November 15, 2015

ELIOT COHEN: Microaggression, Meet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The ungainly title of Senior Tutor—since abolished by Harvard administrators—reflected the institution’s belief that deans had an educational function and should, in fact, be academics. Real academics, the kind that aspire to a lifetime of teaching and research, with administration as an occasional, if vital, duty.

From that experience I learned some things applicable to the age of microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. One was that there is a certain kind of immature young person who, having discovered that he or she can upset the adults with outlandish statements or behavior and get away with it, will become increasingly absurd or demanding. Another was that although some professors will leap bravely into the waters off Australia to study the mating habits of sharks, or endure the perils of the fever swamps to understand the propagation of tropical disease, a great many are cowards when it comes to confronting received opinion, including that of undergraduates.

The problem has gotten worse since 1982, as American universities, with honorable exceptions (my current university among them) have become mono-cultural colonies of political and social belief. It is exacerbated by the proliferation of assistant deans, a category of administrator famously characterized as “mice studying to become rats,” whose portfolio is tending to the fragile egos of the students who, supposedly, will one day captain industry, media, and government. The administrators’ more insidious job is monitoring faculty behavior—which at Harvard in 2013 disgracefully included surreptitiously sniffing through Senior Tutors’ emails.

Harvard and Yale are the products of Old New England, which has something to teach in this regard. In 1692 a witch craze swept Salem, Massachusetts, triggered in part by hysterical children, fed by stern divines who sincerely believed in witchcraft, and permitted by a community too terrorized to stand up for due process, let alone prevent hangings and, in one case, the crushing of an innocent man to death by heavy stones because he refused to confess to an absurd, imaginary crime. There is something not entirely different going on today.

Read the whole thing.

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