Opinion: The revenge of the woke
College students across the U.S. are returning to classes for the fall semester. It’s an odd moment in time to be enrolled at university. Public opinion of higher education has never been lower—and a handful of militantly progressive students are largely to blame.
According to Pew Research, some 38% of people now say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the direction of the country, up from 26% in 2012. This change in opinion is largely driven by Republicans: While just 18% of Democrats take a dim view of higher ed, the number of college-skeptical Republicans has increased from 35% to 59% over the last seven years.
What’s driving this change of opinion? The antics of the “woke” (slang for awake to the reality of inequality) scolds—the student radicals who have largely succeeded at turning some of the most prestigious American educational institutions into safe spaces. These are the kids who shout down—and even attack—conservative scholar Charles Murray when he tries to speak on campus; told a dean of Yale College that his job was to shield them from all emotional discomfort; tried to destroy a bakery at Oberlin College for daring to stop a minority student from shoplifting; compelled Harvard’s administration to deal a series of blows to the principles of free speech and due process; and routinely file complaints against their own professors—even progressive ones—for doing or saying something that bothered them.
What’s happened at Harvard, Oberlin, and elsewhere has raised public concerns that higher education no longer prepares young people to succeed in the real world. Indeed, some 73% of Republicans, and 54% of all respondents, think colleges and universities are too concerned with protecting students from views they might find offensive.
These concerns are not always ideological. Even many Democrats worry that a college degree is more expensive on paper than ever before, yet worth less and less. Collectively, college graduates hold a trillion dollars in student loan debt, and many pursued academic studies that don’t easily translate to steady employment. Some of the most militantly far-left young people are the ones who trained in these disciplines—the pejoratively nicknamed “grievance studies”—and are now agitating for the abolition of debts to cover their mistakes. And the most progressive Democratic 2020 candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have released proposals to accomplish this.
Despite numerous legitimate concerns, higher education still has something positive to offer America. The scientific research being done on campuses is a tremendous benefit, not just to the country, but to the entire world. And contrary to popular belief, college does not radicalize most young people. Some research has shown that a college education is associated with more tolerance toward both liberal and conservative points of view. Improving the current climate on elite campuses might sound like a daunting problem, but the source of the difficulty is not the average student, but rather, a very small number of millennial and Gen Z campus activists.
I studied these young people for my new book, "Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump," which seeks to understand where their opinions and tactics come from. At every turn, censorship-inclined students pinpointed safety as the cause of their activism. They took the view that the concept of safety encompasses not just physical protection but mental and emotional stability as well, and thus efforts to sanction uncomfortable—often conservative—speech on campus were in fact violent attacks on their well-being.
If a student-group wanted to host conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, for instance, then it was the view of the activists that the group was inviting violence against people who might not like what Shapiro has to say. It was not merely a matter of disagreeing with Shapiro—Shapiro’s very presence on campus would have a psychologically scarring effect on the marginalized, and was thus unconscionable.
The other factor at work here is the sudden important of intersectionality to progressive activism. A term coined by sociologists in the 1980s to describe the different but overlapping kinds of mistreatment faced by black people and women, intersectionality has now come to dominate progressive academic disciplines. In intersectional parlance, the activist with the greatest authority to address issues of systemic oppression and inequality is the most marginalized person. Since mental health is a category of marginalization—like race, gender, LGBT status, gender identity, and so on—the properly intersectional activist is eager to claim that they are psychologically harmed, or emotionally compromised, by speech they don’t like. Such appeals give them more power.
Unsurprisingly, progressive students have often demanded that campuses adopt policies to assuage their mental health concerns: microaggression reporting systems that would track slight, unintentional harms, mandatory trigger warning that would forewarn students about harmful classroom conduct, and so on. Both of these concepts have come under heavy criticism. Three separate studies have shown that trigger warnings, for instance, don’t work, and may in fact make people more anxious.
Since colleges’ performative coddling of a few unreasonable students is largely fueling the conservative backlash, it would serve administrators’ long-term interests if they ended their unconditional surrender to the woke. Rehabilitating higher ed will require a bit of courage, but the alternative is to let a culture of intolerance and illiberalism grow, and continue to spread from the campus to broader life.
Robby Soave is an associate editor at Reason magazine, and the author of the recent book, "Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump." He is a Michigan native and a University of Michigan graduate.