With War Raging, Colleges Confront a Crisis of Their Own Making

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By Ketrin Agustine

With War Raging, Colleges Confront a Crisis of Their Own Making

For the past two and a half weeks, college leaders have canceled or anxiously discussed canceling campus speeches and events that touch on Israel and Palestine. They’ve agonized over the wording of official school statements about the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and, in some cases, issued second statements to amend, augment or atone for the first ones.

Students, meanwhile, have blasted those administrators for saying too much or too little. They’ve complained about feeling stranded. They’ve demanded more protection.

The tense situation largely reflects the intense differences of opinion with which many onlookers, including students, interpret and react to the rival claims and enduring bloodshed in the Middle East. But it tells another story, too: one about the evolution of higher education over the past quarter-century, the promises that schools increasingly make to their students and the expectations that arise from that.

Many students now turn to the colleges they attend for much more than intellectual stimulation. They look for emotional affirmation. They seek an acknowledgment of their wounds along with the engagement of their minds. And that’s in significant measure because many schools have encouraged that mind-set, casting themselves as stewards of students’ welfare, guarantors of their safety, places of refuge, precincts of healing.

The unease on campuses since Oct. 7 speaks to that. And college administrators’ challenges in dealing with it raise questions about whether they’ve set the right tone and struck the right balance in the relationships they’ve forged with their students.

As my Times colleague Ginia Bellafante wrote in a perceptive column last week: “The campus protests of the late 1960s sought in part to dismantle the in loco parentis role that colleges and universities had held in American life. But the past two decades have been shaped by a reversal of that, as institutions have sought to reconstruct this role in response to what students and parents paying enormous sums for their education have seemed to want.”

Ginia flagged an emphasis and amount of spending on student support services that didn’t exist to the same degree in earlier years and that clearly colors students’ views of what schools owe them, such as recognition or even endorsement of their pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian advocacy at this critical juncture.

For us professors, the surrogate-parent paradigm means regular emails and other reminders from administrators that we should be taking our students’ temperatures, watching for glimmers of distress, intervening proactively and fashioning accommodations, especially if there has been some potentially discomfiting global, national or local news event. The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 reinforced that approach — and rightly so. Students who were locked down in their dormitories or homes, denied social interaction and estranged from the usual rhythms and rituals of college life, undeniably needed special attention.

But where does reasonable consideration end and unreasonable coddling begin? And what do validation and comfort have to do with learning?

Arguably, everything. If you’re not mentally healthy, you’ll be harder pressed to do the reading, writing and critical thinking at the core of college work. If there’s not a certain degree of stability and security in your life beyond the classroom, your concentration in the classroom is going to be compromised.

Also, college students aren’t full-fledged grown-ups. They do need guidance, and they benefit from it.

But are we responsibly preparing them for the world after college — and for the independence, toughness, resourcefulness and resilience it will almost surely demand of them — when we too easily dole out A’s, too readily grant extensions, too gingerly deliver critiques, and too quickly wonder and sound alarms about any disturbance in the atmosphere?

We keep witnessing episodes of students taking their colleges to task in ways that smack of entitlement and fragility and are out of bounds. Remember the young people screeching at Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor and administrator, because his wife, Erika, who also taught there, had dared to wonder publicly about edicts against potentially offensive Halloween costumes? What she introduced as grist for intellectual debate students treated as the despoiling of their safe haven.

Remember the student complaints about and the subsequent dismissal of an art history lecturer at Hamline University in Minnesota who — after giving students a trigger warning, so they could opt out of class — showed a historically important painting of the Prophet Muhammad? Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, defended that sequence of events by saying that to not weigh academic freedom against a “debt to the traditions, beliefs and views of students” is a “privileged reaction.”

That’s a troubling assertion, as Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic: “If you don’t want your traditions, beliefs or views challenged, then don’t come to a university, at least not to study anything in the humanities or the social sciences.”

Or do come, and then angle or outright agitate for instruction that flatters your inclinations. The school is a merchant, a kind of department store, or so a student could easily assume, based on the come-ons from affluent colleges competing with one another for applicants. They peddle tantalizing dining options, themed living arrangements, diverse amusements. They assign students the role of discerning customers. And the customer is always right.

But in an educational environment, that credo is all wrong, because learning means occasionally being provoked, frequently being unsettled and regularly being yanked outside of your comfort zone, which is the place where you discover what you’re really made of and what you can and can’t know.

I’ve found that most students can handle that dislocation — if they’re properly prepped for it, if they’re made to understand its benefits. We shortchange them when we sell them short. And to tiptoe around upsetting them is to assure them that you’ll attend to their every upset.

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In The New Yorker, Richard Brody reviewed the new movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” and described the moral decrepitude of its protagonist, Ernest, played by Leonardo DiCaprio: “The lesion through which contamination takes hold is his blankness — his rootless need to belong, his lack of clear purpose, his gratitude to his uncle for handing him an identity, a life. Yet, even as his inchoate desires are awakened, energized, and weaponized, Ernest is both more than just another profiteer and less; he’s a blank of another kind, blank to himself.” (Thanks to Erik Christensen from Hallandale Beach, Fla., for flagging this.)

