Edgar Rice Burroughs foresaw the situation at Evergreen State and other campuses. He described it in Tarzan Untamed, a 1919 novel in which the hero finds himself in the lost city of Xuja.
Xuja, hidden in a secret valley, cut off from the rest of the world, resembles the typical American campus today in that the Xujans are also given to occasional eruptions of insanity. A citizen might be walking down a street, conducting a rational conversation when he will be suddenly enraged (triggered, you might say). His eyes will go dull, enameled by some obscure idea, and he will assault a fellow Xujan, and beat him savagely.
The entire country feels like Xuja now—a circus of the Id. It’s not just the universities. Donald Trump is the President of Xuja. A hitherto respectable citizen of lesser rank (Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte, let’s say) will erupt in a mad fit and throw a reporter to the floor.
If Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist, it is not evident in the Xuja story: His villains in the tale—aside from the crazies in the lost city, who are sort of white, or something—were Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germans, who appear earlier in the story; they had been marauding in East Africa in the years just before Burroughs wrote the novel.
Too many American colleges — sometimes I think all of them — have become satellite campuses of the University of Xuja. They have aspects of the insane asylum (in which the patients are of course not responsible for their actions). Giving the matter a different emphasis, you might call them institutions of higher daycare.
Evergreen State is an especially vivid case because of the widely shared video in which students confront Professor Weinstein outside his classroom. Professor Weinstein is a professor of evolutionary biology; here we see him in dialogue with the adolescent reptilian brain. Amazing. The students are perfectly moronic in their virtue. Send the video over to the anthropology department. Jean Cocteau once wrote: “Stupidity is always amazing, no matter how often one encounters it.”
The Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution behaved in this fashion—banging through the institutions, humiliating their elders and now and then destroying a professor’s life’s work. Pol Pot’s youthful idealists did the same before they got down to the hard work of Cambodian genocide. This is human nature in its state of raw and most profound stupidity— murderous and yet astonishingly sentimental about itself. What could equal the chivalrous indignation of a Mississippi lynch mob assembled on a Saturday night in 1910 to vindicate the virtue of Southern Womanhood?
What’s at work in the campus eruptions is not virtue or social justice; it has nothing whatever to do with learning or knowledge or the life of the mind. It’s the other way around. These performances — a travesty of education — do not expand the mind, they devour it.
College authorities — a term of irony, a perverse oxymoron — are desperate for the approval of the children. That’s what is essentially wrong. The college sets up bouncy castles in the quad. They go over language and Halloween costumes with a fine-tooth comb, seeking not truth or knowledge or insight, but, rather, evidence of micro-aggressions. Brains shut down and become Play-Doh.
Yet, at the same time: they are given over to a permanent state of agitation – to hysteria. Learning to tend the fires and ceremonies of their grievances, they acquire plausible historical and ideological excuses for not studying — and indeed for not thinking. Ideology does the thinking. Some parents pay something in the high five figures for four years to have their sons’ and daughters’ minds systematically disabled. Pre-frontal lobotomy would be cheaper.
The Evergreen president’s message to his students — after they had assaulted one of his professors and demanded the destruction of that honest man’s career and livelihood, on grounds of an imagined ideological slight — was a masterpiece of the sniveling and craven. Although Evergreen President George Bridges announced that progressive professor Bret Weinstein wouldn’t be suspended, Bridges said that he would comply with the long list of demands brought by the students, whom he called “courageous.”
University presidents in the twenty-first century have perfected this form of self-abasement. It is one of their tools of survival.
The sane response at Evergreen, Middlebury, Yale and elsewhere would be to expel the students involved: Not to warn them, not to counsel them, not to suspend them, but to expel them. In no other way will the virus be brought under control. At Yale, angry students who abused and threatened the husband and wife professors drew no punishment, but the innocent professors were driven from the campus as the students demanded, and the president of the university took no action.
A good education, ardently pursued, would go a long way to curing crises of identity and to composing differences. But those presiding over the ideologies have no wish to cure; the point is to use the crises and to inflame them.
In loco parentis, indeed. The elders (so many of them veterans of the Long March of the nineteen sixties, now holding the presidencies and chancellorships and tenured professorships) busy themselves at making the young as fatuous — as intellectually lifeless — as themselves, bundled up in the neurotic vocabularies of Caring. It is an ignoble business.
Self-confidently virtuous students and college presidents might take a few hours to study Robert Jay Lifton’s extraordinary 1986 book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, which has just been reissued in paperback.
A quote: “As Bavarian professors were told by their new minister of culture: ‘From now on, it will not be your job to determine whether something is true, but whether it is in the spirit of National Socialist Revolution.’”
Of course, zealous American students and educators claim that they are, quite precisely, fighting Nazis. If so, they should be more careful not to imitate them. They should look in the mirror, and then look a second time, and a third, and try to see how, with an entirely different eye from theirs, history will see them.
What is at stake is not students’ racial, ethnic, or gender identity. Such issues, believe it or not, are transient. The twenty-first century is moving on at the speed of light and has far more serious business in mind.
As for the universities, their very reason for being is at stake. Right now, it seems to me that they are in the active process of trying to destroy themselves.
Lance Morrow, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing a book about Henry Luce and the 20th Century.