Having a decidedly anti-romantic view of college, I find myself not entirely opposed to the student radicals besieging campuses across the country.
Once upon a time, universities transmitted knowledge and formed the minds and characters of young adults. But that ended long before I arrived at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1990s.
By then, the university had been transformed into a retail outlet selling, at the end of four years’ probation, a credential that promised entrée to professional life. This might sound like an invitation to bacchanalia, and in some instances it was. But in general, once you un-tether the university from the transmission of knowledge, the institution becomes little more than a forum for the exercise of power.
In my experience, the new arrangement was not especially pleasant. At Hopkins, at least, the result was a war of all against all.
Because they handed out the grades—and the point of college had become grades—the professors came to view students with the contempt of a demigod annoyed by mosquitoes. In my sophomore year, one chemistry professor came in a day after an exam, looked out at the 200 or so of us in the auditorium, and announced, without a trace of irony, “If I could put you all in the toilet and flush it, I would. Because that’s what you are. Crap.” He then turned to the chalkboard and commenced his lecture.
No one went running to the dean, because this was pretty much how the students and professors at Hopkins got on. In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb frets that today’s college students feel like “tenants” instead of “stakeholders.” At Hopkins, we felt like inmates. Being tenants would have been a step up in the world.
Another example: During my junior year, my mother became ill and required surgery. As the oldest kid in a divorced family and the only one with a driver’s license, I had to go home for a week and take her to and from the hospital, buy groceries, get my siblings to school, and whatnot.
During the week I was to be away, I had only one school assignment, a weekly worksheet for my biochemistry class. These were handed out on Mondays and due back on Fridays. Our instructions—the professor was very clear about this—were that we were to place completed worksheets in a box outside the lecture hall no later than 10 o’clock on Friday morning. To enforce this, a teaching assistant with a watch would stand over the box and close it at precisely 10. Any assignment not in the box was given a zero, which made it nearly impossible to get above a C for the course.
A few weeks before my mother’s surgery, I went to see the professor, told him about my situation, and asked if he could give me the worksheet early so I could finish it before leaving school. He told me this would be unfair to the other students.
I then asked him if I could get an extension and complete the worksheet after I got back. This was also not possible, he said, because of fairness.
Somewhat exasperated, I suggested that if I could get another student to fax the worksheet to me, I could fax it back completed to his office. I’ll never forget his response: “You could do that, I suppose. But I’m not sure how it would help you. The sheet has to be in the box outside the lecture hall by 10 o’clock.”
I recount this not as a sob story, but to indicate the general power dynamic in my time.
And to explain why I’m not completely unsympathetic to students who have used the pretext of social grievance to invert the power dynamic. It gives me a touch of pleasure to think that the petty tyrants of the university world now have to step carefully, even if the charges against them are ludicrous and the agitators illiberal.
The principal business of the university is still power, though the power has shifted. This past week, Hopkins president Ronald Daniels sent out a university-wide email designed to preserve him from the fate of the president of the University of Missouri, who had just been shown the door. It seems that even though JHU founder Johns Hopkins was a prominent abolitionist, the school suffers from numerous racist defects, according to campus protesters.
Among the programs Daniels has instituted to save his job are mandatory training on “identity, privilege, and social justice” and “Baltimore Day” to highlight the “vibrancy” of the city and “address concerns about the perpetuation of negative images of Baltimore.” Also, he “suggested” that incoming freshmen read a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.