." The journal GeoHumanities explores how pumpkins reveal "racial and class coding of rural versus urban places." Another journal's article analyzes "the relationships among gender, science and glaciers." A Vassar lecture "theorizes oscillating relations between disciplinary, pre-emptive and increasingly prehensive forms of power that shape human and non-human materialities in Palestine."
Even professors' books from serious publishers are clotted with pretentious jargon. To pick just one from innumerable examples, a recent history of the Spanish Civil War, published by the Oxford University Press, says that Franco's Spain was as "hierarchizing" as Hitler's Germany, that Catholicism "problematized" relations between Spain and the Third Reich, and that liberalism and democracy are concepts that must be "interrogated." Only the highly educated write so badly. Indeed, the point of such ludicrous prose is to signal membership in a closed clerisy that possesses a private language.
An American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA, study — "No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major," based on requirements and course offerings at 75 leading colleges and universities — found that "the overwhelming majority of America's most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government." Often, "microhistories" are offered to history majors at schools that require these majors to take no U.S. history course: "Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century" (Swarthmore College), "Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl" (Bowdoin College), "Witchcraft and Possession" (University of Pennsylvania).
At some schools that require history majors to take at least one U.S. history course, the requirement can be fulfilled with courses like "Mad Men and Mad Women" (Middlebury College), "Hip-Hop, Politics and Youth Culture in America" (University of Connecticut) and "Jews in American Entertainment" (University of Texas). Constitutional history is an afterthought.
Small wonder, then, that a recent ACTA-commissioned survey found that less than half of college graduates knew that George Washington was the commanding general at Yorktown; that nearly half did not know that Theodore Roosevelt was important to the construction of the Panama Canal; that more than one-third could not place the Civil War in a correct 20-year span or identify Franklin Roosevelt as the architect of the New Deal; that 58 percent did not know that the Battle of the Bulge occurred in World War II; and that nearly half did not know the lengths of the terms of U.S. senators and representatives.
Institutions of supposedly higher education are awash with hysteria, authoritarianism, obscurantism, philistinism and charlatanry. Which must have something to do with the tone and substance of the presidential election, which took the nation's temperature.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.