WHO ARE college newspapers’ most avid readers? Judging by their comment sections, it’s not college students. From the Stanford Daily to the Harvard Crimson, from the Daily Californian to the Yale Daily News, we see comments from off-campus right-wingers all over. They range from the informal to the erudite; from the funny jab to the disgusting insult; from the cliché of the young troll to the diatribe of the concerned boomer—and there are a lot of them.
Some commenters write one-offs, but many are regulars. Last year, a certain “Mr. Jones” contributed to the Daily almost every day. His corpus included “your opinion is pathetic and sad,” “liberal guilt on display here,” “seems like these youngsters have too much time on their hands,” and attacks on Chanel Miller that the Daily staff should have taken the time to remove. Meanwhile, the likes of “Anonymous_Bosh” focused on Yale and Harvard, where they took the time to produce such gems as: “Children. Ignorant,” or, “These are very…VERY dumb people.”
To some extent, this isn’t surprising—in our current political climate, it’s easy to find conservatives trying to “trigger the libs” wherever they can. But there seems to be something special about right-wingers’ fascination with tarnishing universities’ reputations. Beyond the snarky comments, this fixation has given birth to books, pamphlets, reports, presidential tweets, and the contrarian-conservative-speaker industry.
The right’s attacks against college students aren’t really anything new. In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California partly on the promise to end Berkeley’s acid-fueled parties and left-wing activism. With his talk of “filthy speech” and “sexual orgies,” Reagan pitted an older generation against the sixties’ counterculture. And once elected, he didn’t think twice before arresting Angela Davis or brutally cracking down on students. Reagan succeeded because social conservatives were indeed the majority back then––be it in academia, government or business––which made them confident that everyone else should conform to their beliefs. Of course communists shouldn’t teach; of course you had to support the Vietnam War.
Fifty years later, liberals have won the culture wars, and the university’s detractors seem to have lost their old confidence. When a commenter picks on a “Yalie” for a misspelling, points out a logical inconsistency in a Harvard activist’s slogan, or accuses “Stanford geniuses” of “not knowing what they’re talking about,” it’s almost as though they are trying to convince themselves that they can outwit a college student. When they cheer at Dinesh D’Souza or Ben Shapiro’s talking points, they relish the sight—or at least the idea—of college students being outsmarted. When they buy a book written by a 60-year-old with a JD nitpicking at nineteen-year-olds’ activism, they are trying to prove to themselves that college students aren’t perfect.
And the truth is: it’s not that hard to criticize us. We can bungle protest tactics, we can misjudge government policies, and yes, we can even misspell. We’re not that smart. Yet universities like Stanford have been associated with excellence to such an extent that for some, we students can seem almost superhuman. That’s why conservatives are so adamant about attacking college students: their provocations are fundamentally about debunking the idea that we are better than the rest. Because if we’re not, why should our opinions matter?
It is ironic that conservatives—the guys who historically cheered for elitism—have become the standard-bearers for skepticism toward the intellectual elite. But this is hardly surprising, given college-educated liberals’ widespread belief that they really are the best and brightest. Stanford students are taught that they can “use technology to take action and collaborate on the world’s most pressing problems”; that their smarts will “change the world;” that their “public service” will go farther than the usual charity. An Economics syllabus this year has gone so far as to compare students to the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender: “Although you’re super smart and talented, you’ve got a lot to learn before you’re ready to save anyone. But we believe you can save the world!”
Faced with this brand of condescension, the American right’s anti-elitist sentiments toward left-leaning colleges is far from illegitimate—its illegitimacy lies in its bigotry, its Trumpian insults, and the politics of racial resentment. In response, the left should embrace its own anti-elitism: one that stands for tolerance, justice, and, well, actually undermining elitism.
Let’s end legacy admissions. Let’s admit anyone who is qualified to attend a university, instead of selecting students through a process laden with class bias. Let’s give university resources to the underprivileged directly, rather than handing out grants for college students to “grow” while “helping” them. If we succeed, we might even see fewer snarky comments in the Daily.
Daniel “Bob” Ferreira
Image credit: Rodrigo Leonardo Batista Ferreira (Threadless)