One of our longstanding literary ambitions has been to write a satirical novel about the modern university, something along the lines of Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” or Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” or Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” but it looks as if we’ll have to abandon the project. Academia is now more ripe for ridicule than ever, but apparently to the point that it is beyond satire.
Such a humorless publication as The New York Times recently ran a rather straightforward story that the latest campus contretemps that the combined talents of Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and the usual gang of idiots at Mad Magazine could not have rendered anything more comical. Headlined “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” the story told how Brown University hosted a debate between the founder of a feminist web site called feministing.com and a female libertarian on the topic of the “culture of rape” that now reportedly pervades the American campus, and how members of the school’s Sexual Assault Task Force responded to this exchange of ideas. Worried that the libertarian’s perspective on the issue “could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” and might even be “damaging,” the Sexual Assault Task Force members created a “safe space” for traumatized listeners to retreat from the debate, complete with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Even if we had the imagination to concoct such absurd details, we would have rejected them as too obvious a burlesque of the infantilizing nature of modern higher education.
As The New York Times ruefully notes, such episodes are now common at America’s colleges and universities. Almost every day tells of a student being disciplined for merely questioning the veracity of that highly questionable “one if five women on campus are victims of sexual assault” claim, or professors being charged with “micro-aggressions” for patting the arm of a student angered by an opposing viewpoint, textbooks coming with “trigger warning” to alert the possibility of unapproved ideas, or women’s rights activists being barred from campus because they’re advocating the rights of women in the wrong cultures, or some other more mundane case of campus activists chasing dissenting views off campus. Institutions of higher learning once insisted on vigorous debate and an unflinching look at facts as necessary tools to the discovery of truth, but they’ve now determined they have all the truth they need and no longer anything as potentially traumatizing as debate and unwelcome facts. Little good is likely to come of it, and certainly less than one would expect for the tuition prices being charged today.
The same censorious instincts are found in the broader left, and score the occasional victories against free speech, but they are unlikely to prevail outside the campus. Reality intrudes outside the campus, as well as what’s left of the First Amendment, and most people who haven’t undergone an expensive indoctrination at such elite institutions as Brown University find it very annoying. Nor will anyone who has been so carefully shielded from opposing opinions and unpleasant realities be likely to prevail in the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Worse yet for those who took refuge with the cookies and coloring books and videos of frolicking puppies, they’ll be up against conservative foes who spent their years of higher education being constantly bullied, ridiculed, and shouted down for their beliefs, not just by their professors and deans but also by all the movies and television shows and the rest of the popular culture. The right’s arguments will be honed and its spines stiffened by the college experience, if they get nothing else out of it except perhaps for a still-lucrative degree in math or science or engineering or one those other suspiciously “objective” disciplines.
Even those supposedly oppressed sub-cultures that the left presumes to speak for are unlikely to offer the same sort of refuge as the modern university. If those people retreating to the “safe rooms” of Brown University are planning on community organizing in America’s poor neighborhoods, they’ll find that there are no cookies or coloring books or videos of frolicking puppies, and plenty of uncomfortable facts that they’d rather not face.
– Bud Norman