To the Class of 2014

Oh, my! Cannot believe that former Princeton President William Bowen ‘unloaded’ quite ‘this bad’.
To the Class of 2014 [Commencement address at Haverford, May 18, 2014 ]
WSJ_May 19, 2014 7:30 p.m. ET

Dear Class of 2014:

Allow me to be the first to offend you, baldly and unapologetically. Here you are, 22 or so years on planet Earth, and your entire lives have been one long episode of offense-avoidance. This spotless record has now culminated in your refusals to listen to commencement speakers whose mature convictions and experiences might offend your convictions and experiences, or what passes for them.  Modern education has done its work well: In you, Class of 2014, the coward soul has filled the void left by the blank mind.

When I last delivered a commencement address via column to the Class of 2012, I complained about the dismaying inverse relationship between that class’s self-regard and its command of basic facts. This led to one cascade of angry letters, blog posts and college newspaper columns from the under-25 set—and another cascade of appreciative letters from their parents, professors and employers.

Of the former, my favorite came from a 2012 graduate of an elite Virginia college, who wrote me to say that “America has a hefty appetite for BS, and I’m ready and willing to deliver on that demand.” I gave him points for boldness and cheekily wrote back asking if we might consider his letter for publication. The bravado vanished; he demurred.

Well, Class of 2012, I did you a (small) injustice. At least the pretense of knowledgeability was important to you. For the Class of 2014, it seems that inviolable ignorance is the only true bliss.

It’s not just the burgeoning list of rescinded invitations to potentially offensive commencement speakers: Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis, Condi Rice at Rutgers, Christine Lagarde at Smith and Robert Birgeneau at Haverford.

In February, students at Dartmouth issued a list of 72 demands for “transformative justice.” Among them: “mandate sensitivity training”; “organize continuous external reviews of the College’s structural racism, classism, ableism, sexism and heterosexism”; and “create a policy banning the Indian mascot.” When the demands weren’t automatically met, the students seized an administration building.

At Brown, a Facebook FB +0.05% page is devoted to the subject of “Micro/Aggressions,” a growth area in the grievance industry. Example of a micro-aggression: “As a dark-skinned Black person, I feel alienated from social justice spaces or conversations about institutional racism here at Brown when non-Black people of color say things like ‘let’s move away from the White-Black binary.’ ”

And then there are “trigger warnings.” In Saturday’s New York Times, NYT +0.41% Jennifer Medina reports that students and like-minded faculty are demanding warnings on study material that trigger “symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” was cited by one faculty document at Oberlin as a novel that could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

Similar Tipper Gore -type efforts are under way at UC Santa Barbara, George Washington University and other second- and third-tier schools. Did I just offend some readers by saying that? Sorry, but it’s true. Any student who demands—and gets—emotional pampering from his university needs to pay a commensurate price in intellectual derision. College was once about preparing boys and girls to become men and women, not least through a process of desensitization to discomfiting ideas. Now it’s just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten. Maybe Oberlin can start offering courses in Sharing Is Caring. Students can read “The Gruffalo” with trigger warnings that it potentially stigmatizes people with hairy backs.

This is the bind you find yourselves in, Class of 2014: No society, not even one that cossets the young as much as ours does, can treat you as children forever. A central teaching of Genesis is that knowledge is purchased at the expense of innocence. A core teaching of the ancients is that personal dignity is obtained through habituation to virtue. And at least one basic teaching of true liberalism is that the essential right of free people is the right to offend, and an essential responsibility of free people is to learn how to cope with being offended.

I’ll grant you this: It’s not all your fault. The semi- and post-literates who overran the humanities departments at most universities long before I ever set foot in college are the main culprits here. Then again, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out what it takes to live in a free country. The ideological brainwashing that takes place on campus isn’t (yet) coercive. Mainly, it’s just onanistic.

There’s good news in that. You can still take charge of your education, and of your lives. The cocoon years are over; the micro-aggressions are about to pour down.

Deal with it. Revel in it. No consequential idea ever failed to offend someone; no consequential person was ever spared great offense. Those of you who want to lead meaningful lives need to begin unlearning most of what you’ve been taught, starting right now.

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To the Class of 2014 –


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