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Safe Rooms in an Unsafe World

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

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Rumblings in California

The fault lines running through California are becoming active, and we don’t mean that in the seismological sense.
For some time we’ve been eagerly anticipating the fissures within the liberal coalition to start cracking, leading to a long-overdue political earthquake. Modern liberalism isn’t so much an ideology as a loose confederation of ethnic and economic interest groups, whose interests are often in conflict, and even the rigid discipline that the Democratic party somehow commands cannot keep it stable forever. The big shake-ups and crack-ups that occasionally roil across America’s cultural and political life often originate in California, and two recent stories out of the Golden State suggest that it might be happening again.
One concerned the California Assembly’s attempts to restore affirmative action at the state’s universities, a cause dear to liberal hearts. Affirmative action is especially dear to the hearts of liberal blacks and Latinos, who are allowed admission to the more desirable universities with inferior qualifications than other applicants, but is not as popular with liberal Asians, who often are the other applicants who are denied admission despite their superior qualifications. The old system that California voted down was so convoluted that whites with lesser academic credentials were favored over harder-working Asians, which endeared the scam to liberal whites even if didn’t quite fit with their rationale that affirmative action is rectifying past injustices, but most of the Democrats in the Assembly were eager to restore it.
The measure now seems unlikely to pass, however, because the Asian-American members of the party are refusing to go along. There are enough of them that when you add their total to the Republican Party’s puny representation it can quash such nonsense, apparently, and if they start to realize how often their economic interests coincide with those mean old white men from Orange County or wherever the last few California Republicans come from it might even thwart a lot of the other bad ideas that become law in California.
The other story concerned the far-left’s ongoing crime spree against the high-tech industry. With “economic inequality” currently the favorite gripe of liberalism the more active liberals in Northern California have lately been vandalizing the opulent buses provided by the Google company to its well-paid employees, and in recent days they’ve become tipping over those tiny “smart cars” favored by the high-tech workers. Silicon Valley has been a reliable source of funds and votes for the Democrats for many years, the Google buses are intended to cut down on traffic congestion and fuel consumption and global warming and all those other things that liberals profess to hate, but for now it’s apparently more progressive to hate anyone making a certain amount of money. Those tipped-over “smart cars” even sported the obligatory Obama for President bumper stickers, but even such displays of righteousness will not spare you the wrath of income inequality mob. Some are claiming those Obama bumper stickers suggest the work of right-wingers, as if mobs of mayhem-minded Romney voters are terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, but it would be hard for even the party-loyal anarchist to find a car in that city without one.
The Google executives who’ve found angry mobs on their front yards are loyal Democrats, but perhaps they’ll reconsider as it becomes apparent that the guillotine is being sharpened for them as well as those rich industrialists. Silicon Valley is as steadfastly capitalist as any Kansas oil field, after all, and it’s hard to see how they’ve benefited from all the regulations and taxations they’ve helped to impose on all their customers. We’ve always suspected their leftist leanings were mostly motivated by a desire to be hip, but as they age into proper industrialist maturity and realize that angry mobs and vandalized buses are now the height of hipness they might even take their natural place in the Republican party.
Or maybe not. The discipline of the Democratic party has proved strong, and they’ve been able to cobble together new confederations out of different ethnic and economic interests as some the old ones prospered just enough to move on, and they might be able to whip up enough race- and class-baiting to keep the current one intact. If so, we’ll need fault lines of the seismological sort to solve the California problem.

