If there were a First Rule of our present penchant for victimhood, it would presumably be that everything unpleasant that happens in the world must, in some way, eventually be about you. Today, the National Law Journal reports that:
The push to delay law school final examinations in light of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases has spread to Harvard Law School, as administrators at Georgetown University Law Center said students could seek delays on a case-by-case basis. Columbia Law School was the first to allow students to ask to postpone their exams.
Ugly as the Brown and Garner cases were, one can’t help but feel that what constitutes a “National Emergency” or a “personal crisis” is being rather dramatically defined down here — possibly to the vanishing point. In the course of their missive, the vexed students claim that “because this national tragedy implicates the legal system to which we have chosen to dedicate our lives, it presents us with a fundamental crisis of conscience and demands our immediate attention.” This, I’d venture, is an effectively irrefutable claim — and not in the good sense. Rather, it is the Interstate Commerce Clause of dog-ate-my-homework pretexts: an unlimited, self-serving, and infinitely malleable rationale that can be used at any time and for any reason. If our law students are to insist upon special dispensation each and every time the justice system fails to live up to its promise, our exam halls will be empty in perpetuity.
That a new batch of Ivy League lawyers is willingly handicapping itself will presumably inspire few tears in the United States. Nevertheless, we should all be alarmed to learn just how seriously our ostensible proto-elites seem to be taking themselves. Somewhat theatrically, the signatories contend that they have thus far “spent countless hours leveraging our legal educations, and utilizing our platform and privilege as students of this institution.” Really? Because it looks from the outside as if they’re claiming that they’re just too upset to turn up to class today. At best, this seems to be a case of ambitious students using any leverage they have to improve their grades; at worst, it is laziness sold as social justice. Either way, coming from self-acknowledged beneficiaries of “platform and privilege” it must look grotesque to those among us who have jobs.
All in all, the letter suggests that a significant portion of today’s students have noticed that, if they wish to get their own way, they need only to report that they are upset or outraged or traumatized, and then to sit back and wait. Ultimately, the fault here lies with the academy, which has spent the last few decades permitting “I’m offended” to become a reliable means by which debate might be summarily and forcefully shut down. Of course a good number of Harvard’s students expect that the mere mention of their “trauma” will serve as sufficient warrant for indulgence. Of course the letter’s signatories anticipate that any mention of “distress” will be met not with broad, harsh, and profound push-back but with acquiescence. As have so many people of my age, they have become thoroughly accustomed to having their sensibilities treated as if they were valuable in and of themselves. As have so many at the West’s top universities, they have realized that their feelings and opinions are received almost uncritically. To update an old maxim, we might say that to spare the skepticism is to spoil the child. Bluntly? These children are spoiled as hell.
One can only imagine how derisively previous generations would have snorted at today’s. During the Civil War — one of the bloodiest, nastiest, and most disruptive conflicts in the history of the world — a good number of American colleges not only stayed open but kept a regular schedule, too. In almost all cases, perbellum classes were filled with people whose fathers, brothers, friends, and former classmates were being killed, maimed, and, in a few cases, completely disappeared — and in astonishing and unprecedented numbers. The arguments that underpinned and motivated the physical conflict, moreover, were extraordinarily contentious and wildly distracting. How easy do we imagine it was for students to focus when their country was embroiled in a brawl whose outcome would settle the practical meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the future of the American experiment, and the fate of human slavery on the continent?
And yet, despite these hardships, the only thing that proved consistently capable of closing the colleges was the war itself — the vast majority of institutions shuttering their doors because too many of their students had enrolled in the military, because their facilities stood in the line of fire, or because the government had requisitioned their buildings. The same stoic attitude was on display in England during the Blitz, which unpredictable abomination was unable to close Oxford, Cambridge, or any of the other schools that were deemed unlikely to be blown to pieces. (Most of London’s colleges closed, but not all of them. Birkbeck College stayed open even after a German bomber scored a direct hit on the library!)
While at Harvard in 1945, the satirist Tom Lehrer issued a semi-parodic anthem of encouragement for the student body. Having noticed that the university’s existing refrains “had a tendency to be somewhat uncouth, and even violent,” Lehrer thought that it might “be refreshing, to say the least, to find one that was a bit more genteel.” And so, being an enterprising sort, he wrote one himself, offering up a ditty that combined the more traditional enjoinders to “Fight fiercely, Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!” with salutary reminders to “invite the whole team up for tea” and to “try not to injure” one’s opponents. A modern Lehrer might take a look at the school’s current crop of self-pitying students and conclude, alas, that the opposite correction was in order.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.