The ongoing campus chaos in the United States has elicited both cries of despair over the behavior of students and criticism of the complicity of administrations in this cultural embarrassment. But I would suggest that the problem is really not the arrogance of the students, nor the spinelessness of the administrators. It is something far more disturbing.
Pace Benjamin Franklin, there are actually three certainties in life. There is death. There are taxes. And there are riots, frequently involving students or young people. When American conservatives decried the rioting in England in 2011 as a result of the greed and laziness encouraged by the welfare state , it was useful to note that Parliament first found it necessary to pass a Riot Act in 1714, long before the Beveridge Report and the 1945 Labour Government. Four hundred years before the Riot Act, there had been the infamous St. Scholastica Day riot in Oxford, which involved considerable bloodshed. And student rioting was a staple of the Reformation: Wittenberg during Luther’s absence in the Wartburg is only the most obvious example. In short, thumbing their noses at authority and smashing things is what students do on a regular basis. The rationale may change from year to year—from bad beer in fourteenth-century England to buildings named after long-dead white males in today’s America—but the rioting and rebellion remain a constant. Same horse, different jockey, as a former colleague used to say.
It is the reaction of today’s administrators that is far more significant. Are they spineless? Almost certainly. Are they in thrall to political correctness? Quite possibly. But something far more sinister is at work. These administrations are in thrall to the spirit of the age: They are committed to, and acting consistently with, a philosophy that sees the purpose of education as therapeutic rather than transformative.
A moment’s reflection on the structure of the modern humanities indicates that therapy lies at the very heart of higher education. Women’s studies, black studies, queer studies—you name the politicized sub-group and it will have an academic discipline devoted to it. This is not to say that many of these topics do not touch on legitimate objects of study. But that does not justify the isolation of them into separate disciplines. This partitioning of the humanities is significant, because it reflects and reinforces the divisions in a culture in which everything is now political. More importantly, it sequesters students into silos where they are not inconvenienced overmuch by the need to listen (as opposed to critique and dismiss) alternative opinions.
This then feeds in to another strand of our culture: the need for the therapeutic. The new humanities are founded on the politicization of culture and identity. Therefore they partake of the psychological understanding of victimhood that dominates modern politics. They are part of the broader culture of therapy.
Universities and colleges have become places where young people can feel good about themselves. Talk of “safe spaces” is only the most obvious sign. Think of the language of “community” and “family” that has pervaded administrative propaganda for many years. Since when did universities and colleges need to parade themselves primarily as “communities,” much less as “families”? And the prevalence of such language indicates how much of a confidence trick is being played: How many real families need to keep telling themselves, and advertising to others, that that is what they are? A functional family has no need to signal its existence so insistently.
As humanities curricula have come to be shaped by the psychologized politics of our therapeutic culture, so that which challenges or disturbs must be kept at a distance or discounted. Is it any surprise that educational administrators reflect this in their approach to today’s student protests? They are not necessarily cowards or unprincipled careerists. They are merely drawing out the practical implications of the presuppositions of the education whose delivery is their responsibility.
To repeat: Student protests are nothing new. Students have become superficially involved in very deep issues, and become very angry in the process, for centuries. What is new and significant is the attitude of administrators. But this should not be dismissed as cowardice or pandering. It is actually much more principled, and therefore much more disturbing, than that. It points to the very essence of what “education” (sic) has become. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.