— Bud Norman

All the universities are back in session, which is mainly of interest because it signals that college football will soon resume, unless the liability lawyers get an injunction, but it also means the beginning of the presidential speech season. President Barack Obama has long preferred to address college audiences, which still regard him as a sort of rock star, and now he apparently wants to repay the affection by seizing control of the higher education system.
Speaking before a typically adoring crowd of empty-headed students at the University of Buffalo on Thursday, President Barack Obama outlined a proposal that he promises would lower costs, raise standards, and generally work the same wonders for college that Obamacare has brought to the health care system. The plan would have the federal government rate every college and university in the country according to such criteria as tuition, the number of low-income students enrolled, graduation rates, and average student debt load, then dole out federal aid accordingly. Although the typically adoring crowd of empty-headed students seemed to love the idea, their faculty and administrators were probably less pleased.
University faculty and administrators are ordinarily as enamored as their chargers of anything Obama has to say, but this plan is such a plainly bad idea that even the average intellectual won’t buy it. There are already a number of organizations that assess colleges and universities according to much the same criteria that Obama would use, most notably the U.S. News & World Report rankings that provoke howls of outrage from school administrators every year, and all of them are presumably less susceptible to political pressure, more experienced and expert in the pursuit, and nonetheless widely disputed. Any attempt to rate all the colleges in America will be pointlessly subjective, as the right school for one student will be the wrong school for another, and in any case that one student should be better able than the government to make the correct choice. If a student needs information to help decide, it can be easily found even by the average recent high school graduate.
Meting out the almighty federal dollars according to such rankings is an even worse idea. A certain percentage of low-income students are college material and would benefit from continuing their educations beyond high school, but even the government cannot state with any certainty what that number would be, and any attempt to impose an arbitrary quota will inevitably result in luring some students who would be better served by a technical education at a for-profit school, and perhaps at the cost of excluding some middle-income student who made better use of the seat. Other colleges might calculate that they can better improve their ranking by excluding lower-income students, even if they are among the ones who would have done well in school and benefited from the experience, in order to improve the average student debt load numbers. Some schools will try to improve graduation rates by taking fewer chances on students that might succeed, while many others will simply make it much easier for even the most dim-witted but federally-subsidized students to graduate.
Whatever incentives the plan might offer to induce colleges to lower their tuitions will certainly be overwhelmed by the money that would keep flowing in, which is the reason for the ridiculous rise in the cost of a college education in the first place. The cost of college has outraced the overall inflation for the past four decades, even as the value of most diplomas has declined. A degree in engineering or science or something that attests to a similarly marketable skill might still pay for itself over the years of a long career, but degrees in history and English and the like which once told an employer that the bearer had some minimal smarts no longer offer that assurance, and those who major in gender studies or conflict-resolution or such faddish disciplines will soon find that all the gender studying and conflict-resolving jobs have been shipped overseas so that some corporate fat cat can get a tax break. If the oil companies or Big Pharma had hiked their prices at the same rate while offering such diminished products they would be dragged before Senate subcommittees like Michael Corleone and burned in effigy at whatever’s left of the Occupy encampments, but university professors and administrators somehow remain a favored segment of the liberal coalition and should thus be offered federal money to offset whatever losses their price-cutting measures entail.
There’s also the nagging worry that colleges will feel coerced by those federal funds to offer a curriculum in keeping with the current administration’s ideological predilections. Anyone who would dismiss this concern as far-fetched should read up on the recent activities of the Internal Revenue Service, Justice Department, or National Security Agency, or even go back to the early days when the National Endowment for the Arts was rewarding artists according to their enthusiasm for the administration’s agenda, and it’s hard to think of any government in history that hasn’t coveted control of its universities. Most professors and university administrators are quite happy to go along with most of the Obama agenda no matter the financial rewards, of course, but there’s always the off-chance that another Republican might someday be elected president and in any case they have the natural human aversion to regulation. Professors and university administrators are quite fond of regulating everybody else, but subjecting them to the same treatment is rank anti-intellectualism.
Early reports indicate that House Republicans aren’t likely to let any of this happen, and it will be great to fun to watch all the academics siding with them for a change. They’ll no doubt be embarrassed by the company they’re forced to keep, and eager to be back on the other side, but they’ll do it for the sake of dear old ivy-covered U and their phony-baloney jobs.

— Bud Norman