On a New Generation of Campus Disorders

This fall has looked like the 1960s redivivus on many university campuses, with campus demonstrations, building occupations, strident demands, and student confrontations with, and even the toppling of, university officials. In the 1960s, the Vietnam War was the main trigger of the protests, and now it’s racial issues. Unhappy realities of higher education itself have also contributed, however. Fifty years ago, it was the bureaucratization and impersonal character of the modern university, and today it’s the student debt crisis.

While we haven’t yet seen buildings firebombed or shots fired, in some ways the situation is intensified compared to the 1960s. If the SDS and other campus radicals then spread intolerance in the name of democracy and change, the climate on most campuses today is much more sweepingly repressive. Dissenting views from the prevailing socio-political orthodoxy are less tolerated—both by other students and by their leftist professors. It’s often said that the universities are concerned about every kind of diversity, except that of thought.

The campus ferment of the 1960s was almost certainly was influenced by the affluence and growing secularism of the baby boom generation and the increasingly permissive childrearing practices of their parents. Today, there are additional dimensions: a deeply engrained entitlement mentality; a “no one can be permitted to outshine anyone else” mind-set (as evidenced by the many high schools from which today’s college students graduated that have eliminated valedictorians); an attitude that everyone should get a higher education, even if they aren’t cut out for it (and, instead of having students reach to meet them, standards have to be lowered to accommodate all); and a pervasive “helicopter parent” attitude that won’t let youth face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that are a normal part of life.

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All this has created an easily offended generation and, regarding this or that demographic group, reigning ideology has added to it that any real or imagined slight—“microaggressions” and the like—is treated as the proverbial “federal case,” where harsh punishment is to be meted out to the hapless perpetrator, and the heads of officials should roll if they were somehow less than incensed that such things were going on.

The protestors and their supporters claim that “racism” is pervasive on American campuses. The definition of “racism,” of course, is ever expansive and pliable, so that it is often applied to things that don’t even involve race as we think of it and winds up being used as a power game.

The campus upheavals seem to have emerged in periods when the left was ascendant in national politics: during LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, and the Obama era today. Times of rising expectations often lead to rising discontent. LBJ falsely thought he could solve a whole host of social ills, including the perennial problem of poverty, and Obama has consistently responded to the ever-heightening demands of racial and other leftist interest groups who are never satisfied. The racial turmoil of the 1960s immediately followed the Civil Rights Revolution, and now it has followed the breakthrough election of the first “non-white” president who touted the coming of a “post-racial era.”

Perhaps the basic reason for the campus turmoil in the 1960s and now, however, can be found in long-term developments in American education itself. The “don’t tell us anything we don’t want to hear” and “don’t challenge the way we think” mentality can be traced directly to the evisceration of the liberal arts. That was a long-term development that began in American education in the nineteenth century, and reached its culmination in the 1960s; the conditions have continued. Since then, we see even deeper resistance to genuine learning, and such poor ongoing intellectual formation that many students now simply don’t know how to think.

The traditional goal of a liberal education at its best was for the student to become intellectually equipped to challenge the ruling prejudices and ways of thinking so as to be able to see truth more clearly. It is not surprising that this is nowhere on the radar screen in an era when the whole notion of truth is scoffed at. The new wave of leftist activism on campus is not surprising, given the monolithic leftist ideological ambiance of most universities. In all too many cases, professors propagandize in the name of teaching and scholarship; at least, they say nothing that challenges the reigning orthodoxy. Like in the 1960s, the mainstream universities are populated by masses of students who believe they are independent thinkers, but are actually are just following the crowd. But again, they haven’t been taught how to think, or given the educational foundation that makes it possible.

A quarter-century ago, two essays in a book I edited entitled The Recovery of American Education: Reclaiming a Vision explained well its unfortunate condition and make understandable the events we now witness. The late Catholic educator John Schmitt said the problem didn’t begin at the college level, but rather shapes students all the way up the ranks of their schooling. Due to the rejection of the very possibility of truth—the rejection of the “philosophical first principle” that reality exists independently of the mind, and can be known with certainty—a “fundamental skepticism” becomes ingrained in them. It “kills wonder…frustrates hopeful striving for transcendence, and turns the young pupil toward the ephemeral, the emotional, the secular, the immediate and the mundane.” Subjectivity and relativism are elevated to dominant positions. The student is conditioned to act as he wishes—at least so long as he doesn’t offend the prevailing cultural trends. So responses to issues that present themselves are emotional, not well-reasoned.

The essay by political scientist David Lowenthal, a follower of the distinguished political philosopher Leo Strauss, points out how the two goals of a traditional liberal education—the shaping of the good man and the good citizen by means of inculcating intellectual virtue, and thus forging the soul—were long ago abandoned. So, besides learning nothing to speak of about their country’s traditions and principles—he wrote even before the American Founding Era came to be so completely denigrated in the university—their faulty education leads them to downplay the intellect and reasonableness and elevate the emotional. The result is that they become susceptible to vaguely “good-sounding” appeals to idealism, morality, and heroism. The “moral” appeals actually wind up being appeals to moralism, since the students’ faulty formation often makes them incapable of making a serious intellectual examination of morality.

Should one be surprised, then, that the campuses become places where students: go to just punch their academic time clocks and get a credential; join the crowd in proclaiming that “racism” is everywhere in their midst, and “income inequality”—however that is understood—is a pervasive evil (so that a heavy tax on the “rich” should be imposed to provide them with free educations); and clamor for “safe zones” where no speech that offends in the slightest way is permitted—even at state universities, to which they should know the First Amendment applies?

Besides ignoring intellectual virtue, the campuses are not exactly distinguished as centers of moral virtue, either. That’s been seen in the striking lack of courage of academic administrators—now, as in the 1960s—in standing up to the mob of radicalized students. Interestingly, the same administrators who often go out of their way to pacify leftist professors and student groups often find that, in the end, these just turn on them (the same fate as that of “fellow travelers” when Communists took over a country).

Some people wonder what will happen with the current generation of campus activists. The baby boomer activists of the 1960s later helped move liberalism and the Democratic Party to the left and ultimately gave them their new look of intolerance and repression. Will the millennial and Gen Z activists become outright totalitarians as they move into positions of political prominence?


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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