In April 2001, David Brooks penned “The Organization Kid,” an Atlantic cover story which examined the traits of students at Princeton University. Brooks concluded that the students of Princeton and other elite universities were “extraordinarily bright, morally earnest and incredibly industrious.” Moreover, these students in college at the beginning of a new millennium were unlike preceding generations in that “they felt no compelling need to rebel” or “emancipate themselves from the past” through protests or social movements; they were incredibly deferential to authority and content with the world in which they were living.
One needs merely to scan recent news headlines to understand how starkly campus culture has changed in the nearly 15 years since Brooks’ article. From the protests at Yale over systemic racial oppression, to calls at Princeton that the University dissociate itself from its most famous alum and administrator, Woodrow Wilson, to sit-ins at MIT and Stanford demanding fossil fuel divestment, students at elite colleges are increasingly eager to voice their displeasure at perceived injustices and to demand action against the most pressing challenges facing our generation.
But it would be facile to claim that through these protests, college students of today are emulating wholesale students of the 1960s and ’70s, who left a profound legacy through fervent anti-Vietnam War rallies and movements in support of free speech and civil rights. As Lenny Siegel, a leader of many of the Stanford student uprisings of the 1960s, stated, activists were intellectually tolerant people who believed that change could only come through “free thought, free discussion and free debate.”
This philosophy is in marked contrast to the views of advocates today. Protestors at the University of Missouri would not allow debates in their encampments or even for journalists to photograph their protests, because such moves represented the infringement of the “white media” and political class on “black spaces.” And Yale students staging a walk-out of a lecture spat on other attendees.
Such intolerance is paradoxical. College students of today have grown up in a more interconnected, globalized world than ever before and elite colleges have become more diverse than ever, accepting more students from international backgrounds and of differing socioeconomic statuses while breaking their mold as stomping grounds for WASPy aristocrats. Why then have they become so intolerant of other viewpoints?
One potential answer comes from examining the world in which our generation grew up. We have seen the limits of American power from the failed intervention in Iraq to the Great Recession. As a result, we are less nationalistic than practically any generation: while 81 percent of the Silent Generation (born between the 1920s and 40s) loves America, a mere 58 percent of millennials express the same sentiments. Our generation appears to be more convinced by the cynicism of Howard Zinn than by the paeans of Manifest Destiny.
Indeed, our generation — the most diverse in American history — has replaced the philosophy of nationalism with a reverence for political correctness, replete with continual discussions of micro aggressions and trigger warnings. As the liberal columnist Jonathan Chait has articulated, this wave of political correctness is “completely intolerant of dissent.”
Protests and the freedom of assembly are designed to enhance speech, not quash it. If protest movements seek to demonize instead of engage divergent perspectives and viewpoints, they can be no better than the systems they seek to supplant.
Contact Kiran Sridhar at kirsrid ‘at’ gmail.com.