The Yale University lecturer who faced a barrage of criticism for suggesting students could handle their own Halloween costumes without losing their minds has recently resigned, according to The New York Times. As college campuses across America are engulfed in similar chaos, it is worth looking at the probable effect of this radical unrest, not just on the universities and civil society, but on the student protesters themselves.
By spending their time on social justice activism instead of pursuing their studies, many of the protesters are making a mistake that could follow them for the rest of their lives. By emulating the radicalism of campus elites without actually having the security of membership in that elite class, they risk destroying the advantages their education was supposed to create.
The point of attending a university has always been to get an education. For the nineteenth-century college man or woman, the actual subject of the education often did not matter. Learning the classics did not enhance the job prospects of a young scion of a wealthy family, but made him “educated” and “well-rounded.” It was a way-station on the road to taking one’s place in society. College was a rite of passage, not a means of social or economic elevation.
From Bettering Oneself to Agitating Others
For most twenty-first-century college kids, things are different. Expanding college enrollment has helped educate the children of poor and middle-class families so they could find their place in a world of new, more intellectually demanding jobs. In the post-World War II ideal, a child would go to college, become qualified for a better job than his parents had, and thereby make himself and his future family more financially secure.
It was a good plan and, with the decline of employment in farming and manufacturing, it was a necessary plan if the next generations were to adapt themselves for the new economy.
The intellectual freedom of the college campus made universities hubs for new ideas and, especially in the face of the civil disorder surrounding the Vietnam War, incubators for radical ideas. Besides learning new concepts, college students and professors could advocate for societal change in accordance with those ideas. For some, college life became more about agitation and less about education.
For tenured professors, there is no harm in this Their jobs are secure. For rich kids, campus radicalism is also without cost. Their family wealth and connections ensure they will find good jobs after graduation regardless of the condition of their academic transcript (with grade inflation, the transcript usually looked fine in any case).
Disrupting Everyone’s Education Carries Consequences
For the rest of the student body, though, playing fast and loose with their academic training risks grave harm to their future career prospects. For students from a poor or middle-class background, future employers may overlook a little campus radicalism as the excesses of youth, but behavior that results in suspension or expulsion would put them right back where they started, with only a load of student loan debt to show for it.
Their error is in copying the habits of a leisure class to which they do not (yet) belong. The mistake is understandable: colleges today are luxurious, and many students do not have jobs while they are in school. They likely feel on par with their legacy admission classmates, and see social activism without recourse as a part of the package of things they earned with admission to college. They are mistaken.
The protests at Princeton are a useful example. The cause for the unrest, in that case, is the character of a Princeton president (and United States president) who has been dead for nearly a century: Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, who presided over Princeton University from 1902 to 1910 (and over the United States from 1913 to 1921) was a leading progressive Democrat, of whom Princeton is justly proud. He was also, as David Harsanyi notes, a virulent racist. Unfortunately for twenty-first-century progressives, a sizable fraction of Princeton’s campus is named after him.
So, protests. Besides this issue, the campus radicals demanded “cultural competency training for faculty and staff, an ethnicity and diversity distribution requirement and a space on campus explicitly dedicated to black students.” In the best imitation of their progressive forebears from the 1960s, this protest was accompanied by walk-outs and sit-ins.
This is not the first time such a protest happened at Princeton. In 1995, there was a similar protest over similar issues. The protesters were found in violation of “disrupting legitimate university business” and placed on academic probation. They spent the remainder of their time at the school under the threat of expulsion. Twenty years later, students occupying the school president’s office risk the same punishment.
Wasting a Degree Equals Conspicuous Consumption
The peril this poses to the protesters’ college degrees and future earning potential may be something they ignore because they are young, and young people take risks older people would not. But it is also emblematic of another idea, one sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.”
In his book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Veblen discusses how the rich consume goods wastefully and publically as a mark of their upper-class status. The “[c]onspicuous consumption of valuable goods,” he wrote, “is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.” Here, all students are acting as though they are gentlemen of leisure, but instead of wasting money, they waste the opportunity for education. The old symbol of capricious waste was a plutocrat lighting his cigar with a hundred-dollar bill. Now, it is the scene of children at elite universities figuratively burning their diplomas on the altar of social justice.
Given the far-leftist bent of the student protesters, it is strange we should look to one of capitalism’s famous critics to explain their actions, but in an age where progressive presidents like Wilson are attacked for being insufficiently progressive, anything is possible. The companion to Veblen’s thesis is also useful: the rich, in his telling, waste money not just because they can, but to show the world that they can. The protests at Princeton and elsewhere diverge from the analogy because, in most cases, the protesters cannot afford it.
Ted Kennedy could become a senator after being expelled from Harvard University for cheating. That is the privilege of being a Kennedy. For the rest of the world, expulsion from college is a black mark on a resumé that can never be expunged. Student protesters, especially those not of the leisure class, should think hard about the value of their opportunities before committing to wasting them on the progressive cause of the day.