College English majors who feel silenced are the last thing we should worry about

Academia attracts oddballs the way basketball courts draw tall people. There’s really not a lot to be done about it.

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The University of Virginia.

The University of Virginia.

Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP

Breaking News: College liberal arts departments infiltrated by liberals. Engineering schools, not so much. Profs pompous; college kids self-righteous. If these strike you as major revelations, you may have what it takes be an editor at The New York Times, brow perennially furrowed for signs of leftist groupthink in the academy.

Recently, the Times sounded the alarm yet again, publishing an op-ed by University of Virginia senior Emma Camp, a columnist for the campus newspaper. Camp lamented that “my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity” to the point where “I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.” It’s a trendy complaint.

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Camp provides one specific example. “During a feminist theory class ... I said that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows.” For this implied offense against multiculturalism — never mind that this custom has been outlawed in India — Camp felt the classroom grow tense.

“I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry,” she wrote. “After the professor tried to move the discussion along, I still felt uneasy ... I was shaken, but also determined to not silence myself.”

And that’s it. From this, we are led to conclude that the University of Virginia has become a hotbed of “woke” political correctness where brave iconoclasm like Camp’s is virtually unknown.

Never mind that the author herself had written a column in 2020 urging classmates to confront their “racist” relatives over Thanksgiving dinner: “This holiday season,” she opined, “white progressives should not continue to favor their own comfort and familial peace over the tangible suffering of vulnerable people.”

Geez, I don’t know. Sounds a little woke to me.

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Look, she’s a college kid. Takes courses in “feminist theory” and expects ... well, what? Did her classmates defend ritual suicide? How? Camp doesn’t say. The professor? No clue. Where do they stand on 8-year-old brides? Female circumcision?

If I’d been Camp’s editor, I’d have written “Be specific” in the margin and demanded particulars. Without them, her complaints ring hollow.

Nevertheless, a mighty hubbub arose in the Times’ comments section and elsewhere, quite as if Camp had described a real-world problem and proposed radical change. In my experience, anything touching upon the practices and prerogatives of college faculty — who have a lot of time on their hands — will draw an impassioned response.

In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” written a generation ago, a New England professor uses the word “spooks” (as in “ghosts”) to describe two absent students he’s never seen. They turn out to be Black. Tragic folly ensues.

So it’s not as if we’ve never heard of academic intolerance. Indeed, I was present at the creation of political correctness. Back in the ‘70s, I found myself the object of a departmental investigation at a New England university for failing a Black student who’d done badly on the midterm, submitted no term paper and failed to show for the final.

Following my exoneration, a colleague commiserated that an “aristocratic Southerner” like me must find the school’s ethnic diversity challenging.

I am tall, not a big smiler and may have appeared aloof. Also, however, I’m an Irish Catholic from working-class Elizabeth, New Jersey, who’d gone to grade school with classmates from families where foreign languages — Yiddish, Italian, Polish and Russian — were spoken in the home.

A diversity expert who couldn’t spot an Irish guy in Massachusetts?

But I’d also attended U.Va. on a scholarship, which seemed to be what the investigation was all about. Seriously. At departmental gatherings, people patronized my “pretty little wife” to her face — accurate, but deliberately condescending. Academics only, I hasten to add. Ordinary New Englanders would ask Diane questions just to hear her Arkansas accent.

I decided to quit before they could fire me and ended up teaching more Black kids in Arkansas every semester than during three years in New England.

So my advice to contemporary students would be this: Avoid all courses in “theory” except in math or science. You’re just asking for politicized dogma of the kind that almost destroyed literary studies a generation ago. Academia attracts oddballs the way basketball courts draw tall people. There’s really not a lot to be done about it.

Except maybe to transfer to Virginia Tech or Texas A&M.

It’s a big country.

Meanwhile, author Camp resides in a state whose newly elected governor has set up a telephone tip line to report subversive schoolteachers. Churches in Texas are besieging librarians to banish books concerning race or sex. In Florida, armed truckers are blockading Disney World to protest its resistance to the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. School board members are getting death threats.

And we’re supposed to worry about U.Va. English majors? I don’t think so.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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