The Corner

‘Preparing Students for the Real World’ Is the Bare Minimum Colleges Should Do

In the Spectator, Madeleine Kearns writes about the crushing orthodoxy and moral hysteria she encountered while studying abroad at NYU:

During my ‘Welcome Week’, for example, I was presented with a choice of badges indicating my preferred gender pronouns: ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘ze’?

The student in front of me, an Australian, found this hilarious: ‘Last time I checked, I was a girl.’ Her joke was met with stony silence. Later I realised why: expressing bewilderment at the obsession with pronouns might count as a ‘micro-aggression’. Next stop, ‘transphobia’.

It was soon obvious to my fellow students that I was not quite with the programme. In a class discussion early in my first semester, I made the mistake of mentioning that I believed in objective standards in art. Some art is great, some isn’t, I said; not all artists are equally talented. This was deemed an undemocratic opinion and I was given a nickname: the cultural fascist. I’ve tried to take it affectionately.

In response, Kearns set up her own group of free thinkers, which hid away in a “disused convent” to discuss “campus-censored ideas”:

We were a diverse group: a Catholic woman, a black conservative man, an anti-theist neoconservative, a Protestant libertarian, and a quick-witted Spanish contrarian. We were united in agreeing that we should be free to disagree. We made our own unsafe space, and at the end of each meeting, we were invigorated and parted on good terms.

The problem with all this, Kearns concludes, is that:

the university experience in America is now not one that will adequately prepare students for real life. In real-life democracy, people disagree — and normally they don’t die or suffer emotional injury because of it. In normal life, there’s no reason not to like someone with whom you disagree politically. On campus, opinions are often ontology: you are what you think. But this is dangerous logic: if I hate what you think, I must hate what you are.

This is, of course, true. If our colleges continue down this road, they are going to create a host of extremely weird, hyper-sensitive people who have no earthly idea how to converse and interact with the sane. Nevertheless, I think we ought to be careful not to make “like the real world” our gleaming standard here. Rather, we should treat that as the bare minimum standard we expect; as the first point at which the signal starts to register. Ideally, universities would be far more tolerant, open, and intellectually diverse than the “real world.” Ideally, they would host genuine and untrammeled free inquiry, and in a manner that is hard, if not impossible, to replicate elsewhere. Ideally, they would be places in which people were at greater liberty to argue and provoke and debate than they ever could be at work or at home or at your average Friday-night dinner party. Ideally, that is, they’d be a little like Kearns’s convent.

Instead, they are increasingly less so — especially at expensive and prestigious institutions such as NYU. The old archetype is of the student who leaves his stuffy parents and has his mind expanded by learning. “You don’t understand,” he says, when returning home. The new archetype, by unlovely contrast, is of the student who can only express himself when outside of his professors’ earshot. What on earth can be the point in that? 

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