Also in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane pondered the booming market, especially in publishing, for tips on the maintenance and perfection of the self: “Staring into the mirror, on a Tuesday morning, you decide that your self needs all the help it can get. But where to turn? You were reading James Clear’s ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones’ and doing well until you spilled half a bottle of Knob Creek over the last 60 pages.” (Pat Sarikelle, Copley, Ohio)

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols weighed in on Jim Jordan’s failed bid for House speaker: “I admit to watching the votes like I’m rubbernecking at a car wreck, but perhaps that’s not a good analogy, because I at least feel pity for the victims of a traffic accident. What’s happening in the House is more like watching a group of obnoxious (and not very bright) hot-rodders playing chicken and smashing their cars into one another over and over.” (Pat Marriott of Wilmington, N.C., and Curt Milton of Seattle)

In The Times, Michelle Cottle landed on a different metaphor for the same madness. “Here we languish,” she wrote, “with the government’s most basic functions held hostage by a conference divided over everything from ideological differences to petty personal slights: Candidate X broke his promise! Candidate Y ignores me! Candidate Z never votes for my bills! It’s like watching a pack of middle schoolers hopped up on hormones and Skittles.” (Kate Kavanagh, Concord, Mass., and Lester Taub, Manhattan, among others)

In The Dispatch, Chris Stirewalt observed: “House Republicans continually swapping out leaders while failing to advance the policies of the voters who elected them is a pretty tight analogy for American politics as a whole this century. The car is rusting out through the floorboards and the engine is seized up, but we’re debating who gets to drive.” (Michael Smith, Georgetown, Ky.)

In Bloomberg, Adrian Wooldridge characterized Britain’s Reform Party as “the heir to the Brexit Party, which in turn was the heir to UKIP, which in turn was heir to a million pub rants about the decline of the country.” (Ron Stack, Mendham, N.J.)

Returning to The Times, David French chided some of Donald Trump’s sorriest sidekicks: “There is no question that a swarm of MAGA lawyers surrounded Trump at each step of the process, much as a cloud of dirt surrounds the character Pigpen in the ‘Peanuts’ cartoons.” (Susan Brown, Gamboa, Panama, and Barry S. Surman, White Plains, N.Y., among others)

Regular readers of this newsletter will be shocked — shocked! — that I’m reserving the final two paragraphs of this section for passages with four paws. In The Times, Dan Barry examined the ideological evolution of Greenwich, Conn.: “Politics in this town of about 63,000, once a bastion for Republican moderates, have gotten complicated in recent years, with Trumpian Republicanism emerging like a wet Saint Bernard galumphing through a staid garden party.” (Lisa Stewart, Honolulu, and Kathy Clark, Kintnersville, Penn., among many others)

And in The Guardian, Sam Jones eulogized a furry charmer named Bobi: “The late canine, who has died at the spectacular age of 31 years and 165 days, has not so much broken the record for the world’s longest-lived dog as shaken it violently from side-to-side, torn it to pieces, buried it and then cocked a triumphant, if elderly, leg over it.” (Mike O’Connell, Bozeman, Mont.)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.

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In a class of mine at Duke, I’ve been teaching — and thus rereading — Richard Ben Cramer’s 1992 masterpiece, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” and have been reminded of, and reveling in, its splendor. More than 1,000 pages long, it’s undeniably indulgent and unquestionably repetitive. But the ambition and intimacy of Cramer’s reporting and the beauty of much of his writing more than make up for that.

The book chronicles the 1988 presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Richard Gephardt, and to read it from the vantage point of 2023 is to be confronted with the sad realities of contemporary politics and journalism. So many of us have become so cynical — with good reason. But Cramer came at his subjects with such a genuine desire to understand them, not to indict them, and the idealism in him illuminated the idealism in them.

More than three decades after its publication, “What It Takes” is not only a fascinating history lesson. It’s a tonic.

Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

There are ghosts all around me. Cadavers and giant spiders, too. I encountered them when I was walking through a neighborhood just a half-mile to the east of mine last weekend, and in a neighborhood about a mile to the west, I spotted a reaper both grim and gargantuan. At least 12 feet tall, he seemed to guard the entrance of a large brick colonial. And he reminded me that Oct. 31 is almost here.

Sometime over the past decade, Halloween became the new Christmas, a summons to suburban homeowners to bedeck their yards. In place of Santas, sleighs and reindeer, there are witches, cauldrons and tombstones. In lieu of glittering tinsel, gossamer cobwebs.

It’s an example, I’m convinced, of the genius — or curse? — of American marketing. If you sell it, they will come. Just as chocolatiers and florists have turned Valentine’s Day into a litmus test of romantic love and the greeting-card industry turbocharged Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the merchants of spooky effigies are upsizing Halloween. They’ve clearly seen how much money the costume peddlers and candy makers are raking in, and they’ve decided to get in on the action.

Their success validates human enterprise. Human impressionability, too. One set of neighbors trick out their property for trick-or-treaters and then the next set decide that they should follow suit. It becomes a trend, then a competition, each lawn’s monster mash an effort to outdo another’s, everyone rushing to assemble these displays sooner than everyone else. This year, I started seeing rubber snakes and plastic skeletons the moment September turned to October. I figure they’ll be fast on the heels of Labor Day before too long.

On the cul-de-sac where I live, my fellow homeowners don’t do much in the way of Halloween décor — yet. They save their energy for the December holiday season, when candles appear in windows and multicolored lights on bushes and trees, and maybe they look disapprovingly or disappointedly at my house, because I’ve never found the time or done the planning to contribute to the winter wonderland.

And I’ve never done so much as a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Easter comes and goes with nothing pink, purple or rabbity adorning my abode.

Bad Frank. Lazy Frank. One of these years I’ll do better, not because I’m a conformist and not because I’m competitive but because I find these seasonal flourishes as fun as they are frivolous, as joyful as wasteful, as generous as indulgent.

They make me smile. They must make other people smile as well. During times like these, that’s no small thing.


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