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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

A Coddled Campus?

March-April 2017

Illustration by Anthony Freda


Illustration by Anthony Freda

About 30 of us packed into our Adams House suite to watch the election returns: roommates, girlfriends, buddies, friends of friends, strewn across Craigslist-procured couches, the cluster of Harvard dorm chairs, and the stained carpet. The room glowed only faintly from string lights and the TV. We watched on CNN because it seemed like the common choice, what you watch on mute in the airport or a hospital waiting room. By the end of the evening, when a Trump victory was all but inevitable, the room was disconsolate. People cried, phoned loved ones, hugged, slumped, and kissed as what we had thought was unthinkable happened.

There was a funereal spirit on campus the next day. Cambridge looked like a town does the day following a big storm: clear streets, new earth, and the glaze of something sinister. I heard rumors of canceled classes, tearful seminars, and professors giving speeches and calls to action. But my own academic day was remarkable in its unremarkableness. I went to my English section and tried my best to contribute to the discussion, not knowing whether all of our reading of Infinite Jest should be related back to Trump or none of it. It was hard to talk. I was pretty quiet and so was everyone else.

The next day, a family friend sent me a text message, asking if classes at Harvard had been canceled. She sent me an article she’d seen from some alt-right publication, entitled “Yale Professor Cancels Exam for Snowflake Students Distraught at Election Result.” It said that the election-mourning liberal students had “wiped their tears, and pulled themselves together enough to ask their professors to cancel their exams because they were so upset by the results.”

This seemed to be part of a growing narrative about collegiate politics and the “coddled” campus intellectual culture. And it isn’t just the domain of alt-right sites. Even liberal-leaning media—in salvos like “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” in Vox, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in The Chronicle of Higher Education—have inveighed against a sort of “new academia” (for lack of a better term) of critical cultural studies that’s become popular in universities across the country. Pundits worry that, by emphasizing the imprint of historical power structures on the individual, especially their impact on race, gender, and sexual identities, new academia promotes an individualized, emotional response to ideas, rather than an idealized cool and removed affect. In this take, new academia has coddled students by cultivating sensitivity and emphasizing semantics over proper intellectual rigor, swirling undergraduates into a half-baked liberal consensus that’s inadequately interrogated on campus at large.

While at home over winter break, the question I was asked the most by friends and family members (particularly the older ones) was about the political culture on campus and the reaction to Trump’s election. They seemed to have that popular critique in mind. They wondered if there was anyone on campus who supported Trump, if the patently liberal student body had crawled into a corner following the election, unable to face a country in which millions of people leaned differently than they imagined.

What I can say is this: I haven’t had a substantive conversation with a fellow undergraduate who vocally identifies as a Trump supporter. I presume there are some out there who voted Trump and are just being quiet about it, but it strikes me that there was genuinely almost zero support for his campaign on campus. Even the Harvard Republican Club refused to endorse Trump, the first time they hadn’t backed the GOP candidate in their history. Still, it doesn’t seem that the political consensus here is the result of an addled, overly sensitive generation.

The formulation of the popular coddled-campus critique is questionable. Not only are some of its claims debatable—as if there were a way to confidently divide the parts of the thought process that are emotional from what is properly intellectual—but its characterization of campuses doesn’t seem to align with our reality. We don’t feel the pressure of some gag order that prevents us from talking about ideas that challenge our psyches. In fact, we talk about Trump ad nauseam. The Clintonite consensus and shock of the electoral result weren’t a product of an echo chamber wherein no alternative viewpoints are discussed. Critics like to assert that new academia has caused us to retreat inward from opposing views, but, if anything, I think our academic tools encourage more bipartisan understanding. By learning to see the influence exerted by social and historical forces, we have a much more empathetic understanding of Trump supporters than we might otherwise. Beyond the frustration with the new regime and its political agenda, much of the conversation in the wake of the election has sought to understand the factors behind Trump’s support and where his supporters are coming from.

 

But I do think the election has exposed a different type of coddling on our campus. Another critique, William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” seems to get it right. His essay takes aim at an increasingly technocratic economy that has dictated the logic of our education. As the job market in the United States skews toward fewer, high-skilled positions, and economic uncertainty and the threat of crisis challenge us all, people are pressured to view their education in terms of return on investment. Education, from an early age, becomes concerned with gathering credentials to ensure a secure position in the next stage. The admissions standards at ultra-competitive universities like Harvard, Deresiewicz argues, all but guarantee they accept students whose childhoods were rat races.

As admissions requirements become lengthier and more specific, our campus becomes filled with students who are different in many ways, but similar in one. We are, by and large, rule compliant and risk averse. Because of the exhausting amount of credentialing required for admission to a university like Harvard, securing our spot on campus is essentially predicated on our carefulness. If we’re coddled, it’s not because we’ve been encouraged to think too emotionally, but rather that the educational system has discouraged us from taking risks that might complicate a clear next step.

My education has been intellectually rigorous, teaching me to criticize my world deliberately and forcefully, while simultaneously encouraging me always to make careful decisions that ensure my security. I’ve been prompted to think that the world we’ve made isn’t good enough for the people who live in it, but also that I should hesitate to act. To be concerned about the state of society, but always to think, ultimately, about myself and my next step. Radical critiques of society run all over my syllabi, but never a workshop on effective political organizing.

If there’s something bothersome about my education, it’s that it has promoted a gulf between my thought and action. The election has only put that gulf in sharper relief. As many of my peers and I continue to reel from a shock that has challenged our notions of the reality of our country and global politics, there’s now pressure on us to recognize our thought-action gulf and figure out how we want to deal with it. It seems like the true test of intellectual coddling on our campus won’t be to see whether unsettled students are willing to have intellectually rigorous conversations about the world—we’re already having them—but to see if we’re fit to do something about our shock and outrage. The wave of my friends who attended women’s marches around the country following the presidential inauguration makes me think we’re becoming firmer in our politics and that we’re stepping toward action. Once the decisions to try to make changes we believe in become more taxing for us, and riskier—like taking a different career path or dedicating more time to political action—perhaps we’ll really see just how coddled we are.   

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