Yale University

Class News

Toby Tompkins '64 on academic conniption fits

Toby has sent along an article from his blogsite, Ragbag MInd. You can read the article below, and read more about Toby himself on this page of his blogsite.

Identity Politics, Snowflakes, Trigger Warnings, and other Academic Conniption Fits

Since graduating from Yale in 1964, I’ve read its alumni magazine regularly, taking considerable interest in the way the university has reacted to events in the world outside its ivory– and ivied – towers over the years. Generally, Yale has rolled with history’s punches, adapting to changing times with some degree of grace, despite the blustering of Old Eli traditionalists. Yale College (the university’s undergraduate school) went coed in 1969, with the blessing of its then-president, Kingman Brewster, who also came out in support of the students who were protesting the war in Vietnam. The university championed the civil rights movement, with its chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, joining the Freedom Riders to the obdurately racist Deep South, and supporting Dr. Martin Luther King’s, crusades to Washington. Back on campus, female students pressured Yale’s secretive all-male Senior Societies to begin admitting women (my own, Berzelius, was the first to do so, which is why I still kick in a few bucks to it every year or so). Yale was one of the first Ivy League universities to embrace affirmative action in its admissions policy, and as a result, today the student body is both multiracial and multicultural. Similarly, the faculty nowadays includes scholars from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, and the curriculum has broadened accordingly. Yale’s come a long way from the predominantly WASP, men-only institution it was in my day, and that’s all to the good. What hasn’t changed is its dedication to offering liberal arts majors a challenging, even rigorous four years of study, whose ultimate end is to teach them to think critically and creatively about the texts they read, and to express their conclusions cogently.

Recently, however, my interest in the alumni magazine has acquired a tinge of fearful fascination, due to an ongoing conflict involving the current crop of undergraduates. The furor isn’t restricted to Yale, by any means. Universities and colleges all over the nation are wracked by protests that often turn violent. This spring, at UC Berkeley, in the interest of free speech (Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley, after all), the right-wing white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to give an address at one of the university’s auditoriums. His supporters turned up en masse in front of the building, along with a number of peaceful protesters. But things got ugly when a new group, calling themselves Antifas (short for anti-fascist), barged in, dressed in black and wearing balaclavas that concealed all but their angry eyes, and attacked the white supremacists physically, sparking a full-blown riot. When the campus cops, augmented by city police in military uniforms and wielding tasers, beanbag shotguns, and water cannons, put down the riot with brutal force, the fury of the students and the despair of their teachers and administrators only increased. Classes had to be suspended until things calmed down, and as I write (early October, 2017), the campus is still edgy – and not in a trendy way. So far the opposing factions haven’t armed themselves, but if the troubles continue, given the availability of guns in this country, it’s only a matter of time before their campus and others caught up in conflict become combat zones. The intensity of the students’ rage against authority, and the obduracy of their refusal to compromise, even with each other, verge on the psychotic, and university administrators so far have proven incapable of coping with the chaos.

African-American students, who, so far, are in the vanguard of the protests, maintain that the English and History departments of their colleges do not pay sufficient attention to black writers and black culture. Though all prominent universities have black studies programs, some protesters claim that placing such programs in a special department is a form of ghettoization, like the “separate but equal” policy that obtained in public elementary and high schools before they were integrated in the 1960s. By contrast, a small but militant minority want more separation, and are demanding that they be excused from studying anything that doesn’t relate to the black experience. At Yale, both groups find some common ground in insisting that all undergraduates be required to take an ethnic studies course, a demand that does seem reasonable to me.

Right now things are quiet on the nation’s campuses, but that’s only because students have just returned from their summer breaks. None of the issues have gone away, and the current academic year threatens to be even more chaotic than the last one. Minority and feminist students will object to being forced to read authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and William Faulkner in literature courses, because they write in weird English (Chaucer and Shakespeare), they’re anti-Semitic male chauvinists (Shakespeare, again), they’re too difficult (Joyce, ditto Eliot, plus he also disparaged Jews), and they’re insufficiently contrite about slavery (Faulkner). Plus they’re all dead white men.

But the curricula of all reputable universities already include many living Jewish and African-American writers, both male and female, along with a number of dead ones. Women authors of all races and eras are well represented. The works of gay and lesbian novelists, memoirists, playwrights, and poets are taught by professors who vigorously resist gender classification themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine how English-lit courses could become any more inclusive. Students are offered a veritable smorgasbord of food for thought. Unfortunately, some of them are very picky eaters.

At a recent dinner party, my wife and I met a nineteen-year-old woman in her first year of college. She was a tall, statuesque brunette, wearing a form-fitting, long-sleeved black shirt, tight leather pants, and high-heeled black boots. If she’d had a riding crop, she would have looked like a dominatrix in an S & M film. But her manner undermined the effect of her menacing outfit. She spoke in a tremulous whisper, and she kept running her manicured fingers nervously through her beautifully-styled hair. She acted like someone who had just received terrible news: a lover’s betrayal, the death of a parent, or even the diagnosis of a fatal disease.

