by J. Nick Pitts
Previous generations’ college experiences were satirized by the film Animal House, but today’s college campus seems more a house of animals. While Animal House depicted college as continual party that promoted promiscuity and debauchery with little time for learning, today’s college experience seems more like a continual protest. These demonstrations are caused by a distrust in institutions, endemic to the millennial generation, and an overarching lack of historical understanding.
Last week, a mob attacked conservative author Charles Murray and a college professor as they left a campus building following an attempt at a lecture. Murray, known for his work “Coming Apart,” was invited to the campus to discuss the findings documented in his latest book. However, when Murray rose to speak, he was shouted down by the more than 400 students packed into the room. Many turned their backs to him and chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!”
Unable to speak, event organizers took him to a video studio in the same building to broadcast the event online, but protestors pulled fire alarms, which temporarily shut off power to the live stream. Exiting the building with Professor Allison Stanger, a group of protesters wearing bandanas attacked the group, pulling Stanger’s hair and injured her neck. Once Murray and Stanger got into the car, it was reported that protestors violently rocked the car, pounded on it and jumped on it to try to prevent it from leaving the campus.
From sea to shining sea, college campuses are morphing from humble places where young curiosity meets sage wisdom to haughty havens where snobbery and radical mistrust seek to upend these foundational institutions of the American experiment. One might expect such protests at such places like the University of California at Berkley, but the unrest ripples across the country, from Yale to the University of Missouri.
The protests demonstrate a lack of trust in institutions, but the broad accusations reveal a lack of historical understanding among millennials.
Millennials’ mistrust of institutions has been thoroughly documented and publicized. According polling by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 88 percent of millennials say they only “sometimes” or “never” trust the press. Eight-six percent of millennials express distrust with Wall Street. Seventy-four percent don’t trust public schools, and 50 percent say they trust the police to only sometimes or never to do the right thing.
This lack of trust is not limited to institutions but extends to individuals. Only 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted.
Millennials don’t trust institutions because institutions have failed millennials. In the too big to fail era, many millennials grew up in broken families, which are the bedrock institutions of any society. They entered a less than desired marketplace that resulted in a 51 percent underemployed young workforce. They were promised lucrative careers after going to college, but they were given significant student loan debts.
The lack of trust compels the protests, but the lack of historical understanding fuels the derogatory epithets and broad accusations. According to the Nation’s Report Card, only 12 percent of high school seniors are considered “proficient” in U.S. history. Millennials may be the most educated generation in the American experiment, but education does not equate to understanding.
According to one international report, millennials in the U.S. fall short when it comes to the skills employers want most: literacy (like the ability to follow instructions), practical math and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments.” Students increasingly cannot tell you what happened four score and seven years ago, but they can tell you what color “the dress” is. Without an understanding of history, and the context implicit within it, everyone turns into Hitler and everything is a civil rights issue.
The college campus is an incubator of new ideas, exercising free speech to question the past and consider the new. However, a Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of college students said they would be in favor of prohibiting “intentionally offensive” speech on campus. No word on who defines offensive. Forty-one percent of Americans 35 and under think “the First Amendment is dangerous.”
Intellectual curiosity is essential on the campus. But unfortunately, the millennial cat seeks to kill curiosity and replace it with conformity. The days of seem distant. Instead of Toga parties, there are protestors’ torches. But the words of Dean Wormer still apply: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
J. Nick Pitts is the director of cultural engagement at The Denison Forum on Truth and Culture.