The latest college admissions scandal–which involved wealthy parents, including some Hollywood celebrities, paying fixers to falsify test scores and bribe athletic coaches so their kids could gain entry to schools like the University of Southern California and Georgetown–has reignited debates about the legitimacy of our meritocratic ideals.
But two other stories in the news this week raise a slightly different question, particularly for parents who don’t break the law to get their kids into school but might still be wondering if spending $40,000 a year on private school and college are a good investment: What are kids learning about social justice at these elite institutions?
On Monday, “students of color” calling themselves the Diaspora Coalition staged a sit-in at Sarah Lawrence College in New York to protest a New York Times op-ed written by Samuel J. Abrams, a politics professor at the school. The piece was critical of college administrators’ failure to encourage ideological diversity on campus, and it angered many students. The coalition’s list of demands, which began by citing the “pain of marginalized students” and included calls for “permanent funding for identity groups,” insisted that “Abrams’ position at the College be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color” because of his “anti-Blackness, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-woman bigotry” (emphasis in original.)
As good cultural revolutionaries are wont to do, the students also demanded that the college issue a statement condemning Abrams and that Abrams himself be forced to make a public apology.
A few practical concerns tempered their Maoism: demands for free housing and food for minority students—and even for free fabric softener, the last of which prompted some well-deserved scorn on social media (“The Snuggle is real”).
Yet, as Abrams described, it wasn’t the students who needed protection from his ideas; it was he who needed physical protection from students, some of whom vandalized his office and threatened him with violence after the op-ed was published. Despite Abrams’ numerous pleas for help, school administrators waited three weeks to condemn the vandalism and offer a defense of free speech. After this experience, Abrams concluded, as many other academics who have challenged liberal orthodoxy have discovered before him, “Our colleges and universities have become places of intimidation for both students and faculty alike, and this fact represents a real existential threat to the health of both higher education and intellectual inquiry as an exercise.”
Protestors are also attempting to narrow the field of intellectual inquiry in new ways. Consider the following demands from the Sarah Lawrence protestors (emphasis in original): “Students of color should not be forced to resort to racist white professors in order to have access to their own history. It is crucial that the College offer courses taught about people of color by people of color so that students may engage in and produce meaningful work that represents them authentically.” Setting aside the question of how colleges are supposed to determine who is and who is not a “racist” professor, students also demanded that “the aforementioned classes must be taught by professors who are a part of the culture they are teaching about.”
In other words: if you’re a white professor who teaches African history, students at Sarah Lawrence believe you have nothing to teach them. (The protestors do not note whether the same standard applies if, say, an African-American professor wanted to teach a course on the European Enlightenment.)
These demands don’t start in college, either. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, a similar controversy over how some students were disciplined after a racial incident at the elite Bronx-based Ethical Culture Fieldston school escalated quickly. Angry students calling themselves Students of Color Matter barricaded themselves inside a school building “protesting what they said was a racist culture that Fieldston’s leaders had not done enough to reform” and demanding, among other things, a mandatory black studies course for all students.
Among their complaints? According to the Times, “The school is ‘really unwelcoming a lot of the time’ to students of color, Chassidy Titley, a 16-year-old junior, said. ‘We are often given obstacles where we are put into classes filled with only white teachers and white students.’ . . .”
Forty percent of Fieldston’s high school students are non-white (less than half of the lower school students are white), and yet, like the Sarah Lawrence protestors, students of color evidently view being taught by a teacher who is white as an “obstacle.” (Again, what about a teacher who is Asian or Latino? Would they pass the color test that students demand?)
This is especially odd given that Fieldston has been extremely vocal about its progressive curriculum, especially on race. A few years ago the school announced a “bolder, more radical” program than other private schools, one intended to teach children about racism from a young age. As New York magazine described:
It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means.
Students were sorted into racial groups and spent time talking about their racial identities, “disinhibited by the company of racially different peers.” Some parents who thought the program too reminiscent of segregation protested, fearful that the program “would introduce a victim mentality to some children who might not otherwise have dreamed of it–and, by extension, a sense of guilt to others.”
If the recent behavior of Fieldston’s high school student protestors is any guide, those fears have come to pass. Color-blindness used to be the goal that leaders of racial justice movements urged all Americans to try to achieve. Today, saying “I don’t see color” is taken as evidence of racism. If school administrators cave to the demands of this new generation of student protestors, teaching students of color while white will soon be as well.