What if College is Making People Stupid?

May 13, 2014

By Seth Mandel at Commentary Magazine

International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde has become the latest commencement speaker to be chased off by American academia’s guardians of the eternally closed minds. After protests over Lagarde’s planned graduation speech at Smith College from professors and students, Lagarde bowed out, echoing Condoleezza Rice’s tactful statement about not wanting to derail the celebratory atmosphere of the day.

The Washington Post sums it up perfectly: “The commencement speaker purity bug has hit Smith College.” Calling it a “bug” is the right classification, for it is certainly both a defect and an apparently contagious infection that demonstrates the extent to which American universities are failing their students while pocketing the tuition money (about $45,000 in Smith’s case).

Meanwhile at Syracuse, the New Yorker’s David Remnick apparently gave a commencement address that deviated from the airy, ego-boosting flattery to which America’s college-age toddlers are accustomed, and was thus not altogether well received. Remnick’s speech was a litany of liberal policy clichés, and so there was plenty to disagree with. But it was also a challenge to the graduates:

What gnaws at you? And what will you do about it?

Is it the way we treat and warehouse our elderly as our population grows older? Is it the way we isolate and underserve the physically and mentally disabled. Is it our absurd American fascination with guns and our insistence on valuing the so called rights of ownership over the clear and present danger of gun violence? What will we–what will you–do about the widening divides of class and opportunity in this country? You are, dear friends, about to enter an economy that is increasing winner take all. Part of this is the result of globalization. But do we just throw up our hands and say that’s the way it is? And what about our refusal to look squarely at the degradation of the planet we inhabit? In the last election cycle many candidates refused even to acknowledge the hard science, irrefutable science, of climate change. The president, while readily accepting the facts, has done far too little to alter them. How long are we, are you, prepared to wait?

As I said, plenty to disagree with. But good for Remnick. He is addressing a generation that seems to think hashtags will catch war criminals and casting a vote for a messianic snake-oil salesman will heal the planet. They need to be reminded that they should actually do something with their knowledge, and if they don’t like it–well, they can suck it up.

But that last point raises a slightly different question. Is using the phrase “their knowledge” too presumptuous for today’s university climate? In its story on Lagarde, theWall Street Journal talks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Greg Lukianoff:

Mr. Lukianoff said the trend is clearly growing. According to a tally by his group, between 1987 and 2008, there were 48 protests of planned speeches, not all for graduations, that led to 21 incidents of an invited guest not speaking. Since 2009 there have been 95 protests, resulting in 39 cancellations, according to Mr. Lukianoff’s group.

After recounting previous speakers at Smith, including such liberal leading lights as Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem, and last year Arianna Huffington, the Journal gets the following quote from a student who possesses neither self-awareness nor even a tangential relationship with the facts:

“The issue isn’t that we’re against debate but that we’re only hearing one side of the debate continuously,” said Nandi Marumo, a 22-year-old junior at Smith, who signed the petition against Ms. Lagarde. “We hear the same narrative from every person, from the media, from everything.”

The question, then, is not whether American universities are producing ever more totalitarian-minded brats. Of course they are reinforcing such closed-mindedness; they are leftist institutions steeped in leftist values. This is a problem, and should be addressed. But the out-of-control speech police on college campuses, combined with the unwillingness to even listen to those who might disagree with them, raises the distinct possibility that colleges are producing brainless authoritarians.

What if college, in other words, is making the next generation stupid? Not uniformly, of course. There will always be exceptions, and there may even be a rebellion against what is increasingly making college the most expensive babysitting service in the modern world. But college administrators are now faced with the conundrum of students who pay them gobs of money to keep them uninformed and shielded from critical thinking. It’s a challenge administrators have to deal with–and the sooner, the better.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers