“Hysteria” in Higher Ed? I Don’t Buy It.

The title of George Will’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (11-18-2016) is “Higher education is awash with hysteria.  That might have helped elect Trump.”  Hmm, hyperbole (“awash with hysteria”) and baseless half-claims (“might have helped elect Trump”) have become the cornerstone of half-baked, fully baited journalism.  The charged word “hysteria” already imbues the title with a Fox-flavored misogyny that the rest of the piece bears out.  Will goes on to accuse higher education of “childishness and condescension” and links these behaviors to the election of Trump.

George Will takes issue with the safe spaces established on university campuses after the election, but he doesn’t deign to question exactly why safe spaces might be necessary.  If he were to read The Chronicle of Higher Education’s daily round-up of violent anti-black, anti-brown, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-transgender incidents on our campuses or to follow the list of violent incidents recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Poverty Law Center, then maybe he would understand why many people who study and work at colleges and universities seek to protect (through safe spaces, staffed counseling offices, etc.) and to educate (a rich curriculum that doesn’t just teach about the wars of domination waged by white men of the Western hemisphere).  In this op-ed, Will also criticizes academics’ writing styles and course topics.

It is not time to feel sorry for racists, but it certainly is time to recognize the clear and present danger they represent (*See this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on white supremacist Richard Spencer’s “Danger Tour”.).  Recognizing this danger is not “hysterical,” but rather practical and humane.  Schools need to be a place where young children and young adults can feel safe.  What do we mean by “safe” or a “safe space?”  We mean that students and employees won’t be singled out for bullying or other forms of punishment for belonging, or just appearing to belong, to a specific category and that they’ll receive equal treatment in terms of resources, etc.  Basically, it means that schools will respect Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Title IX (1972).  But it means more than that.  Schools are supposed to be places where critical thinking is taught—where we learn about, synthesize, and analyze the history, cultural legacies, politics, accomplishments, and challenges of the Earth and a variety of groups of people.  Students should understand the school and its people as a space of open inquiry and dialogue.  When schools close themselves off from such practices, they decrease our ability to learn, be open to others, and ask the big questions.  They increase the likelihood of real abuse.

I live in a small town visited somewhat often by an active group of white supremacists.  We have groups that counter the supremacy messages, but their presence doesn’t exactly allay the fear of oppression and violence evoked by traditional symbols of white supremacy.  The schools should be one of the places to work against these messages.  My husband has taught for many years at the public high school in our town.  This past summer, a week or two before the first day of school, he saw graffiti in the boys’/men’s bathroom etched onto the walls of the bathroom stall and the metal of the toilet-paper holder.  While the graffiti exhibited sexism, it also included the line “Whites only” and “Kill a ‘N-word’.”  When my husband alerted the administration, they agreed to take care of the problem, a problem my husband thought acute enough to require immediate action.  When nothing was done for days, my husband put tape over the stall door with a sign that said “out of order” (literally and figuratively, really).  The day before 9th-grade orientation, my husband went and bought sandpaper and sanded off the sexist and racist messages.  Mr. Will, is it coddling to ensure that students of color not feel like the violence against black lives that they have seen repeatedly since Ferguson (and well before, of course, given our colonial legacies and mass incarceration) not be replicated in their own schools?

In just over a month, a group in my town will sponsor a parade for Martin Luther King Day.  The idea is to have different groups join in the parade to celebrate what they do (bands, sports teams, dance groups, knitting clubs) as the whole parade line celebrates the life and accomplishments of the United States’ nationally recognized civil rights leader.  Our city and county public schools do support our Christmas-themed holiday parade (remember the good ol’ separation of church and state?) but are not supporting the MLK (remember the federal holiday for this important figure’s January 15th birthday?) parade.  This is another instance in which the education system is sending implicit and explicit messages about what and who matters.

Let’s keep in mind that George Will has been working for Fox News since 2013.  When he gave the commencement address at Michigan State University in December, 2014, some students and audience members staged a protest, especially denouncing Will’s dismissal of the problem of sexual assault on United States campuses and his belief that those who report sexual assault enjoy “privilege” on campus.

It seems that George Will believes the only people who need to be “coddled” on the campuses of our schools are the ones who think like him—those who believe that race is invisible, those who think sexual assault doesn’t exist, those who seek curricula that focus only on the overly repeated narrative of the white male hero, and those who write in a hoity-toity way (e.g. “Institutions of supposedly higher education are awash with hysteria, authoritarianism, obscurantism, philistinism and charlatanry”) but criticize other academics for using the word “interrogated.”  The hypocrisy of it all is almost, but just not quite, hysterical.

Will is awash in his own privilege but cannot acknowledge it.  The Washington Post has employed this successful writer since 1974.  Might it be time to retire his jersey?



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