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Life Among The Wokescolds

A college professor laments the rigid, incurious puritanism of his students

A reader who is a college professor (and whose name I know) writes:

I thought you’d enjoy this signs-of-the-times story. It’s good for a laugh—or perhaps a cry.

In one of my classes yesterday we were talking about current events, and a student mentioned that the soldier in the famous Times Square kissing photo had died. “Yes,” I said. “Too bad. Such a beautiful image, and such a moment of joy.” One of my least favorite students, a smug know-it-all in the back row, piped up. “You actually like that photo?” she said. “Well, yeah,” I replied, a bit taken aback. “That’s an iconic image of a moment of unbridled joy.”

“And do you think she consented to that kiss?” she said icily. “No, no she did not. That is a photo of an assault. That man should have gone to jail.”

Sex criminal, caught in the act! (ABC News screenshot)

Now, this happens with some regularity in classes these days. I don’t use Twitter, but I’m familiar with the term “wokescold,” and it’s incredibly accurate. Most of my students are just pure scolds. They’re deeply puritanical (though they have no idea who the Puritans were, given their virtually nonexistent awareness of history). So I tried to play it off a bit.

“Well, okay…” I said. “I acknowledge that it may not hold up with our contemporary standards of morality—”

“What were we even celebrating?” interjected another student, a gay man who can’t get through a sentence without mentioning that identity.

I couldn’t help it: I laughed. “Uh, winning World War II?” I said. “Pretty big deal, no?”

He scowled. “Yeah, if colonialism’s your thing.”

I admit I was dumbfounded by this, and I figured the best thing to do was escape the situation quickly. But I couldn’t help it. “What was our colonial project in that war?” I asked. “Did we go over there to occupy France? I’m pretty sure it was something more like the opposite.” This got a couple laughs, which helped defuse the tension, and even the student in question chuckled and rolled his eyes. I turned back to the girl. “So,” I said. “You don’t like this photo, I take it.”

“No,” she said. “It should not be shown to people.”

“Hang on,” I said. “Because this feels like an important point. Do you mean this photo should be banned? Kept out of public view?”

“Exactly,” she said. “Why should I be forced to see a woman’s sovereignty violated? That’s a picture of a victim, and nothing else. There’s nothing to celebrate.”

I smiled and nodded, and moved on to the next topic.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what to think of this. Sure, we could laugh it off as the crazy ravings of college freshmen. But here’s the thing: the students I teach are in the university’s elite academic program. There are roughly 800 of them in our 30,000-person student body. Many of them received offers from Ivies but came to this university instead for the full scholarship. They are not cranks—they are the leaders of tomorrow.

You might recall that William Deresiewicz wrote a book a few years ago called Excellent Sheep, about his experience at Yale. I can’t think of a better term for today’s elite students. All of my students are very smart in a technical/regurgitating knowledge kind of way. They do the assignments, they email you outside of class, etc. But they are the most boring people I have ever known. Their whole lives have been curated purely to boost credentials. They do not understand—and I mean literally do not understand, as if you were speaking Latin—the language of morality, goodness, philosophy, justice, and so on. Sometimes we’ll be talking about the news and I’ll ask one of them something like “Hey, is the death penalty wrong?”

They can never reply. They just stammer something about personal opinion and individual choice. I say “Yeah, but is it wrong? Like, on a moral level?” They don’t even understand the question. I’m being totally serious. They don’t understand what it would mean to have a code of beliefs, or to believe in something outside of the individual. They have been brought up to believe in one thing: a vague notion of “success” that mostly involves accumulating credentials, racking up meaningless accolades, and making money. That’s it. They are philistines—smiling, pleasant, well-educated, quasi-totalitarian philistines.

I know you’re working on that book about the new socialism, and I think it will be timely. It seems to me that totalitarianism is not arriving in the U.S. via the stern face of Big Brother staring down from the screen. It’s coming from the college student who says we shouldn’t view a photo of pure, untrammeled joy. And the thing is that they can’t see that joy, not just because they’re puritans, but because they have no historical consciousness. They have no sense of what so many Americans sacrificed in the years leading up to that famous kiss because they never really learned it. I’m not a gung-ho America First guy—I’d be an expat in a second if I could get my wife on board—but the K-12 textbooks have gotten insane. They really do stress the failures of the country, the bad angle of every story, the endless aggressions-in-hindsight that form the modern wokescold.

