It is fair to say that, in examining the twin meltdowns at Yale and the University of Missouri, the pundit class has come down against the tactics of the students, who, in both cases, have been militant and aggressive. The writers have seen parts of each protest—Yale students berating a professor, Mizzou students boxing out a photographer—as a threat to college as we know it. But could colleges not stand to be threatened?
Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, in a piece called “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” dissects the Yale controversy—over a professor couple’s admonitions about the university’s admonitions about possibly offensive Halloween costumes—and concludes that the students’ “flagrant intolerance” is “illiberal.”
Though it can be tough to burrow into the hardline opinions and strategies of today’s students—and, damn, can they can seem so adorably foolish—Friedersdorf and his ilk are defending the tradition of American colleges without inquiring why contemporary students might be looking to rearrange the campuses they now inhabit.
Friedersdorf’s main problem is that despite thousands of words examining the Yale crisis, he fails to acknowledge the bigger picture, which is that colleges—elite ones, anyway—are white institutions, which is to say not only are they primarily directed, cared for and populated by white people, but that their entire mode of being from their beginnings has been molded by white people: the way white people think and act, what white people want to see in the world, what makes white people comfortable. Admissions policies have broadened through the decades, but the system still guides students onto a particular road, paved by and for a particular sort of person.
To focus so much scrutiny on the little events—students screaming at professors, professors screaming at students—is to miss the most broad question raised by the kids driving these sorts of clashes: What if we just did college differently? Friedersdorf alleges that the students at Yale who don’t want to engage in further debate about Halloween costumes are anti-liberal, but his column is inherently regressive—it is essentially a very longwinded argument in favor of the status quo. Friedersdorf thinks of colleges in the grand tradition of incubators of thought, and implicitly argues that there’s no real reason to change how they operate or their reason for existence.
But this characterization of colleges is idealist. It’s something out of a movie. An imagined utopia of 40 years ago. What exactly is so important about Yale that the school isn’t worth breaking? Plenty of great and smart people who have immeasurably improved our lives on Earth have passed through Yale—or any Ivy—but so too have some of the literal worst people alive. John Yoo went to Yale. Dick Cheney went to Yale. George W. Bush went to Yale, lmao. The entire investment banking industry, which exists to cheat this country and its people out of their money, inhales graduates of Ivy League schools. If the elite institutions that shaped these people—both the aerospace engineers and the robber barons—were suddenly turned on their heads, what exactly would happen? Are we sure the world would be worse off? How bad could it be if we tried to find out?
The actions of Melissa Click, the communications professor at Mizzou, were over-the-top and embarrassing, but the handwringing over it happening on the campus that houses one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated journalism schools was kind of hilarious, too. When I was at Mizzou seven or eight years ago, the consensus among my friends (all of whom were journalism students) was that the J-School, a hallowed institution, desperately needed to be upturned. The people at the very top of the J-School were jokes (literally), and so, too, were the classes. The school, like the industry it fed into, was crushingly slow to adapt to the changing nature of publishing, and students who left the school when I graduated (with a political science degree) were no more prepared to be journalists than the ones, like me, who worked for the independent student paper under the direction of other students who knew the world they were entering into better than the administrators.
Melissa Click’s anti-media barricading is not a way forward, but questioning the way things are done, even if messily, is the hallmark of a modern and adaptive society. This is especially true for a place like a college campus, which ideally shapes society instead of reflecting it. College students exist to learn from the institutions they attend, but the reverse is also true. It would be condescending to one’s own existence to not believe so. I side closer to Friedersdorf on the subject of the email sent by Erika Christakis—I find it innocuous at worst—but trying to shove the resultant bile back down the throats of the students responding to it is an attitude that is plainly conservative.
It’s also worth remembering, of course, that Yale and the Christakis family have won. Christakis and her husband are still “masters” of the dorm. Students put forth their ideas—including resignation—and Yale stood its ground. Some schools might not have, but Yale did. At Mizzou, the day after the entire profession of journalism pushed back against the anti-media protest, the inhabitants of the rogue tent city were reminding each other to “welcome and thank” the media. The exchange of ideas settled and a verdict was rendered. Ultimately, the system Friedersdorf holds dear worked, which makes this all feel sort of silly, doesn’t it?
[image via AP]