Deja Vu on Campus?

Edna St. Vincent-Millay is reported to have quipped that history isn’t one damn thing after another—it’s the same damn thing over and over again. I’ve never verified this quotation, but in any case it seems congruent with Yogi Berra’s similar quip about “déjà vu all over again.”

I say this because lately I’ve been reading some old essays from the late John P. Roche, who taught for years at Brandeis University and later at Tufts. I talked about Roche recently in another post, but I just got another collection of his old essays, Sentenced to Life. To remind everyone, Roche was one of those old-school Cold War anti-Communist liberals, cofounder of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, and also a senior adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Although he was a partisan Democrat his entire life, in the 1980s he not only began to say nice things about Ronald Reagan, but he even started writing features for National Review. A classic is his 1985 cover story, “The Demise of Liberal Internationalism,” which I can’t seem to find online anywhere. (Note to NR: why have you made your archival material so inaccessible?)

Roche was back in academia in the late 1960s when the campuses first started melting down, and he wrote a couple of sparkling essays on what was behind the leftism of students and faculty. One of them is “The Rebellion of the Clerks,” published in The New Leader in 1969. See if this doesn’t describe exactly the temper of campuses today—in other words, what we’re seeing today is simply a sequel to the rot that set in on campus back in the 1960s:

I submit that the main demands of the student activists are not directed at the war in Vietnam, the “military-industrial complex,” the universities or even directly their parents. Their indictment runs against the very nature of our society, and not because it is “racist” or “militarist.” At root they object to egalitarianism, to the institutions of a mass society in which they are not accorded the status that believe their intelligence, sensitivity, and sincerity merit. In short, we are faced with a new medievalism—a demand that students be given special status resembling that of the “clerks” in 14th century Europe.

In discussing the nature of “black studies” departments, which were just getting started when he was writing, Roche was bracing in a manner that might well get him fired today:

Recognizing the educational disadvantages they have suffered, they want to establish a sanctuary on campus that will make it possible for them to compete with better-trained whites. The idea of a school or department of “black studies” run by them exactly fits the bill, since it could presumably grant degrees without interference from “white cultural imperialism.” It is, in fact, a brilliant improvisation, and the man who thought it up deserves an honorary degree in politics.

The substantive curricula that I have seen for black studies strikes me as consisting largely of intellectualized, xenophobic inventions. Parochial school textbooks in math used to have problems like, “If seven nuns are walking down the street, and two leave to make a novena, how many nuns are still walking?” A course in “black statistics” could inquire, “If fifteen panthers are busted by the Man and three escape, what percentage got away?” Maybe this would enliven the course and make it relevant, but I doubt it. On the other hand, when I look around at all the nonsense that is currently taught on American campuses, I really cannot get worked up over a fractional increase. . .

I insist at the same time, however, that this department be a regular academic organization, run by the rules governing the university faculty, not an independent black barony. Whatever our collective historical debt to the Negro may be, a university should not try to pay it off by undermining the educational integrity of the institution in sponsoring what amounts to an ethnic insurgency training center.

They don’t make liberals like this any more. Which brings me to my last excerpt from his essay:

This brings me to my final proposition, which relates to the broad societal consequences of student disorder. I doubt if anything has served to strengthen the Right side of the American political spectrum as much as the various campus riots. An overwhelming majority of the people is not just concerned—it is infuriated (the Gallup poll is enough to scare you to death). The students involved go merrily on their way in the conviction that they are going to destroy American society. Yet they are dabbling in catastrophe politics, and the catastrophe is likely not only to engulf them but to seriously damage the foundations of higher education in this country. I am not talking about “fascism” or a police state. All that is required are cutbacks in state and federal educational funding. . .

Which is in fact starting to take place in many states. Anyway, I may just have to start a regular series of observations from Roche. He wrote with an unusual clarity about everything.

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