The recent spectacle of foul-mouthed students mobbing startled faculty members at Yale and contrite administrators apologizing for causing undergraduates actual or imagined emotional discomfort reminded me of my first real job. Thirty-three years ago I was appointed an assistant professor of government at Harvard, and, simultaneously, an Allston Burr Senior Tutor. This latter position entailed being the residential dean of a Harvard house, as well as part of the university’s Administrative Board. The ungainly title of Senior Tutor—since abolished by Harvard administrators—reflected the institution’s belief that deans had an educational function and should, in fact, be academics. Real academics, the kind that aspire to a lifetime of teaching and research, with administration as an occasional, if vital, duty.
From that experience I learned some things applicable to the age of microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. One was that there is a certain kind of immature young person who, having discovered that he or she can upset the adults with outlandish statements or behavior and get away with it, will become increasingly absurd or demanding. Another was that although some professors will leap bravely into the waters off Australia to study the mating habits of sharks, or endure the perils of the fever swamps to understand the propagation of tropical disease, a great many are cowards when it comes to confronting received opinion, including that of undergraduates.
The problem has gotten worse since 1982, as American universities, with honorable exceptions (my current university among them) have become mono-cultural colonies of political and social belief. It is exacerbated by the proliferation of assistant deans, a category of administrator famously characterized as “mice studying to become rats,” whose portfolio is tending to the fragile egos of the students who, supposedly, will one day captain industry, media, and government. The administrators’ more insidious job is monitoring faculty behavior—which at Harvard in 2013 disgracefully included surreptitiously sniffing through Senior Tutors’ emails.
Harvard and Yale are the products of Old New England, which has something to teach in this regard. In 1692 a witch craze swept Salem, Massachusetts, triggered in part by hysterical children, fed by stern divines who sincerely believed in witchcraft, and permitted by a community too terrorized to stand up for due process, let alone prevent hangings and, in one case, the crushing of an innocent man to death by heavy stones because he refused to confess to an absurd, imaginary crime. There is something not entirely different going on today. Appoint assistant deans to take charge of witch hunting, and they will uncover horrifying stories of naked women flying on brooms at midnight and performing obscene acts with the goat devil Baphomet. Thought police will always find thoughts that require policing, and report dolefully that the problem of malign cogitation is even more pervasive than they had suspected. When one rewards, or merely fails to oppose, a culture of reckless incrimination and denunciation, the craze, and the persecution, will persist. At least Judge Samuel Sewall had the decency in 1697 to apologize for presiding over some of the Salem witch trials, an event commemorated by a painting in the Massachusetts State House. One doubts some apologetic university president (or, if he has already been fired as part of the craze, Board of Trustees) will issue similar regrets, or be represented in a mural in the main administration building as so doing.
It is not enough, however, to denounce the pathologies of the witch hunters, the childish cruelty of the denouncers, or the timorousness of the population from whom the witches are plucked. What is needed is an argument, and with it a set of values, that can explain to young people what it means to be an intellectually mature—that is to say, an independent and resilient—adult who will reject such behavior as unworthy of an educated person and incompatible with a free society.
To that end one might summon a different representative of Old New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in particular his essay “Self Reliance,” published in 1841. No one can ignore his liberal pedigree: a free thinker, an abolitionist, a feminist, and multicultural before his time (he read widely in and quoted from the Hindu sacred texts, for example). There is much in it, but perhaps nothing so precious as this paragraph:
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
To live this way can be hard, Emerson knew: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” But surely one purpose of an education is to know how to form one’s own conclusions, and stand for them even if the crowd bays against you.
That insolent teenagers behave the way they do is unfortunate. What is menacing is when they become a mob. If their teachers can get them to understand that they are in fact acting as a mob; that by calling for the persecution of those who do not conform they are the heirs not of Martin Luther King, Jr. but of Joe McCarthy, it may be the start of their awakening. The students might even, with assistance, discover the respect that liberal thought once accorded to the lonely individual who stands up for what he or she knows is right—someone like the principled doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People or the retiring sheriff in High Noon.
The pervasiveness of social media makes the act of standing alone, of being one’s own man or woman, much harder than before. We all wish to be “liked” and we know that the best way to be “followed” is to “follow” others. Retweet and you shall be retweeted. But perhaps there is a core in some of these protestors that a liberal case for standing apart from the crowd could touch. Emerson’s creed, like that of Thoreau after him, should appeal to the anxious young because it is a creed of strength. The shrill petulance of today’s college protestors depresses observers because these talented young people see themselves as weak, vulnerable, psychologically frail, desperately in need of coddling. In another age these students’ demands to be cushioned against every one of life’s psychic blows would, properly, be seen as contemptible, and their willingness to bully anyone who gets in their way as a threat.
In my time as an assistant dean I saw some serious hardship cases: students who were the only effective individuals in dysfunctional families, desperately ill themselves, or facing the trauma of real tragedy among friends and relatives, including death. I do not remember one of them insisting that they be shielded from unkind words or ambiguous gestures, let alone potentially distressing Halloween costumes, as was the case at Yale. They had much to teach their fellows about the courage to bear life’s numerous injustices with fortitude. The adults nominally in charge of universities should take the example of today’s young people who have shown such courage—wounded veterans, for example—to heart, and use them to teach those who have suffered little yet feel deeply aggrieved the value of imperturbability in the face of adversity and the virtues of Emersonian self-reliance. Who knows? In such an exercise the faculty just might awaken a little courage in themselves as well.