It turned out that what upset the delicate snowflake was higher education itself. Her English professors were assigning books that contained episodes of violence (particularly against women) without warning her in advance that such passages might shock or disgust her.

My mouth dropped open in disbelief, and it took me a long moment to respond.

“Wait, I’m sorry, let me get this straight,” I said. “You want your teachers to synopsize the novels you’re assigned before you read them?”

“Of course,” she said.

“But that’s asking them to do your work for you, isn’t it?”

She gave me an irritated look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about?” she said, using the up-talk common in her age group that turns every statement into a question.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Let me put it another way. Your professors are trying to share their knowledge of literature with you, aren’t they?”

“No!” she said fiercely. “They’re not sharing anything!” The up-talk was gone. “They’re just telling me what to do! They’re all part of the Male Power Structure!” The way she billboarded the phrase – I could almost hear the capital letters – suggested that she was parroting something she’d heard from someone else, possibly an older boyfriend or girlfriend.

“Are all your professors men?”

“No, but the women have all been co-opted!”

 It was a buzz-word I hadn’t heard since the 1960s, when it was applied to politicians who had run for election on progressive, anti-war platforms, and ditched their campaign promises as soon as they were in Washington and learned that the government’s motto has always been “Quid Pro Quo.” I began to think that her political sophistication matched the complexity of her fashion sense, but then she blew it.

“Nobody can make me read anything I don’t like!” she said, sounding like a cranky child refusing to eat her spinach.

“Then why are you in college?” I asked her. “If you don’t want to be exposed to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should drop out. There are plenty of jobs that don’t require a college degree, and you’d save your parents a lot of money.”

Her lower lip began to tremble, and her eyes brimmed with tears. Her mother, seated by her side, put a comforting arm around her shoulder and stroked her hair.

“You are not a nice man,” she told me.

“The world is not a nice place,” I replied, trying not to lose my temper. “One of the things higher education is supposed to do is teach young people the skills they need to survive in it. Your daughter needs to stop whining and grow up.”

Things might have gone decidedly sideways after that, but the girl’s father – or stepfather, I never found out for sure – sat on her other side. He nodded at me, and said that he’d been telling her the same thing since she came home on her break and started complaining. Judging by the way she continued to glare at me, his wife wasn’t much appeased, but she kept quiet. My painter wife, ever a peacemaker, suggested that art – which, of course, includes literature – has to be challenging, even disturbing, or it isn’t doing its job. That sailed right over the Helicopter Mother’s head, but her husband said something to the effect that if something wasn’t hard to do, it probably wasn’t worth doing. I liked him for saying that, and wondered what line of work he was in, but before I had a chance to ask him, supper was served, accompanied by several bottles of wine. There’s nothing like lashings of food and booze to restore conviviality to a fractious social situation.

The meal was excellent, as was the wine. The young woman, whom I’d pegged as anorexic or bulimic, starving herself so she could fit into her her sexy, tight clothes, surprised me by eating heartily, though she drank only water and regarded those of us who drank wine with an expression of barely veiled contempt. No matter; dinner ended without more ado about nothing, and nobody’s feelings got any further hurt.

Major issues in academia weren’t brought up again that evening. We had gone, if not from the sublime to the ridiculous, at least from the serious to the silly. The snowflake hadn’t advanced her cause, but she had been the center of attention, which seemed to have been her aim all along. She was still a teenager, after all, and teenagers, like works of art, have to challenge authority one way or another, or they’re not doing their jobs. I realized that I’d overreacted to her demands for trigger-warnings from her professors. She’d only been testing her new-found autonomy, provoking the adults at the table sheerly for the sake of provocation. And once she’d gotten the reaction she wanted, she was content.

Black and minority students at Yale and elsewhere are also flexing their new contrarian muscles, as are the Neofascists and the Antifas. But they all have clearly articulated social causes, good or bad, which they support with passionate intensity. The snowflake’s intensity was equally passionate, but because her cause was selfish and trivial, based on received opinions which she had not fully digested, it melted in the heat of argument. I doubt whether she took anything of value away from the argument, but I did: A qualified gratitude that I’d attended college in a simpler time, when students assumed their teachers knew more than they did, and wanted to learn from them. Of course I argued with my English professors in class, but the arguments were over interpretations of the subject matter, not the essential value of college itself. In our bitterly-divided country, now that a smug Know-Nothing squats in the White House, that dispute has become strident, with corporate-sponsored conservative politicians viciously attacking the liberal idea that a higher education should be available to all young Americans. Corporations – and among them I include the fast-food and megastore rackets – need a reliable supply of minimally-paid workers in order to maximize their profits. So unless she gets over herself and settles down to her studies, my snowflake could wind up working for chump change at Walmart or McDonald’s, where she’ll really have something to complain about. On the other hand, given her luck in the genetic good-looks lottery, she might become a fashion model making hundreds of dollars an hour for wearing unwearable outfits, and attract a fat, senescent sugar-daddy with a sadistic streak and a badly-dyed comb-over.

OK, call off the PC police: perhaps I’m being unfair to her. It could be that she has hidden talents, and hasn’t yet found an outlet for them. Anything’s possible in the Land of the Free, as long as you’re white and pretty.