Look, I get it: this country has done terrible things. We continue to do terrible things. But there are no pure good guys and pure bad guys. We are crazy if we don’t think for one second that the things we consider good and just today will be denounced as oppressive in 30 years. To say that we shouldn’t look at an image that shows the joy of having just defeated the f’ing Nazis is just insanity.

My students are generally pleasant, but they’re never any fun. Where’s the joy in their lives? They live to denounce. It’s like having 25 Robespierres around you three times a week. They’re always on the lookout for something to be outraged about. I’m never surprised when I hear that rates of sexual activity have decreased. It’s hard to imagine them letting their guard down for one second to cherish the company of someone else. What on earth will the romantic comedy films of the future be like? Zooming in on phone screens as two people exchange sexual consent notices on an app?

In the coming weeks I have to make a decision about whether to keep teaching in this elite program, and I doubt I’ll return. The non-elite kids at least have a sense of humor, a sense of joy. I’m not sure at what point we made elite education negative and puritanical, but take it from this professor: it sure isn’t any fun.

This letter, which I publish with the author’s permission, reminds me of a 2016 essay from Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, which I mentioned in The Benedict Option. If you want to read it, the whole essay is here. Excerpts:

My students are know-nothings.They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their minds are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation.They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame.Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though with their peers (as snatches of passing conversation reveal), easygoing if crude.They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publicly).They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting who will run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian war? What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury TalesParadise Lost? The Inferno?

Deneen says this is not the fault of the students, or, in an ordinary sense, the failure of our educational system. They are what we have designed them to be. More:

My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity.Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint,forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly.Believing that the source of political and social division and war was residual commitment to religion and culture, widespread efforts were undertaken to eliminate such devotions in preference to a universalized embrace of toleration and detached selves. Perceiving that a globalizing economic system required deracinated workers who could live anywhere and perform any task without curiosity about ultimate goals and effects, a main task of education became instillation of certain dispositions rather than grounded knowledge – flexibility, non-judgmentalism, contentless “skills,” detached “ways of knowing,” praise for social justice even as students were girded for a winner-take-all economy, and a fetish for diversity that left unquestioned why it was that everyone was identically educated at indistinguishable institutions.At first this meant the hollowing of local, regional, and religious specificity in the name of national identity.Today it has came to mean the hollowing of national specificity in the name of globalized cosmopolitanism, which above all requires studied oblivion to anything culturally defining.The inability to answer basic questions about America or the West is not a consequence of bad education; it is a marker of a successful education.

Read the whole thing. 

Reading Deneen, and reading the professor depressed about the Wokescolds, makes me ever more grateful for my children’s classical Christian school, the Sequitur Classical Academy.  This little school makes do on a shoestring budget, and is always hurting for money. But what it gives these kids is priceless.

Look at the cropped image at the top of this post. That’s a detail of a snapshot I took of my 12-year-old daughter going out the door on the first day of school this semester. Her seventh grade class is reading The Odyssey. Nobody told these kids that they’re too young to read Homer. She pretty clearly loves it, as you can tell by all the tabs. I’m not bragging on her; I’m bragging on the school and its teachers. When you get inside schools like Sequitur, and see what they are doing with and for these kids, it will knock you flat. Whatever else Sequitur is producing, it’s not Wokescolds. All that money wealthy conservatives give to political and religious causes might be fine, but man, many of y’all have no idea what kind of heroic battles for Western civilization and the hearts and minds of the young are being fought in classical schools in your own town. Given how scant the resources are, it’s a guerrilla war at this point.

If you have kids, and have a classical Christian school in your area, please consider it as a possibility for your children. If you are a donor with anything extra to give, please give generously to your classical schools. The stakes are high. Few others are doing the work that they are doing — and with so little in terms of resources. You can do a lot with faith, hope, and love — but it’s nice to have money too. Thus endeth the lesson.

UPDATE: Wow, just a few minutes ago, Sequitur posted this short video about the school, featuring its headmaster. This, friends, is the antidote to Wokescolds:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtNECR-xJp8&w=525&h=300]