It’s that time of year again: Campus Week at Tablet. The quads and survey classes have filled up with students back for another year of studying, struggle sessions, boozing, and self-discovery. The professors are back to worrying about tenure, lecture notes, and parking spaces. And some of them are thinking, too, of how not to become the object of their student’s passions, this year’s oppressor hung up in effigy.
Every day we’ll be publishing stories on the university scene, examining Jewish life on campus, academic controversies, protest culture, safe spaces, and the state of higher education.
There is no one story to tell that can sum up the state of the campus. Universities play a number of roles in American life: they are where specialized forms of knowledge like engineering get accredited. They put some students into long-term debt and socializes others for membership in the country’s elite. They’re where the boundaries of legitimate inquiry get worked out. Meanwhile, the link between elite universities and dominant cultural and media narratives has never been clearer. Yesterday’s academic theories on race, gender, power, and sexuality quickly become fodder for news “content” and the basis of underlying editorial assumptions. At the same time, the campus provides a constant source of interest and profitable outrage for right-wing media eager to stoke the same student radicalism that it decries as a sign of imminent civilizational collapse.
All the while, as parents know, college keeps getting more expensive. A strange new mode of college life has emerged over the past decades. It’s a kind of hybrid model, where universities offer lifestyle amenities to their student customer base, like luxury dorms, and dining halls, to justify ever-increasing costs, while, at the same time, loosening standards of academic rigor.
We’re stopping to take stock because we know that the current trends on campus will soon enough inform the mainstream of American life. The demonization of Israel through the BDS movement, the recasting of Jews as bearers of white privilege, and the resurgence of right-wing anti-Semitism on campuses—these are all worth paying attention to but they’re not the whole story. There are more hopeful signs as well, like the University of Michigan standing up both for academic freedom and its Jewish student body after two professors recently rescinded their offers to write letters of recommendation for students planning to study in Israel.
Here it is, the good the bad and the ugly. A window, through the campus into the future of American social and political life.
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.