America's hypersensitive college culture could benefit from Trump

Story highlights

  • Mark Bauerlein says his campus colleagues view President-elect Donald Trump with dread
  • Trump can do a lot to de-emphasize the role of identity politics in higher education, Bauerlein says

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal "First Things" and author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)As day follows day and January 20 approaches, my colleagues and students experience something along the lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 60: "Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end." As far as they're concerned, the ascent of Donald Trump spells D-O-O-M.

Mark Bauerlein
It is easy to understand why they believe it. Professors and administrators at the best universities in the land have gone so deeply into identity politics that they can only regard him as an atavistic clod. They have raised the ordinary frictions of daily affairs into a melodrama of microaggression, heteronormativity, and ableism, and Trump won't respect the new rules. They create safe spaces for all — my university library brought dogs in before finals so students might drop by, cuddle, and de-stress — and now every presidential tweet and interview promises to despoil those spaces.
Which only proves the necessity of a blunt, outspoken chief executive in America 2017. These academic grumblings don't prove the moral scruples of campus dwellers. They show that something is profoundly wrong with the American college.
    Hypersensitivity is out of control. Nobody wants to provoke others, so everyone carries an invisible trigger-meter. I see it in my students' eyes when anything about race, sexuality or politics comes up. A flicker of fear crosses their faces. You can imagine the silent calculation in their heads that tells them to stay silent.
    This is a civic plight, and it's contrary to the wide-open American spirit of free expression and tolerance. Our national poet Walt Whitman sensed the genius of the nation in the banter and repartee of the working class — "the blab of the pave," he called it — and it included rough slang and raucous jokes. He would find the language of higher education today repressed and bureaucratic.
    The personal bearing of Donald Trump is a direct challenge to this timidity. He must realize that people flocked to his rallies because there, for an exhilarating hour, they escaped from the pressures of political correctness and white guilt, male guilt, American guilt, and Christian guilt. The contrast between those rollicking crowds and the dour atmosphere on the quad was stark.
    President Trump could serve the country well by exploding this climate of caution and hurt. Recognizing that sensitivity is charted on racial and sexual differences, the new administration should attack school policies that aggravate them.
    For instance, are colleges practicing preferential admissions that exceed what the Supreme Court allowed in Fisher v. University of Texas? They should be warned in a so-called "Dear Colleague" letter — an official advisory statement from the government — that sharpens the line between legal and illegal decision-making.
    And are colleges designing biased proceedings with low standards of due process when they handle allegations of harassment and assault? Another Dear Colleague letter should restore the burden of proof to "clear and convincing," not preponderance of evidence (which is what the Obama administration lowered it to).
    These actions would tell colleges they must draw down on racial and sexual testiness, along with the offense-taking that follows from them. Administrators would get the message that if they ask students to distinguish more clearly genuine cases of harassment from the occasional annoying, offensive acts that pop up in every free society, the federal government won't rebuke them.
    Also, there is an educational policy the Trump administration could set that would lower sensitivities and raise academic standards, too. In September 2015, the Obama administration unveiled the College Scorecard, an online tool containing data on thousands of higher ed institutions. The scorecard profiles schools on numerous points including cost, retention rate, student body demographics and available areas of study.
    But the essential duty of college is missing: how much students learn from matriculation to graduation. It should be included, and here's how: The Trump Department of Education can insert into the scorecard results taken from a test of thinking and communication skills called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Currently at more than 700 institutions, students sit for the test at the beginning and the end of their undergraduate careers. Comparing those scores, college leaders measure the "value-added" impact of their schools. At some places, growth in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and problem solving is high, at others almost nonexistent.
    With this academic variable placed alongside financial and demographic information in the College Scorecard, colleges will be encouraged to create a campus more open to debate, free speech, ideological diversity, and the inevitable irritations of an open society. Sensitivity does the opposite. It's anti-intellectual.
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    People who constantly have their radar attuned to slights don't fare well on critical thinking, but youths learning in rousingly diverse environments do. With the federal government broadcasting those outcomes, more schools will prize a boisterous intellectual forensic and reduce the emotionalism.
    Colleges compete with one another strenuously, and we can be sure that if Vanderbilt students show more academic growth than Emory's do, Vandy will spread the news and Emory will strive to catch up.
    The election of Donald Trump is a stinging reversal of the identity politics that academics believed had become a permanent and proper feature of the United States. It is one reason he won. He should direct that plank straight at the sphere in which identity-sensitivity has been indulged and amplified into the quite illiberal persuasion that it now is.