Academic distress

November 13, 2015

Some time ago, I attended a lecture analysing a recent study of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment on American campuses. But this column is not about that topic or about that lecture. I mention it because of an amazing anecdote told by the lecturer. He had been invited to give a lecture at one of the campuses of the University of California — I forget which, but it doesn’t matter. His point was that he saw, outside a lecture hall — not his — a kind of ‘health warning’, to the effect that the topic being discussed in that lecture hall might cause distress to some people.


The professor telling the story was speaking in English to an ‘Anglo-Saxon’, mainly American, audience almost all of which was aged over 50. The anecdote was designed to put the narrow issue of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment and activity into a much broader context.


That context is the demise of intellectual freedom and intellectual activity in higher education, in America and throughout the Western world. The audience to whom that anecdote was told was, overwhelmingly, a product of American or British higher education, acquired several decades ago. The audience’s mindset, of even older vintage, was shaped and instilled by its mostly immigrant parents, who fervently believed that higher education was essential not merely in order to get ahead in life, but also and perhaps primarily in order to be acculturated into the country to which they had immigrated — but which education the immigrant generation had, perforce, been unable to obtain.


That mindset was common to almost all ethnicities in the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But for Jews, higher education had an additional, quasi-religious, aspect. The deeply-rooted Jewish cultural respect for learning and study was translated from its traditional religious context to secular higher education. Getting a degree was a practical necessity, but going to college/ university was a cultural obligation.


People imbued with this mindset find it immensely difficult to grasp the fact that higher education today has become overtly, aggressively, anti-intellectual. Instead of desiring and actively seeking to be exposed to new and challenging ideas, which would force him or her to think deeply, today’s student demands that he or she not be exposed to anything that might cause distress, whether emotional, or psychological, or — presumably — intellectual. This is their ‘right’, they say.


We don’t need no education


What then do these ‘students’ attend college for?  One answer is that tertiary education is essential to getting better-paying jobs and prospects. Another is that kids want to delay going to work full-time. A third is that the monstrous industry that ‘higher education’ has become — primarily in the US, but to a lesser extent everywhere — succeeds in selling itself as a basic need, to parents, to young people and, above all, to governments.  But the idea that young people need or want ‘education’ per se, in the form of intellectual stimulation, is largely obsolete.


This sea-change is encapsulated in the ‘health warning’ in the UCal campus. Instead of “step in here and hear new ideas that will disturb you”, the new requirement of students and provided by administrators is to be warned “avoid this place, you might be ‘distressed’”. This is an incredible state of affairs but, once beyond the disbelief and shock, you have to think about how dangerous it is and how far-reaching its impact must be on countries and societies in the coming decades.


In a sense, this development goes back to “The Closing of the American Mind”, a 1987 book by University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, which sparked a fierce debate about American education and the deleterious impact on it — so Bloom claimed — of moral relativism and other strands of modern thought. But the protagonists of that debate must all be joined in common horror at the way students think, speak and act today.


This topic has been examined in the mainstream media but, as so often, it is the blogosphere that provides much better material, especially from people who are obsessed with the issue.


Haloween at Yale


One such is Mike Krieger, who publishes a blog called ‘Liberty Blitzkrieg’. That title is enough to warn you that he is an extreme libertarian and has extreme views about many things, which he expresses in an extreme style. Having met him personally, I can confirm that the impression is valid. But that is not a reason not to read and benefit from his site — just as one should not avoid hearing a lecture about a distasteful subject on the grounds of potential ‘distress’.


Krieger is very concerned about what is happening on campuses, so he seeks out and publishes news items and, especially, videos, of actual examples. If you have time for only one, go to  and read about the uproar at Yale — Yale!! — over what a professor wrote about…wait for it…Halloween costumes. And if you don’t have time, then find one minute and twenty seconds to view the video in that post.


After that, you won’t need to attend lectures or read studies about anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, activities and all the rest, on campuses across the world. Universities are no longer synonymous with intellectual endeavor and rational discussion, rather the exact opposite.

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