The atmosphere in colleges today has changed so dramatically as to be scarcely recognizable. With the complicity of a supine administration, students now hold the whip hand over their professors.
“Snowflakes” must be given their panic rooms and antifascist fascists must be tolerated, even encouraged. A student who feels his/her/xe/xem/xyr gender fluidity has not been properly recognized can claim discrimination. Students registered in a Disability program who feel, rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly), that their special needs have not been treated with the expected reverence can file legal suit and have the offending instructor hauled before a provincial Human Rights Tribunal. That the majority of these disability claims are trivial or manufactured — or simply what most of us routinely experience — seems beside the point. As Dudley Moore playing a psychoanalyst in the film Lovesick advises a patient suffering from anxiety, “That’s not a problem you have. That’s life.”
Professors are admonished to be sensitive to students’ emotional and psychological needs, even to the extent of changing the way they teach and the material they teach in order to cater to the weakest and most fragile of their charges. Not to do so will often lead to punitive action on the part of university officials against faculty “dissidents.” Meanwhile the better students are sacrificed in favor of the mediocre and the clamorous. We have arrived at a state where the educational transaction between teacher and student has been crippled by the faux dispensation of academic “justice.”
In my day as a teacher we did not live in terror of our students. We had more than our share of dysfunctional students, but the atmosphere was generally cordial and qualified by a spirit of workable reciprocity. We did not have to mollycoddle the tiffany legion spooked by their own shadows — since they did not detectably exist. The minim of violent students was summarily shown the door. True, some of our students — drastically fewer than the current crop of petitioners — suffered from actual and visible disabilities, and we accommodated them without administrative interference or threat of sanctions. None of us found ourselves facing a Human Rights Tribunal or the peril of suspension for a nothingburger. We did not mince our words and watch our language lest we be arraigned on charges of “hate speech” or giving offence. And since we were professionals, we taught as we saw fit, without “social justice” oversight.
Moreover, in my time as a student we had no such advantages as pertain to the ludicrous and self-indulgent pronominalists — “he” and “she” were good enough for us. The vast precipitation of “snowflakes” deliquescing in “safe spaces” would have been utterly foreign to us. The masked marauders invading classroom and campus, had there been any, would have been immediately arrested. And the cohort of the putative and multitudinous “disabled” — now approximately one out of ten students by my count — who are provided with an armory of special devices and exemptions that make a mockery of genuine learning would have been laughed off the premises.
We understood that disrupting the learning milieu entailed severe penalties. We knew that cheat sheets and memory aids were reasons for expulsion. A headache, a toothache, a bad night’s sleep, agoraphobia, dyslexia, noise sensitivity, proneness to nervous tension — indeed, the entire pharmacopeia of pseudo-disabilities and indemnities available to students today in their thousands — were not acceptable excuses for avoiding curricular discipline. We studied. We wrote exams. We passed or failed. And the university produced a viable community of “passable” and brilliant graduates who contributed materially to the welfare of society. There is little doubt that the contemporary generation, chiefly in the Arts and Social Sciences, does not bear comparison. A generation with poor cognitive abilities and a false sense of entitlement can neither prosper nor contribute substantially to the improvement and enrichment of their world.
As for our professors, they were a breed apart. They did not pamper their students or fear for their reputations or employment. Some were eccentric, their clothes ill-fitting and their manners awkward; others were uncompromising taskmasters, who demanded unwavering attention and diligent performance or there’d be hell to pay; still others scarcely noticed their students as they read their lectures from sheaves of yellowing manuscripts. Some had affairs with their students and some married them. Some were rude. Some were formal. Most, however, were scholars of the first magnitude. None were political indoctrinators.
I recall them all with great fondness and much gratitude. My philosophy professor, an expert on Immanuel Kant, stuffed his fisherman pipe with Sobranie tobacco and puffed away until he was almost invisible in a cloud of thick undulating smoke. On certain days and for inscrutable reasons, my math professor would not permit us to use the symbol X; it had to be Omega on pain of panoptic disapproval. My Englit prof, the celebrated writer Hugh MacLennan, tugged distractedly at his behind as he lectured, much like Rafael Nadal between serves. My Latin master constantly conflated “circumscribed” with “circumsized” in explicating Caesar’s Gallic Wars — and laughed along with the class. My French teacher regularly expatiated on modern architecture and Etruscan funerary art rather than French grammar. My poetry mentors, Canadian greats Louis Dudek and Irving Layton, were as politically incorrect as one could imagine. It was a genuine privilege to sit in their classes. Some of my didactic benefactors became good friends in later life — another privilege.
Certainly, none of my teachers were social constructs. Even the occasionally boring class was differentially interesting, putting me in mind of Roland Barthes’ dictum in Mythologies that “Boredom is bliss viewed from the shores of pleasure.” I am indebted to them all. And saddened, too, by the realization that the modern academy has no place for them. They were too individual, too incorrigible, too authentic, too learned, too principled, too idiosyncratic and too disdainful of contemporary mores to last more than a semester in the modern university.
It is time to candidly acknowledge the truth. Between teacher and student in the university today falls the shadow of disaffection. Both the authority of the teacher and the respect of the student are in utter disarray — except, of course, in those all-too-frequent cases where the professor is a leftist proselytizer conducting a re-education camp. Administration has betrayed its original purpose of efficiently running a university and supporting faculty, instead multiplying its sinecures and intervening in parietal issues where it has neither business nor expertise. To put it bluntly, the university has become, variously, a playpen for wimps and a training ground for thugs.
When it comes to education, the good old days really were the good old days.