(Better) Advice to Students in a Time of Strife

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“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days,” the great Solzhenitsyn told America’s intellectual elite at Harvard in 1978.

It was heartening, therefore, to read a letter of “Advice to Students in a Time of Strife,” published by First Things in late August; it was an open letter to students signed by 15 academics on the faculty of Princeton, including scholar Robert P. George. The letter addressed itself to students “whose beliefs are out of step with the dominant opinion on campus,” warning them that “sooner or later, if you think for yourself, you will contravene the reigning orthodoxy.” Its authors adopt an encouraging but practical tone, advising students to “stand your ground” and “hold your college or university to its own professed commitments to fairness.” Force of argument and the power of reason, they assure students, are “powerful tools.” While neither will get instant results, “both will work provided you maintain your composure, remain persistently polite, and never stop pushing back.”

It’s good to hear voices calling for courage. Since the brilliant signatories of this letter praise the critical exchange of ideas, I trust they will look tolerantly upon my only moderately lettered opinion: their advice is inadequate for the situation students face today.

Consider the case of Lindsay Shepherd. A graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, Miss Shepherd decided one November day in 2017 to show her communications class a couple of clips of Jordan Peterson debating Bill C-16, the Canadian law against discrimination on grounds of “gender identity or expression.” She presented the clips neutrally, without expressing support or criticism. After the lively discussion that ensued, the young TA was called into a disciplinary meeting with her supervisor and university administration. She was accused of having created a “toxic climate” for students by playing videos of Jordan Peterson, whom her supervisor compared to Adolf Hitler. She was told her actions were not just in violation of university policy but that she had also broken the law. She was shunned by her department, harassed by activists, and even subjected to stalking.

The signatories of the open letter would be proud of Miss Shepherd. She knew she was being treated unfairly, and she stood her ground. Secretly, she taped the disciplinary meeting, and leaked the audio to sympathetic conservative media, although as a pro-choice environmentalist atheist she had never considered herself a right-winger. The story went viral and sparked controversy across the country. Under conservative pressure, her supervisor and the university president apologized, admitting she had done nothing wrong.

You might think this a success story, proving the Princeton professors’ point: she held her own and she got justice from the authorities. But in 2020, only three years later, universities are already farther to the left on these issues. Obsequiousness to gender ideology has only grown. Would Miss Shepherd get an apology in 2020? And, more importantly, although she did receive an apology, is Miss Shepherd’s experience something parents want for their college-bound children, or something the college-bound students should want for themselves?

The truth is that Miss Shepherd, like Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic fame, was lucky. They were unlucky at first for having stumbled into the Left’s line of fire, and then lucky to have had the opportunity to refute the false accusations against them, thanks in both cases to sympathetic media that brought public pressure to bear on their persecutors. With apologies to the Princeton professors, it wasn’t the force of argument or the power of reason that brought the university administration to its knees; it was the power of public opinion, provided by helpful members of the media. That’s not something you can count on, especially if you’re a Catholic and the bone of contention happens to be an unfashionable truth.

Although their respective cases might look like victories for the right, both Miss Shepherd and Mr. Sandmann have suffered and will continue to suffer consequences on a personal level. In 2018, Miss Shepherd launched a lawsuit against the university and the professors who reprimanded her, on grounds that Wilfrid Laurier University’s actions rendered her effectively unemployable in academia (most likely quite true) and subject to harassment and severe stress. Neither she nor Nick Sandmann, who has been winning lawsuits all over the place, can hope to escape being profiled by future academic institutions, potential employers and associates. That’s life, you might say. Injustice happens, but at least they stood up for themselves.

At least they stood up for themselves. But neither of them went looking for trouble. Miss Shepherd had no idea the Jordan Peterson clips would engender such a backlash, since they’d been aired on public television. Nick Sandmann was through no fault of his own in the wrong place at the wrong time. But while the moral courage of both remains inspiring, we’re not supposed to seek out martyrdom—and especially not with a quixotic dream of somehow, as the youngest, least qualified and least influential persons on campus, correcting institutions permeated by socialism.

There’s an old joke where a patient tells his doctor, “I broke my leg in two places!” The doctor advises, “Don’t go to those places.” If you know that certain colleges or certain academic programs or certain professors are liable to put you in a position where you’ll be subjected to unfair treatment or persecution because you’re a Catholic or because you hold unpopular philosophical or political ideas, why go to those places? Or, if you must go, why not keep a low profile and avoid engaging when possible? There are negative consequences to entering enemy territory overconfidently, and as Marxism completes its long march through the institutions, there are fewer and fewer colleges that can’t be classified as such.

Why go to university at all? It’s supposed to be a place that can offer you an intellectual and social formation, where you can become a scholar if you choose or prepare to follow a profession such as medicine or the law. But if the institution of your choice doesn’t form, but rather deforms, the intellect by tolerating every intellectual aberration and quite a few moral ones as well, then—even if it tolerates truth and genuine learning as well—maybe it’s not a good place to seek intellectual formation. Entering most modern postsecondary campuses, even nominally Catholic ones, is a calculated moral risk, and should be considered as such.

There may be good reason to incur the risk. But it’s worth considering the panoply of other options open to talented young people anxious to bring about the restoration of all things in Christ. What about apprenticing to a skilled tradesman? What about studying the arts with a private teacher instead of a university program? What about getting an entry level job in a field you like and working your way up? Post-secondary education, for all the fuss about it, comes with only one guarantee: it will cost an awful lot.

With respect to the authors of “Advice to Students in a Time of Strife,” I’d like to remind students that defending academic freedom and holding colleges to fair standards is somebody else’s battle. They can worry about that when they’re elderly billionaires. Right now, they need to survive an academic landscape carefully designed, in many cases, to bring about their moral and intellectual corruption. Telling them good faith reason and argumentation will see them safely through is to lead them straight into the trap.

[Photo credit: Thomas More College of Liberal Arts/Facebook]

By

Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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