As someone who wrote a book on college pranks, I know that even the most respected institutions are swept with various fads and manias. The media note them, as curiosities, but it’s a mistake to put too much significance on goldfish swallowing or phone booth packing or the latest squishy academic oversensitivity.
Though that last realm does illustrate the schizophrenic quality of higher education. On one hand, they’re preparing students — supposedly — for the rough-and-tumble workforce, where trigger alerts and safe spaces seem like so many teething rings and sippy cups.
On the other, colleges have become carnivals of liberal ideology so rigid that it borders on a kind of oppression.
While it was bracing to see the University of Missouri football team wake up from the general anesthesia of sports and drive the president out, the protesters subsequent turning with a snarl against the poor student journalists trying to document their own Mizzou Tahrir Square was chilling. You must see that video of a crazed professor calling for “muscle” to drive out the reporters, lest they . . . I’m not sure what the harm was supposed to be. Make the students protesting in broad daylight in the middle of campus feel observed, I suppose. My wife called me over to watch the clip, and after I collected my jaw off the floor, I said, in a genuinely shocked little whisper: “Missouri used to be known for its great journalism school.”
Good luck washing that stain off, guys.
To make things worse, undergraduate media hostility is now a trend. Late last week, Chicago’s Loyola University was parroting the errors of Missouri, holding their own solidarity rally, complete with cordon of linked arms students keeping out the media. A stunning piece of hypocrisy since, a) they were exercising the same First Amendment rights they were denying others (for any freshmen reading this: The First Amendment, in the same breath, forbids “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) and b) if nobody noticed or covered their protest, they’d feel they were victims of a media conspiracy.
Since college students are free to vent what they feel about the media, it’s only fair that the media return the favor.
So allow me, based, not on biases absorbed from my parents along with my Maypo, but on actual experience, teaching college courses, including one at Loyola.
College kids don’t know anything. The average college student couldn’t find his butt with both hands and a map. I once taught a journalism course for the State University of New York’s Maritime College. At the end of the final exam, I prefaced the extra credit questions with, “A journalist should have a rough idea of what is going on in the world.” One question was: “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Communist super power remains. What is it?” Some students guessed “Cuba.” Others, “Iraq.” Some didn’t even hazard an attempt.
Eight years ago I taught a journalism course at Loyola. The class was on feature writing, and since the most basic feature is a profile, I asked 20 friends to volunteer as subjects, then paired each with a student. Successful individuals with complex, interesting, colorful lives, from Justice Anne Burke to Phyllis Smith, bartender at the Billy Goat.
So now I’m reading over the papers, and one profile, on auctioneer Leslie Hindman, suddenly changes in tone. “This is boilerplate,” I thought, “lifted from her auction house website.” It took 30 seconds to confirm the truth.
I called the student in. School policy said the woman could be expelled. Yet she was indignant, as if she were the victim. “I’m a single mother!” she exclaimed. “I need this degree.” Not that Loyola was ever going to actually expel her, and lose a customer. The dean suggested she just redo the paper, not swiping copy this time. But that deal wasn’t sweet enough, and she dropped the class and flounced off to find a more lenient professor who didn’t sweat trifles.
So Loyola students, a reminder. The media is watching you, yes, but they’re not the only ones. Putting your hand over a camera lens can actually bring you into sharp focus, and the picture it presents to the world isn’t pretty. The Millennial Generation is famous for one thing: craving praise while shrinking from criticism, just or not. It causes you trouble in the workplace. You can blame the media for that, but you really should be blaming yourselves. Everyone else does.