Political Insanity on Campus

Student activism has long been part of campus life. Recall the Berkeley Free Speech movement that began in 1964 over the school’s ban of on-campus political activities. The mid-1960s saw countless  demonstrations protesting the war in Vietnam, which were followed by widespread agitation over racial issues. Nevertheless, current demonstrations differ fundamentally from past activism. The only commonality is that college students are involved.

What is distinctive about today’s student activism is its infantile quality. It is no accident that terms like “crazy,” “stupid,” and “hare-brained” often characterize it. This is a children’s crusade, albeit with catastrophic adult consequences. Tales from today’s academy have a comical flavor, a sort of “you’re not going to believe what loony college students are now up to.” Is being called by the “wrong” pronoun or by one’s “deadname” cause for outrage?

Why the recent lunacy? The answer is that today’s idiotic campus activism is the corollary of the race to intellectual mediocrity so ubiquitous in the classroom. Just as syllabi have been emasculated, scrapbook-like portfolios have replaced serious research papers, and everyone receives a least a “B,” today’s campus politicking is a godsend for intellectual sloth. With graduation almost guaranteed, student activists have all the time in the world to combat “hate” and “exclusion” 24/7.

The contemporary campus marketplace of political ideas is now “feeling” driven, and since everyone has feelings, and no one can doubt the veracity of these emotions, everyone can opine “expertly” on any subject imaginable. Gone are the days when student revolutionaries had to impress fellow radicals with their arcane knowledge of Marxist dogmas. With so many injustices in need of attention, who has the time to learn all the complexities of global warming or green energy? Daunting subjects such as economic inequality are thus quickly settled—“I feel that we should give everyone a good income.” A single hurt feeling is often sufficient to cancel an event or remove a supposedly “racist” rock at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This spread of intellectual mediocrity from the classroom to campus political activism parallels professors expanding classroom participation by ensuring that even empty-headed snowflakes can now pass off factually incorrect cliches as wisdom. Why should just book-smart students dominate, particularly if they are disproportionately white males? In the woke gospel, it’s better to heed the “historically silenced” who have a talent for detecting dog-whistle micro-aggressions. Surely, it is proclaimed, the once-silenced have something valuable to contribute, and no professor dares disagree. Every opinion is just “different,” not factually correct or incorrect, and to play judge in separating truth from falsehood is the Mother of All Evils: White Privilege.

[Related: “Why Mount Royal University Authoritarians Focus on the ‘Impact’ of Speech”]

Contributing to today’s befuddled thinking is the growth of grievance-based majors such as Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and Latino Studies, all of which recruit the Left’s clueless foot soldiers. Radicals of the 1960s and earlier at least had to master traditional subjects requiring a modicum of intellectual rigor. Even leftist professors back then did not see their core mission as inflaming resentment. A degree in Gender Studies is, however, hardly a pathway to rational political activism.

Unchecked access to the marketplace of ideas does not mean, however, that all contributions count equally. Quite the contrary, but the criteria of acceptance as a contribution have nothing to do with knowledge-based standards of evidence. Convincing arguments may be unintelligible, provided those making the argument have the appropriate “identities.” Expertise thus begins at birth. Whites can know nothing about blacks, while blacks know everything there is to know about racial matters. Defenders of science and rationality—disproportionately white males—must now go to the back of the line.

With the intellectual barriers to activism loosened, the inevitable outcome is a hyper-factionalism that would make the old Marxist Left’s squabbles look like a united front. Today’s campus thus resembles a giant flea market where an unlimited number of vendors can just show up and hawk just about anything imaginable. That many schools willingly fund almost any student organization (save, of course, conservative or religious groups) means a cornucopia of voices. Aficionados of gender politics, for example, can easily find others committed to Queers of Color, to eco-friendly lesbians, or to gay Marxists—the catalogue grows daily.

Since Darwinian laws of natural selection no longer apply, every crackpot idea can flourish. Disagreeing is tantamount to “hate.” A handful of students get to decide that the path to Utopia requires purging the library of racist books, even if no one knows the titles. The purification task may not even require any funding—just create a social media group, loudly announce one’s demands, and allow the librarians to explain why they will still harbor dangerous racist books.

Adults in the room will be particularly exasperated when confronting ideas that are impractical, costly, or illegal. This is a world were “sounding good” triumphs, so explaining to activists why “going green” will bring massive unemployment is futile. In fact, pointing out excessive costs or impossibilities is not considered a reasonable rejoinder; rather, it is just “resistance” that needs to be overcome with even greater yelling and screaming. One can hear endless discussion about the next social justice crusade without encountering terms like “trade-off” or “cost-benefit analysis.” As with religious fanatics, the demand is for Utopia—today, not tomorrow.

[Related: “Let Sarah Lawrence College Be a Warning”]

Can this manic, hare-brained activism be reversed? Forget about killing off terrible ideas with reason and evidence, since demanding scientific proof only reflects the dominant “white” culture. Even if these ideas were discredited with evidence, they are part of a larger Whac-a-Mole game: you kill one atrocious idea, and two will replace it. Nor does failure end the madness, since Utopian quests mean that the horror stories about socialism are easily ignored. Will the Feminist Collective ever go out of business, regardless of their unending failures? Never—bad ideas are zombies. Attention-deficit-disorder politics does have its advantages.

