WASHINGTON — Summer brings no respite for academics committed to campus purifications, particularly at the institution that is the leader in the silliness sweepstakes, Yale. Its Committee on Art in Public Spaces has discovered that a stone carving that has adorned an entrance to Sterling Memorial Library since it opened 86 years ago has become “not appropriate.”
The carving, according to Yale Alumni Magazine, depicts “a hostile encounter: a Puritan pointing a musket at a Native American.” Actually, the Native American and the Puritan are looking not hostilely at each other but into the distance. Still, one can’t be too careful, so the musket has been covered with stone. This is unilateral disarmament: The Native American’s weapon, a bow, has not been covered up. Perhaps Yale thinks that armed white men are more “triggering” (this academic-speak means “upsetting to the emotionally brittle”) than armed people of color. National Review Online’s Kyle Smith drolly worries that Yale might be perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
If such campus folderols merely added to what Samuel Johnson called “the public stock of harmless pleasure,” Americans could welcome a new academic year the way they once welcomed new burlesque acts. Unfortunately, the descent of institutions of learning into ludicrousness is symptomatic of larger social distempers that Frank Furedi has diagnosed abroad as well as in America.
Furedi is a professor emeritus in England and author of “What’s Happened to the University?: A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilization.” Writing in The American Interest, he cites a warning issued to Oxford University postgraduate students about the danger of “vicarious trauma,” which supposedly results from “hearing about and engaging with the traumatic experiences of others.” This, Furedi says, is symptomatic of the “medicalization” of almost everything in universities that strive to be “therapeutic.” Universities are “promoting theories and practices that encourage people to interpret their anxieties, distress and disappointment through the language of psychological deficits.” This generates self-fulfilling diagnoses of emotionally fragile students. They demand mental-health services on campuses that are replete with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to insulate students from discomforts, such as the depiction of a musket. What academics perceive as “an expanded set of problems tracks right along with the exponential growth of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.’”
The socialization of children, which prepares them to enter the wider world, has been shifted from parents to primary and secondary schools, and now to higher education, which has embraced the task that Furedi calls “re-socialization through altering the norms that undergraduates grew up with.” This is done by using speech codes and indoctrination to raise “awareness” about defects students acquired before coming to campuses that are determined to purify undergraduates.
Often, however, students arrive with little moral ballast bequeathed by parents who thought their role was, Furedi says, less to transmit values than to validate their children’s feelings and attitudes: “This emphasis on validation runs in tandem with a risk-averse regime of child-rearing, the (unintended) consequence of which has been to limit opportunities for the cultivation of independence and to extend the phase of dependence of young people on adult society.”
The therapeutic university’s language — students are “vulnerable” to routine stresses and difficulties that are defined as “traumas” — also becomes self-fulfilling. As a result, students experience a diminished sense of capacity for moral agency — for self-determination. This can make them simultaneously passive, immersing themselves into groupthink, and volatile, like the mobs at Middlebury College, Claremont McKenna College, University of California, Berkeley and other schools that disrupt uncongenial speakers. Hence universities provide “trigger warnings” that facilitate flights into “safe spaces.” Furedi quotes an Oberlin College student who says: “There’s something to be said about exposing yourself to ideas other than your own,” but “I’ve had enough of that.”
Times do, however, change, as the Yale Alumni Magazine delicately intimated when it said the stone now obscuring the Puritan’s musket “can be removed in the future without damaging the original carving.” And the future has come with strange speed to New Haven.
In a peculiar letter in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, a Yale official says the university is removing the stone “that a construction project team had placed on the stonework.” By clearly suggesting, implausibly, that this “team” acted on its own, the letter contradicts the magazine’s report that the covering up was done because the Committee on Art in Public Spaces deemed the carving “not appropriate.” The letter, which says the uncovered carving will be moved to where it can be studied and “contextualized,” speaks volumes about Yale’s context.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.