The members of the Class of 2020 know now who they are, or soon will be. They've made the final choice of what college they'll attend, they've sent off their deposits, and now they're wondering what their next chapter of life will be like.
These young men and women are about to enter the last chapter of childhood, though they probably won't see it that way until they're nostalgically looking back in memoir, song or movie. Their parents, naturally, have a different perspective. They're fretting over their children's immediate future, concerned that the digital distractions of social media will intrude on their studies. This is the generation of young adults who can't make eye contact with others because they're always staring at a tiny screen to communicate. That doesn't exactly make for an intimate connection.
Most high-school graduates, if they're honest with themselves, are a little frightened in anticipation of the next step, but it's not hip to say so. They're supposed to feel liberated and happy. Feelings of disconnect are not an option when they're tuned in to a multitude of electronic devices.
It's too bad, because those attending prestigious universities, where tuition with room and board can cost as much as $60,000 a year (or more), will confront corresponding academic pressures. They're heading into a confusing world where grades are fiercely competitive and prospective jobs are scarce. The dogmas of the politically correct shut down debate, and ideology fills the personal void. Safe spaces and protests against freedom of speech flourish on many campuses, and nonconformists have a hard time standing up to campus ideologues.
The Class of 2020 thinks it's more sophisticated than the classes that came before it — so has it ever been — but these students nevertheless share many of the sensitivities and vulnerabilities confronted by generations before them. The gizmos and devices of their high-tech world enable them to ignore a certain portion of the real world, but they're as immature as their parents and grandparents were at their age, and they'll need the intellectual guidance that college students of generations before them required. But such guidance isn't organized as it used to be.
College in the past was understood to be the place for discovering what Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet and cultural critic, said was "the best that is known and thought in the world." It was a training ground for trying on different ideas. The canon, or great works, which once exposed college freshmen and sophomores to big ways to think about big ideas, is long gone. The fragments of the liberal-arts approach that remain are diversified and diluted to trendy thinking about current "isms" of outrage. Complex ideas are reduced and simplified when they're stuffed into a Procrustean bed of grievance.
Whether the lens is racism, feminism, capitalism or environmentalism, the young are encouraged to "feel good" about themselves and their pious opinions, with no particular respect for opposing points of view or those who hold such views.
"Know thyself," the best-known Delphic maxim of ancient Greece, was cunningly used by Socrates to seek the root of a person's ideas. This was the philosophical notion of knowing the self as human in relation to the larger universe. It has morphed into "Know thy identity," which has more to do with an ethnic placement of where a person stands on the spectrum of exploitation and victimhood. Today, insights are not developed by reading history, literature, psychology or philosophy, but superimposed on "the text." Learning is subservient to ideology.
This was explored by Nathan Heller in the current issue of The New Yorker. In "The Big Uneasy," Heller discusses the tyrannical dogmatisms that malign the liberal arts on many elite college campuses. He focuses on Oberlin College in Ohio, describing its norms as "a little to the left of Bernie Sanders," to examine the poisoning of the well of learning and cheating of impressionable minds.
At Oberlin, the problem sprouted from little acorns of offense first expressed by students with multicultural backgrounds. The complaints can be as trivial as observing the "inauthenticity" of food served at the Afrikan Heritage House, but the acorns quickly grew into great oaks of outrage. A group of black students described the college as functioning "on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy." Throw in campus conversations, publications and social media posts filled with personal and political recriminations on topics ranging from conspiracies that Zionist Jews were involved in plotting 9/11, to the lack of "trigger warnings" that some students desire for the study of "Antigone," and you've got an anarchy of attitude.
Many of these arguments render college as farce, but the students pushing them are deadly serious. They're unhappy that the education establishment failed them. Their perceived "isms" have made everything they have learned suspect and unsatisfying. The students of the Class of 2020 are forewarned and — if they're lucky — forearmed.