January 6, 2016

January 6, 2016 | Commentary on

Triggering Decline

This summer, some Columbia University students demanded a ban on Greek and Roman poetry at the Ivy League school. In November, an undercover reporter showed the willingness of Yale, Cornell, and Vassar College administrators literally to shred the U.S. Constitution if students complained that it “triggered” them. Disguising derision as idealism, the postmodern campus aggrievement industry aims to introduce a new standard of wisdom: judging the highest achievements of human knowledge by the unreasoned, spontaneous feelings of uncultivated minds.

To be “triggered” means to have a feeling, an immediate sensation of repulsion culminating in aggrievement. The aggrieved seek flattery, but by making feeling the sovereign standard of judgment, the trigger doctrine actively denies the existence of wisdom higher than individual sensation. Unjustified feeling becomes the standard of rule. Such doctrines are infectious because, as the Athenian Stranger says in Plato’s Laws, they make believe that “everyone is wise in everything.” Everyone has feelings and therefore everyone has a claim to wisdom.

Examples of using feeling as an erroneous standard abound. Beginning in the 1960s, feeling became our guide for understanding love and marriage. By confusing the power of immediate feeling with proper judgment of the spouses’ virtues of character, marriage was transformed into an institution justified by intensity of feeling alone. But, if feeling justifies the marriage, feeling’s dissipation dissolves it—and feelings often change.

Grave consequence for education and the university await those who elevate the unreasoned perspective of aggrievement. Little imagination is required to see that giving equal weight to knowledge and untutored feeling undermines the possibility of education itself. The standard of feeling presumes that human beings do not require perfecting. Feelings have the appearance of purity. They purport to be sincere and authentic; as such, they need not be clarified or contradicted by reason. Feelings appear to be self-contained, incontrovertible revelations. But education presumes that minds are imperfect—that they are distorted by various admixtures of opinions, passions, and images and in need of correction.

Genuine education aims to destroy false feelings of self-importance, while creating doubt about ideas and doctrines that distort the mind. Feelings tell us that there is nothing to learn. Intellectual authorities worthy of reverence and imitation don’t exist. For philosophers like John Locke, education was liberation from prejudice. The modern university, by contrast, too often flatters and protects prejudice. Gaining and preserving wisdom takes a back seat to the creation of safe-spaces—shelters, in other words, for prejudice, not from it.

It’s no wonder that as the traditional understanding of education disappears, professor and university administrators become powerless against angry students ruling like mobs. The officials have no courage to defend the university because they no longer understand its purpose. Year after year, they will be forced to submit further and further to students’ untutored demands. Students, in turn, will become more radical as they feel their power grow.

The ancient poetry that Columbia wants to eradicate, and the modern political philosophy that Yale, Cornell, and Vassar want to shred, teach readers how civilizations are founded and preserved, and give lessons in human folly with a view to correcting the mind’s errors. Insolence and impudence rules when a 20-year-old’s feelings are considered superior to the wisdom of genuinely venerable sources.

Arthur Milikh is assistant director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

This piece originally appeared in City Journal

About the Author

Arthur Milikh Associate Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics