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Our elite college graduates can emulate, but they lack the ability to be self-sufficient.
For ten years, I taught English at Yale University. People who went on to create novels, commit themselves to their faith, or simply tour the world for a few years were among my vibrant, quirky classmates. But I basically taught them how to be "great sheep," as one of them put it.
Technically, these students were outstanding. They were intelligent, motivated, and incredibly hardworking.
But they were also sheep, with a stunted sense of purpose, a meekness in waiting for direction, and a tendency to be nervous and lost.
This struck me so deeply—that our "best and brightest" students are frequently as helpless as children—that I decided to write a book about it. It was published in 2014, not long after my former colleague Nicholas Christakis was mobbed and browbeaten by a group of undergraduates for failing to make them feel safe and cared for—an early sign of the growth of what we now call wokeness.
I began to wonder how the two phenomena could be reconciled. Is wokeness, with its protestations and bravado, a new birth of independence and self-assertion, of countercultural revolution, a sign of the end of sheephood? It certainly sounded like it based on its radical-sounding sloganeering—about ripping down systems and eliminating anybody and anything considered improper.
However, all indicators point to the contrary. Overwhelmingly, elite college graduates continue to flock to the same five career paths: law, medicine, finance, consulting, and technology. High-achieving high school students, who are also aware, continue to flock to the same 12 or 20 schools, whose application numbers are increasing. For example, Yale got 50,000 applications this year, more than double the number received ten years ago, and just 4.5 percent were approved.
At work, I eventually noticed the deeper continuities. Excellent sheephood is a sort of conformity, similar to wokeness. As a buddy who works at a prestigious private university recently observed, if the youngsters who get into these schools are specialists at anything, it is "hacking the meritocracy," as he put it. The method is imitation: you imitate what the grownups you desire to be do. You do it if it means making woke-talk (in your college application; in class, so professors will like you).
Awakeness, on the other hand, has a deeper psychological meaning. Sheep herding is fundamentally competitive. Its goal is to catapult you into the ranks of society's winners, ensuring that you finish up with more stuff than most other people—more riches, position, power, access, comfort, and freedom. When you look at it straight in the eyes, this isn't a pretty endeavor. Being awake serves as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. The whole thing goes down a lot smoother if you can convince yourself that you're doing it to "make the world a better place" (the ubiquitous campus cliché).
All of this helps to explain the conspicuous lack of outrage over what appear to be obviously outrageous facts of life on campus these days: continuing increases to already sky-high tuition, insulting wages paid to adjunct professors, universities' investment in China (possibly the most problematic country on the planet), and draconian restrictions imposed during the pandemic.
Yes, there have been several protests in recent years under the banner of wokeness: against statues, speakers, emails about Halloween costumes, and dining hall banh mi, to name a few. Those, on the other hand, have been far from countercultural. Students have just expressed more radical versions of the viewpoints held by their elders. Indeed, of the perspectives that their elders have taught them: in the new religion-dominated private and posh public high schools, in gender studies, African-American studies, sociology, and English lit.
In that sense, the demonstrators have simply shown what excellent students they are. Which is why, for the most part, their institutions have responded with pats on the back. After the Christakis incident, two of the students who had most openly insulted the professor were granted medals when they graduated two years later (for "provid[ing] excellent leadership in promoting racial and/or ethnic relations at Yale College").
The truth is that modern university protests, like those of the 1960s, bore only a superficial resemblance to those of the 1960s. The latter showed a defiance of parental authority. They questioned the basic legitimacy of the organizations to which they were assigned and attempted to completely transform. They were performed by students who insisted on being recognized as adults, as equals, at a period when colleges and universities were still viewed as operating in loco parentis. Who turned their backs on the lifestyles that society had to offer. Who were involved in a self-authoring effort at great risk to their financial prospects and, in some cases, their bodily safety.
In 1985, I was a participant in anti-apartheid demonstrations at Columbia University. The activities had already taken on an air of surreality, of play, as if the scene were encircled by quotation marks. In other words, it was a form of reenactment. Student protest had become something of a ritual, something you knew you had to perform on your way to the things you'd already intended to do, such as traveling to Wall Street. It was evident that there would be no negative consequences for challenging the administration, and that no real risks would be taken. We blocked the front door of Hamilton Hall, the major college classroom structure, rather than occupying it as students did in 1968. The majority of students were able to get to their classes via the back door (including me and, I would venture to say, most of those who joined the protests). "We'll get Bs!" exclaimed our charismatic leader, assuring us and himself that we'd finish in time for finals (which is exactly what happened). The first time was as a tragedy, and the second time it was as a farce.
Since then, it's been the third, fourth, tenth, and fiftyth time. "There was always some authority they could seek justice from," Freddie deBoer said in a recent piece, referring to the young progressive elite who were "raised in secure and prosperous households by helicopter parents." In the age of woke, campus protests have taken this exact form: pleas to authority rather than resistance. Elite college students nowadays still think of themselves as children, and they are treated as such. The most famous scene from the Christakis incident, which was captured on film and eventually broadcast around the world, vividly depicts this. "It's not about creating an academic space!" shrieked a young woman (or, more accurately, a girl) at Christakis as the director of a residential college. It's not the case! Do you get what I'm saying? It's all about establishing a home!"
In fact, if not in law, we're back to in loco parentis. College is now considered the final stage of childhood, rather than the start of maturity. However, one of the dangers of viewing college as the final stage of childhood is that it very well may not be. The nature of woke demonstrations, the lack of Covid and other protests, and the entire problem of great sheephood all speak to the underlying dilemma of today's youth, which is that society has not provided them with any means of maturation—financially, psychologically, or ethically.
The issue, at least in regards to the last two, derives from the nature of the authority that the young are now confronted with, both parental and institutional. It's a power that doesn't believe in itself and doesn't believe in authority. That wants to be liked, to be your friend, to be considered cool. That will never draw a line; instead, it will always yield.
Children can't be children if adults aren't adults, and adults can't be children if children aren't children. They need something solid to lean on when they're young, and against which they can define themselves as they get older. Children become adults—autonomous individuals—by rebelling, rejecting, or, at the very least, proclaiming their independence from their parents. But how do you defy parents who consider themselves rebels? How do you reject them when they accept, understand, sympathize with, and join your rejection?
Authority was shattered in the 1960s, and it has never been mended. Adulthood was tarnished as a result, and adulthood has never recovered. Adult characteristics such as responsibility, maturity, self-sacrifice, and self-control are no longer appreciated or modeled. As a result, children are stuck: they want to grow up but don't know how. They want to grow up, yet it's easier to be a kid. They can only pretend to be adults, just like children.
So, this is my commencement address to the class of 2022. Prepackaged rebellions should be avoided; the protest march you're going to join could be a herd. Your parents aren't your pals, so be wary of anyone who pretends to be looking out for your best interests. Friends can become foes; as one of my friends once put it, the worst thing you can do to friends is not be the person they want you to be. Self-authorship is difficult. It isn't independence if it isn't uncomfortable. Childhood has come to an end. Dare to mature.