…and hollow women, too.
I’ve been writing for years about the rise of toxic ideologies on America’s college campuses–totalitarian, anti-Israel, outright anti-Semitic–but still have been surprised by what has happened in these places since October 7. We need to discuss the reasons why it’s gotten so bad.
A few days ago, someone republished an essay, written in 2016, by a professor who has taught at several ‘elite’ colleges. Excerpt:
My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture. It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.
And when someone has devoted the first 18 years of their lives in large part to jumping through hoops in hopes of making a good impression on some future college admissions officers…and then, in many cases, having to get good ratings from professors whose criteria are largely subjective…that someone is unlikely to develop into a person with a strong internal gyroscope. Quite likely, they are likely to be subject to social pressures and mass movements.
Someone at X said that the Cornell student arrested for making threats against Jewish students was probably just trying too hard to fit in and win approval of his peers and took it a step too far. My view is that there’s no just about it…the desire to fit in and win approval is very often the reason why people commit evil acts. I’m reminded of something CS Lewis: Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.
The above sentence is from a talk that Lewis gave at King’s College in 1944. Also from that address:
And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
So yes, the passion for approval has always existed. But I feel sure it is much stronger, or at least has fewer countervailing forces, among people who experience today’s college admissions race and its eventual fulfillment.
The students about whom the professor wrote in the essay linked above have not only been encouraged to devote their time to hoop-jumping, they have also been told again and again that their country and their society are evil–that their ancestors were evil, and their parents are probably evil as well. And that practically all aspects of culture more than 5 years old, whether traditional songs and folktales or classic movies, are harmful and certainly unworthy of study except for purposes of deconstructing their bad examples. And, of course, relatively few of these students are influenced by or have seriously studied any traditional religion.
So they will likely be attracted to ideologies that promise to give a sense of meaning and coherence to their lives. I’m once again reminded of something in the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, who came of age in Germany between the wars. He says that when the economy and society began to significantly stabilize–which he credits to Gustav Stresemann’s chancellorship and the introduction of the Rentenmark into the monetary system–most people were happy:
The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.
But not everyone was happy. A return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:
A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.
To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.
I think that in America today, we have a considerable number of people who get, maybe not all of the entire content of their lives, but much of the content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions. And I suspect that this phenomenon is stronger among the students described by the professor in his essay than in the American population at large.
Someone at X remarked that “Social justice progressivism (SJP) is the first time most people—including most Christians—have encountered a truly vital religion. Rarely since the peace of Westphalia and the scientific revolution have we seen its like.” (SJP is, of course, basically what we call Wokeism, as it has been called by some of its proponents.) He continues:
I use “religion” here descriptively, not derogatorily. I never liked the New Atheists and their dismissal of religion. Religion, broadly defined, is the unified source of a person’s moral and epistemic beliefs, put into practice. People in my circles panic, at times, over the apparent progressive takeover of institutions: universities, the government, the media. They appeal to goals of institutional neutrality, to a sacred role of science as being above petty political concerns, to political traditions—and people are startled and upset, time and again, as they feel SJP tramples those traditions. But that is precisely what we should expect from a vital religion. As Helen Lewis memorably points out, many young progressives would never think to judge someone for marrying across religious lines, but to marry across political ones is unthinkable. Religion is just a belief, after all, and you can’t judge someone based off of that. But politics? Well, some things are sacred.
What are your own thoughts on the outbreak of support for Hamas atrocities among college students and academics? Were you surprised? What factors do you think drove it, and how, if at all, can it be reversed?