Teaching Paranoia: An Open Letter to Every University President
Dear University Presidents:
We all know that higher education falls far short of its promise. I’ve spent a large part of my twenty five years as a research professor documenting the shortcomings of our system. Perhaps you’re even familiar with my The Case Against Education (Princeton University Press, 2018). In recent years, however, we’ve begun failing our students in new and improved ways. In the past, we failed to transform our students into thoughtful and knowledgeable adults, but at least most of them had a great four-year party (or often a five- or six-year party). Now we’re making the college experience itself actively dehumanizing.
This is most obvious when we look at our forever war on Covid. Virtually every college in America has a vaccine mandate – a wise move, in my view. Yet instead of using these amazing vaccines to return to normalcy, virtually every college in America continues to aggressively “fight Covid.” Our policies would have been unthinkable two years ago: Indoor mask mandates. 50% seating in dining halls. Excluding guests from live performances. Social distancing. All combined with sporadic yet self-righteous enforcement.
These policies aren’t merely “inconvenient.” They are dehumanizing. Showing other people how we feel – and seeing how they feel in turn – is a basic part of being a human being. A basic part of making friends. A basic part of connecting with a community. True, most students in the Covid era continue to make friends – and even smile on occasion. As Jurassic Park teaches us, “Life finds a way.” But this is still a stunted and twisted way for young people to live.
Sometimes, sadly, dehumanization is the price we pay to survive. But this is not one of those times. Even pre-vaccine, universities absurdly overreacted to Covid. Now that virtually everyone on campus has the vaccine, the overreaction is absurdly absurd. A conservative estimate of Covid’s Infection Fatality Rate is .6%. For the college-age, divide that risk by 30. For the vaccinated, divide by 10 again. That means we’re talking 1-in-50,000, assuming a student even gets infected. And of course, vaccines also greatly reduce infection and hence contagion.
I beg you, don’t reply with the fashionable preamble, “Out of an abundance of caution…” Life is full of trade-offs. Americans’ annual risk of dying in a car accident is roughly 1-in-9000, yet I doubt you would ban students from driving. Similarly, please don’t start telling me about high-risk students and older members of our campus community. I am an “older member of our campus community,” and I know the risks. That’s why I got vaccinated as soon as possible. That’s enough to put my mind at ease; I face dozens of more serious risks every day. But if that’s not safe enough for me, then I, not an entire generation of students, should bear the burden of isolation.
You could insist that we have a fundamental difference of values. I’m a pluralist, while you put safety first. Actions, however, speak louder than words, and your actions clearly show that you do not “put safety first.” If you really put safety first, why not move all classes outside? Why have any social events at all? Indeed, if you really put safety first, why did you re-open campus in the first place? Despite your pious rhetoric, you don’t put safety first any more than I do.
Frankly, I’m not even sure that you care more than me about safety. Why would I doubt your stated priorities? Because both your Covid rules and your Covid enforcement are so arbitrary. You enforce your mask rules fanatically, often refusing lecturers the right to remove their masks so their audience can hear them. Yet you’ve long since abandoned any effort to enforce social distancing. If it weren’t for the ubiquitous propaganda, you’d think that social distancing policies were abolished a year ago. Similarly, you “fight Covid” by getting rid of self-service at buffets, ignoring all the extra crowding that ensues as a result. You deny parents the chance to see their own kids perform in concert, but don’t even ask students to avoid live music off-campus. Frankly, you seem far more concerned with “doing something” than actually making campus safe.
How much do all your efforts actually reduce the spread of Covid? Unless your campus is extremely isolated, it would be amazing if you were cutting transmission more than 10%. Which means you’re dramatically reducing students’ quality of life in order to reduce fatality risk if infected by 1-in-500,000.
We have a word for extreme fear of ultra-low risks. The word is “paranoia.” Paranoia is what you are teaching students. The good news is that, based on past educational experience, most students will eventually forget the lesson. Yet in the meanwhile, you are sickening many students with childish anxieties.
Nor is Covid the only issue where you are teaching paranoia. Many schools – and probably most of the top ones – now kick off the academic year with a long series of mandatory brainwashing sessions. You gather students together, then have your most fanatical employees preach against the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and much more. As with Covid, you show near-zero interest in measuring (a) the on-campus prevalence of these ills, or (b) the effectiveness of your inhumane remedies. Instead, the brainwashing sessions just try to sow as much pessimism as possible.
I doubt that most of this matters much; preaching against “racism” at college is like preaching against “sin” at church. The people who need to hear the message are rarely in the audience. Nevertheless, there is one kind of brainwashing that probably does make a difference. For the worse.
I’m talking about your training in sexual harassment and sexual assault.
How can I say such a thing? Because most young adults are naturally shy around the opposite sex. Many if not most female students are so shy that they will never ask out a male student. Many if not most male students are so shy that they have to spend weeks or months “working up their courage” to propose a date. Social anxiety toward the opposite sex is a human universal, visible around the world and throughout history. And what does your training in sexual harassment and sexual assault do? Strive to maximize students’ anxiety. You try to convince female students that virtually any male is a plausible sexual predator. And along the way, you make male students wonder if any social interaction with their female peers will be labelled “harassment” or even “assault.”
None of this means that higher education should take sexual violence lightly. The wise path, however, is to define sexual violence narrowly – and punish it harshly. To treat it as an easily-identifiable aberration, a clear-cut crime, not something that an unbrainwashed person might do by accident.
Instead, you’ve taken the opposite path, of sowing paranoia. And, though your brainwashing is only one small part of a sad Zeitgeist, the patterns are what you’d expect: High gender segregation, loneliness, and lovelessness. Yes, extraverts land on their feet, but when I look at college campuses today, I feel sorry for the silent majority of shy kids. In the past, they only had to worry about being ignored and rejected. Now they have the added burden of paranoid fears of being victimized and demonized. And if you protest, “Such problems are unlikely,” you’re telling the wrong person. The people who need to hear that “Such problems are unlikely” are the students that you’re scaring to death.
Or better yet, stop trying to terrify them in the first place.
I realize, of course, that you didn’t reach the apex of the academic pyramid by defying the academic consensus. As a tenured professor, I have the luxury of speaking my mind, secure in the knowledge that I won’t lose my job. To become a university president, in contrast, you had to play ball, to compromise, to go along to get along.
Still, the key word here is “become.” Now that you are the university president, you are clothed in immense power. You have the power to return your campus to normalcy. You have the power to end mandatory brainwashing. You have the power to draw a bright line between criminal violence and normal human misunderstandings. Admittedly, your power is neither absolute nor permanent. You are more likely to keep your job if you go with the flow. But where is the honor or fun in that? Take a stand. Stick your neck out. And give your students a college experience they will remember with nostalgia, not disgust.
Department of Economics
George Mason University