course correction at nyt

We’re in a tumultuous time in higher ed, so it’s as important as ever to keep facts straight about campus life and classroom culture. I’m happy to have had an opportunity to help with that effort—at least as much as one can in 200 tightly edited words—in the New York Times this weekend by giving some first-hand perspective on how undergraduates are taught at Columbia, where student protests have been especially contentious.

Ross Douthat recently argued that undergraduates at Columbia cultivate a “narrow list of outlets for [their] world-changing energy” through superficial, blinkered coursework in the school’s Core Curriculum. Amazingly, his column includes no accounts from flesh-and-blood instructors or students or … anyone. It’s instead built upon a glance at a reading list and an imagined method of indoctrination where students are compelled to agree with a course’s required texts.

I taught twenty semesters of Contemporary Civilzation (or “CC”) during my years at the Columbia Core, and my students were almost universally hard-working, independent-thinking, insightful, creative adults. They did not (and instructors did not), as Ross alleges, use the course as an opportunity to “simplify and flatten history” around the platitudes of contemporary political culture.

In Ross’s view, students in CC are brainwashed into marching in the streets for “decolonization” and “liberation” and “climate justice” and so on. Simply put, his view of undergraduate education is a fabrication—one I never encountered in Columbia’s Core. In my vast experience, students would use our authors as tools for interrogating the ideas of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For instance, they would regularly criticize Frantz Fanon’s call for anticolonial, revolutionary violence as an echo of earlier justifications for bloodshed. Some would see it as a new version of Plato’s arguments for infanticide in The Republic in the name of “justice”; or perhaps as a new version of Machiavelli’s apology for self-serving assassinations in The Prince in the name of virtù; or perhaps as a new version of European conquistadors’ slaughter of Mesoamericans in the name of “civilization”; or perhaps as a new version of Robespierre’s defense of executions during the French Revolution in the name of “equality.” The list goes on and on and on.

Of course, some students—perhaps building on the American Revolutionary documents we read together—would find something compelling in Fanon’s call to meet violence with violence and to use any means necessary for the goals of national liberation and autonomy. Those conversations entailed productive disagreements about when, why, and against whom violence is (ever) justified in the pursuit of desired political ends. Perhaps in light of our own increasingly violent politics in the US, we should all be considering these questions more urgently. But to maintain that undergraduates thoughtlessly parrot propaganda that has been ideologically curated for them by the faculty—it’s simply unmoored from reality.

In the same column, Ross asks why students aren’t reading books about the “technological or spiritual aspects of the present,” but if he had talked to just one CC instructor, he would have found that dozens teach Freud’s critiques of technological progress in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” If he had picked up the phone only once, he would have discovered that Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was a required text in the previous iteration of the CC reading list. (Hardly a monolith of “progressive preoccupations,” that reading list also included Carl Schmitt!) Over and above its fundamental mischaracterization of how undergraduate seminars are run, the column is based on sloppy reporting.

As someone who teaches occasional classes at Yale, which draws from a similar student population, Ross certainly grasps that Columbia’s undergraduates are—by and large—sharp, intellectually honest grown-ups. They are not indoctrinated political operatives as they are regularly portrayed in the media. Instead of pushing bad-faith caricatures of people like his students and colleagues in New Haven, he should entertain the possibility that it’s his views that have been simplified and flattened around the unhistorical preoccupations of his own political wing.