The most formidable obstacles to shutting down the Children’s Crusade are that it seems to be cost-free, easy-on-the-brain, and irresponsible fun. It’s even therapeutic, with imaginary end-of-the-world threats everywhere. Yes, rallying against transphobia by marching on behalf of pregnant men may accomplish nothing, but the adrenaline high beats spending countless hours at the library struggling with long, boring papers. Moreover, today’s campus political activism risks nothing personally, though the damage to society may be immense. Participating in political theater hardly risks expulsion, and unlike most nations elsewhere, “making a difference” will not be punished by those in power. This low-cost virtue signaling also far outshines fraternity beer blasts and similar forms of traditional student entertainment. As any college administrator will tell you, it’s hopeless trying to stop undergraduates from having fun, particularly when this “fun” is glorified as saving the planet.

Will it ever end? What gives me hope is that past episodes of mass hysteria—religious revivals, witch hunts, and financial bubbles—eventually burned themselves out. Oscar Wilde quipped that “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings,” and at some point, college students may suffer virtue fatigue—so many causes, so little time—and grow weary of demanding an end to culturally offensive Tuesday Taco Night. Better yet, these useful idiots may discover that years of haranguing the patriarchy leaves one ill-prepared for decent jobs.

Decades from now, accounts of today’s madness may be lumped in with flagpole sitting and panty raids as examples of silly campus fads. Who knows, perhaps being an apolitical nerd may become fashionable. Gender fluidity will be “so last year.”


Image: Joe Yates, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

5 thoughts on “Political Insanity on Campus

  1. Black studies, women’s studies and activism studies are all good prep for DIE career in academia. These admin bureaucrats are staffing up and are very well paid, starting at
    $80-100k and going up. Now proliferating at the departmental level where expertise in the department specialty may be marginal, the DIE badge is proof against any requirements.

  2. Mr. Weissberg asks if this madness will ever end. Yes it will, but not for the reasons he stated.

    The recent pandemic ripped the scab off of K–12 public education. Critical race theory, the lies of the 1619 project, pushing transgenderism on second graders shocked many parents. The result? There has been a dramatic decrease in public school enrollment. Parents are looking at alternatives such as home schooling and parochial schools.

    This too will happen at the college level over the next 8 to 10 years. There are too many people out there with massive student loan debt they have no hope of ever repaying. Adding insult to injury is no small number of these people have absolutely worthless degrees such as womens studies or black studies or art or communications. Well these people are soon going to have their kids of college age. Think they’re going to encourage their little Suzy to go to college, major in latino studies, and rack up $105,000 in student loan debt in the process? Not hardly.

    What is going to end this madness is the coming precipitous decline in college enrollment, particularly in these pseudo-intellectual “disciplines” such as afro-american studies and gender studies and others. People are just going to stop wasting time (and money) going to college only to wind up as a barista at a local Starbucks working next to someone with a high school diploma—and zero student loan debt. What will remain after the purge are true disciplines such as STEM and business where the intellectual demands leave no time for childish, ranting student activism.

    1. Patti — I’m not so sure the engineering schools will survive either.

      What do you teach in 4 years that couldn’t be learned in a 6-8 year apprenticeship? Not the PhD level stuff but the grunt-level stuff like stringing powerlines or inspecting railroad track.

      Even without that, there is nothing that prevents a licensed engineer from signing off on the work of assistants. That happens a LOT with land surveys now.

      Remember that a state can give whatever license it wishes to whomever it pleases.

      1. With all due respect, Dr. Ed, you clearly don’t know much about the engineering field. Electrical engineers don’t string powerlines and civil/mechanical engineers don’t inspect railroad tracks. I worked in industry for years before entering academia so I can speak with some authority. And I did is what you call “grunt work” (non-PhD level).

        My last job in industry involving the design of digital filters for biomedical systems. This required a knowledge of digital signal processing. Well, you can’t learn digital signal processing concepts in an apprenticeship. Any serious work in digital signal processing requires a mathematical background consisting of a year of calculus plus a course in differential equations and a course in linear algebra. A background in control systems is also recommended. How do you acquire this mathematical formal instruction in an apprenticeship?

        Civil and Mechanical engineers also require a substantial mathematical background plus formal instruction in statics & dynamics, metallurgy, and thermodynamics. You can’t learn those topics in some on-the-job apprenticeship.

        Would you get on an airplane designed by someone whose post-high school education consisted of just a 6 year apprenticeship?

        I also do not know of any mechanical, electrical, computer, aerospace, industrial or manufacturing engineers who work with land surveys. Indeed, no ABET accredited programs in these fields teach anything related to land surveying.

        All of these engineering fields requires a substantial mathematical background that is only acquired through formal instruction. Moreover, many of the advanced courses at the 3rd and 4th year (communications, control systems, electromagnetics, Fourier analysis, etc.) have these mathematical courses as pre-requisites—because you have to apply them in the coursework. Sorry, but an apprenticeship can’t even begin to accomplish that.

        I might also add that some topics are only taught at the graduate level. An undergraduate in electrical engineering must take one or two courses in linear control. Well if you’re going to work in industry (grunt level) as a control engineer you also need a background in non-linear control and sampled-data control. A course in random processes would also be helpful. This latter coursework is only taught in graduate school. Again, an apprenticeship ain’t going to cut it.

  3. No, they have REPLACED fraternity beer blasts.

    It isn’t like it was 30+ years ago — it no longer is an open campus anymore. Instead it is locked islands of isolation. You can’t stop by someone’s dorm anymore, it’s easier to get into a military installation, often considerably easier.

    The beer blast is no more — it’s now pregaming — see: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pregaming#Origins

    Hence the protests are the social events of the semester. They’re the ONLY social events worthy of note.

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