Woke Higher Ed Will Wake Up and Find Its Mystique Gone


Here’s a lesson I don’t think enough people keep in mind while assessing the future of the economy or the ecology:  Nature, human beings, and job markets all adjust.  The current state of affairs is not eternal.  This applies to higher education and to the wokeness of institutions of higher education.

This bit of unexpected optimism follows a reading of Erika Sanzi’s thoughts on Harvard’s defenestration of Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv after he was found to have joked around with the n-word in private communications with friends when he was 16:

None of us can know Kyle’s heart. While some say he has only apologized because he got caught, others believe his contrition to be sincere. But none of that is the point. The larger question is whether or not we as a society are ready for the standard that Harvard has set with this decision when it applies to someone other than Kyle Kashuv. Where will we land when the offensive writings do not contain the ‘n-word’ or any racism at all but are still indefensible and out of step with what the university requires in terms of “maturity” and “moral character”? Are we comfortable with people sending all of our private communications from the past to colleges, universities, potential employers or current employers? If every person reflects on all of the things they have typed in anger, jest, the heat of competition, and frustration from their youth until today, it is hard to imagine that the answer for anyone is a resounding yes.

Actually that isn’t all that hard to imagine.  Many people don’t understand that the specifics of what is verboten can change and shift on short notice, and many more expect always to be on the side of those doing the judging and therefore to be forgiven.  This is the strategic advantage of wokeness and outrage mobs:  They provide incentive for everybody to stay on the right side of the issues, as dictated by the people who direct them, even if only for protection against punishment for past transgressions that may not have been transgressions when they were done.

Even beyond the lunacy of taking the wager of that whipsawing tightrope, though, institutions that play this game, whether universities or businesses that take sides in the culture war, don’t seem to appreciate something: Every incident depreciates their standing in the eyes of the country.  Progressives won’t like them any more than they already do, because they consider this to be baseline behavior for acceptance, and everybody else will downgrade their reverence for the institutions to some degree.  For colleges and universities especially, once mythical status is lost, it will never be regained.

For example, with a child nearing the age of college applications, I’ve actually been surprised at how little I think of Yale after the debacle faced by the Christakises.

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As a general principle, one can divide colleges into three tiers:

  1. Fewer than 20 universities will produce a “wow, good school” reaction across a broad segment of our population.
  2. Another couple hundred will reliably be recognized and add to the value of degrees with their names on them, particularly in areas of specialty.
  3. For most colleges and universities, the names don’t add anything to the value of a degree and graduates will be judged on their own, unassisted merits.

As a rational matter of investment, I know that Yale is in the first group no matter how I might feel about it.  After all, my father is an alumnus, and he is a man of impressive intellect whose degree has always prompted the predictable response when people found out about it.  But surveying my feelings now, I find I’d put it in the third group.  I wouldn’t want to pay for any of my children to attend, and anybody under 30 who presents that credential to me will gain no advantage.  In fact, recent Yale alumni might have a little deficit in expectations to overcome, if I’m being honest, as will graduates of Oberlin, now.

To be sure, no academic institution should be but so concerned about the opinion of one Rhode Island father, but I don’t think I’m alone in this.  Once the mystique of the name has faded, the damage is done, and attempts to recreate it may only accelerate its demise.

The respect that these institutions command has mainly to do with the sense that they prepare students to deal with the world, to lead it reasonably and fairly.  In his must-read 1948 classic, Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver suggests that we consider education to be crucial to democracy because “only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values.”  Even back then, Weaver questioned whether the trend of education toward the teaching of specialties undermined its exalted place in society, but now we’re seeing almost an inversion.  We send our children to college hoping they’ll gather up some useful knowledge and collect degrees that will open doors while praying the institution doesn’t do too much intellectual and emotional damage to them.

