Oberlin, the canary in the coal mine?

The Atlantic has a fascinating piece I wish I’d seen before writing the previous post. It describes the dissatisfaction of left-wing student activists with Oberlin College and the confusion of their faculty members in response. The irony, of course, is that Oberlin is probably the most left-wing higher education setting in the country. Reading this piece one gets the impression that Ayn Rand was pulling punches in her caricatures. It’s hard to get the essence of the piece from any small excerpt. You should read the whole thing.

For our purposes we can jump ahead to a provisional diagnosis:

In “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a study of political ferment in late-eighteenth-century France, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the decades leading up to the Revolution, France had been notably prosperous and progressive. We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

The second wave campus activist phase of history is still relatively new and hasn’t been subject to much real sociological investigation and explanation. (In another bit of irony the people who should be first in line to do so would be part of the subject of study, so don’t hold your breath.) But anybody who is interested in the academy should be paying very close attention. Oberlin is ahead of the curve, but not very far ahead. The trend towards letting activists dictate terms to professors, deans, and fellow students has been discouraging. If Oberlin is representative, it gets even worse.

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