Upon completing my PhD, I left academia for nearly two decades, raising a family and freelancing. Then I took a job teaching literature at a small liberal arts college. When I arrived there in early 2011 the place was wonderfully refreshing after Columbia. Instead of earnest pedants imbibing and regurgitating rigid doctrines, I found a campus full of open, intellectually curious, enthusiastic, charming young people. Everyone participated in class discussions; they all studied what they loved.
By 2015, it had completely changed. Students were restless, easily offended, whiny. They were also passive and helpless. Everyone, for reasons I couldn’t understand, was always accusing everyone else of being racist. (Some faculty members indulged in this activity too.) People became unreasonably prickly if you called them by the wrong gender pronoun. It seemed that every single one of the female students was a survivor of rape or sexual assault (very loosely defined). Many students claimed to suffer from PTSD, though so far as I knew, no one had been on a battlefield. Plenty of others complained of anxiety and seemed to think this was a sufficient reason to skip classes and written assignments. A whole new set of cant phrases was now uttered reverently. Intersectionality. Cultural appropriation. Microaggressions. Black and brown bodies. My lived experience. One longtime, beloved instructor did not have his contract renewed when he told the girls in his class not to get “hysterical.” Being a septuagenarian, he was unaware that the word was “gendered” and “offensive.” Matters came to a head at a graduation ceremony when the valedictorian called the college a “white supremacist” institution. Parents and professors who were old enough to remember places that really were white supremacist—Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, the Jim Crow South—understandably got angry when the idea was cheapened by applying it to what might just have been the wokest square mile on the face of the earth.