That seems like a safer bet the more we and our children see a particular college or university simply as a sort of high-end trade-school rather than a quasi-mystical place in which to be formed and defined as an adult for the rest of their lives.  The very thing that made elite universities worthwhile could spin on its axis to become a liability.  Whereas once young scholars looked forward to lifelong status as Harvard or Yale graduates, their progeny must increasingly wonder whether they will be stained throughout their lives with a suspicion of immaturity, prejudice, and an inability to cope with others who are not precisely like them where it counts, between the ears.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    One wonders if Kyle Kashuv was accepted because he was a Parkland survivor.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    At dinner with the family of my niece, (pursuing her degree in Economics at a bastion of wokeness) I remarked in passing that her quantitative qualifications would put her in better employment prospects than a major in ‘grievance studies’. That caught her short, as if she hadn’t encountered quite that formulation before. Somewhere behind her eyes I thought I saw the flicker of a lightbulb…

    There I go again, corrupting the youth. That’s what earned Socrates the hemlock shooter.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I have long thought student loans should be denied anyone pursuing a degree in anything which ends in “studies”.

      “Somewhere behind her eyes I thought I saw the flicker of a lightbulb…” I know the feeling my daughter was a “lifer” at a private school in Cambridge, then Dartmouth, then Columbia. We are hardly able to speak. So many ideas are “new” to her.

  • Joe Smith

    Ideas Have Consequences.

    Well, so does free speech. Glad you noted Oberlin too – that administration is learning that lesson (apparently not given the administration’s reaction to the verdict).

    Don’t forget Harvard revoked admissions to 10 students last year as well, and I doubt they were of the conservative, pro-NRA bent of Mr. Kashuv. Prior to that, Harvard had some negative press about members of their athletic teams – the “scouting report” incident for example.

    So what maybe “overlooked” for youthful indiscretion or a sincere admission of misstep(s) with intent to improve to some become more than a minor concern for a school. Harvard is a private institution well within its rights to set admissions policies (up to a point if accepting federal funds – hmm, no connection between the Asian applicants’ lawsuit and the 12% increase in Asian admitted students this year..)

    Harvard makes it clear (perhaps clearer after last couple of years) that actions or speech that might be construed as against the community norms (and we’re not privy to the admission’s council discussion but at least Mr. Kashuv and the ten last year were afforded a chance to plead their case). I don’t believe Harvard goes “looking” for social media “gotchas” for “non-PC” offenders – after all, with a 95% rejection rate, they could have easily just not admitted Mr. Kushev and not have to deal with him.

    But schools (and businesses) have an obligation – or so it seems (again, Oberlin, Dartmouth with the lawsuit by some former female students against the 3 faculty members running what seems an Animal House like environment) to deal with admittedly offensive (hard to argue against that point) material.

    If institutions perhaps go too far well perhaps the market or other forces (like Oberlin lawsuit) force a correction or a change in reputation. In an era where young people routinely document their actions and thoughts – often in a manner that can be discovered – it’s inevitable that these issues will arise. We older folks can rest easy, that unlike Caesar (or today’s youth), our youthful comments or indiscretions often remain buried.

    • Justin Katz

      That’s true. I often find myself thinking of a very embarrassing video that one friend made of another while he was, let’s say, not fully in his faculties. The star of the video managed to get his hands on the tape and throw it into a large body of water. Problem solved. Can’t manage that anymore, not the least because copying videos hardly even takes a thought these days.

  • Joe Smith

    “The respect that these institutions command has mainly to do with the sense that they prepare students to deal with the world”

    I think more that these institutions produced people in the past who have leveraged the reputation to gain fame, fortune, or power – or combinations of those. Now, those people often do the same for those that got to join “the club”.

    The difference isn’t so much they prepared students – a whole bunch of schools do that – or even prepared them better, but that those graduates got a head start on the race for the limited opportunities to move into the “elite” communities. The respect is less respect and a simple acknowledgment that family/friend connection aside, the decision makers in a bunch of firms that produce wealth and power often filter by other members of the club of academic institutions.