Blank and Galled

Why did Vanderbilt Magazine editors repeat equity, diversity, inclusion, and identity more than sixty-five times in the Fall 2017 issue?

Were they merely informing VU alumni, or trying to proselytize us? Those four words excessive use made me think the university’s multicultural and social justice ambitions had become its central directive at the expense of its educational mission. What happened at VU since I was a freshman there fifty years ago?

September 1968. I was a surprised, honored, intimidated, and immature freshman at Vanderbilt, and proud to wear the Black and Gold as a baseball player. My intent was to earn an engineering degree, while wanting to be and having a greater aptitude to become an English teacher. So, why did I choose engineering? That’s easy, engineers could get a job. Nevertheless, that innate longing inclined me to linger whenever I saw a black and white photograph, hung on walls in several locations around campus, of five neatly dressed men, each of whom appeared to be over fifty years old; collegially sitting on or leaning against wooden outdoor furniture as though engaged in apt conversation. The photograph’s caption identified them as Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson, at a reunion on the VU campus in 1956. All had been VU English department students, with Ransom graduating before 1910 and the others by 1925. Only Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, was familiar to me.

Those graduates would become poets, writers, literary critics, and professors; contributors to a 1922-25 literary magazine The Fugitive, which extolled Southern agrarianism and expounded resistance to the North’s dehumanizing industrialist encroachment. In the book I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930, a dozen essays from Southerners, including one each by all in the photo except Moore, further espoused a Southern tradition of letters, resistance to industrialization, education before and after the Civil War, religion, politics, culture, and race relations. Individual ideological perspective will determine one’s response while reading this book; falling on some locus across a sweeping arc from sympathetic agreement to incendiary opprobrium.

Ransom, Tate, and Warren would later embrace the New Criticism, whose formalist foundation was laid by I.A. Richards, and its focus on close textual reading and analysis. My generation would, luckily but sadly, be among the last beneficiaries of New Criticism’s clarity, as metastasizing postmodernism would bring the deconstructon and post-structural unintelligibility of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan.

Again, this was 1968, a year of sadness, tragedy, provocation, achievement, and rage. Resistance to the Vietnam War was already at flood stage when the Tet Offensive began in January. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and its crew, and holds that ship to this day. Lyndon Johnson effectively abdicated the presidency in March. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and Robert F. Kennedy in June. Chicago became a police versus protester clubbing ground during August’s Democratic National Convention. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze at October’s Mexico City Olympics, then protested with raised black-clad fists on the medal stand, had their medals stripped, and were sent home. ‘Law and order’ candidate Richard Nixon won November’s presidential election. The year capped in December when a manned Apollo 8 orbited the Moon for the first time, and the USS Pueblo crew was released by North Korea two days before Christmas.

If ever there was fodder to feed one’s ideological ardor, 1968 satisfied all the nutritional requirements. Therefore you might suppose that my Political Science 101 classroom would have become a forum where the year would be regurgitated according to the professor’s leanings. Well, he waited to show any sense of colors until our first quiz when he said “Sign your Blue Book honor code pledge, but if I catch you cheating I’ll beat the hell out of you”. It was about the most ideological statement he made all semester.

Winter 2003. That 1956 photograph resurfaced in a Vanderbilt Magazine article titled Pride and Prejudice, in which several current and former VU professors disparaged those five famous scholars and much of their oeuvre, particularly I’ll Take My Stand. The men who were largely responsible for putting an ungrateful VU on the intellectual and literary map were criticized as racist, misogynistic, non-progressive, and to quote one professor from the article, “I mean, they’re not politically correct“. I was disappointed that the article’s contributors offered no scholarly critiques of the five, and suspected that what they professed was a de rigueur state of mind to which academe at not only VU, but universities nationwide, had gravitated; that scholarship was being replaced by ideological expediency.

Vanderbilt’s pursuit of vere loqui (speak truth) which I remembered from thirty-five years earlier, was to me being abandoned in order to embrace recte loqui (speak correctly), which aligned with what Richard M. Weaver, MA’34 wrote in Ideas Have Consequences (1948); Here begins the assault upon definition; if words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words‘.

May 2017. I arrived early Saturday morning for our afternoon VU baseball team reunion so I would have ample time to casually walk across and observe changes to the campus. There were renovations and new buildings, yet the campus was beautiful and retained its refreshing openness. White chairs for the next week’s commencement ceremonies were being set out on lawns. The crisscrossing sidewalk was wonderful as always and invited me to walk, but soon I began seeing ‘Safe Space’ signs, and bulletin boards with locations and times for ‘Health & Wellness’ and ‘Identity’ meetings, and wondered what had taken hold here and what it meant.

Fall 2017. Vanderbilt Magazine arrived. This was among VU’s most widely distributed alumni publications, and those four tendentious, intellectually elusive, and societally hard to pin down words mentioned earlier fairly jumped from the periodical as though to repetitively beat their primacy into my head. From that I deduced that VU students were being subjected to those words at a far higher rate than were we alums . . . the rate of indoctrination.

I then searched for a phrase, or a word, in the magazine reflecting that the pursuit of broad knowledge through reasoned inquiry must be diligent, and can be uncomfortable, taxing, or even confrontational. Challenging, unfettered questions should elicit thoughtful responses, and no better forum for that exchange than the university. But instead there were pages reflecting VU administrators protectively embracing, without apparent discernment, everyone and everything which anyone thought about themselves, to the extent that I sensed anyone who dared ask probing questions or sought elucidation about why a person thought what they were thinking might be vilified. It’s quite simple, I found out, that you do not ask probing questions in ‘Safe Spaces’. In this vein Vanderbilt Magazine became to me a textbook conveyance of what Richard Weaver characterized as ‘hysterical optimism’; namely, everything and everyone is OK. Sherif Feisal, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence, 1926), asked of Lawrence, “Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it?” This issue of Vanderbilt Magazine made me think that any number of VU administrators were encouraging a widespread student frame of mind resistant to select hard questions; that the laborious mental work of extracting and refining intellectual ore which may lead to knowledge, understanding, and perhaps enduring truth, was being shelved in favor of providing a safe space, a place shielded from critical examination of others and self. I also perceived that VU students for whom the word ‘identity’ had magnified resonance, appeared coddled by a protective, hand holding segment of the administration, instead of being challenged and intellectually steeled for an unprotected life once outside VU’s sheltering enclave.

I then saw the Black and Gold fading to less distinct hues, with an administratively energized culture fomenting students’ sensitivities to be constantly offended by ever-shifting examples of oppressed victimhood and perceived social injustices, or galled from microaggressions which in shapeshifter fashion have assumed any form. Indignations of whatever sort were being assuaged by palliatives in the form of scheduled diversity workshops, or mandated ‘unconscious bias‘ and ‘inclusive excellence‘ training. Look textually at those two italicized phrases in the previous sentence and try to translate them into cogent English for English speakers. George Orwell’s 1946 Politics and the English Language came to mind, with its pointed observations about language abuse and its bleak prescience. Orwell’s essay is easy to find on the internet, can be read in ten minutes, and stands as a double red flag warning about the long term effects of baffling, authoritarian bureaucrat-speak. Stay out of that water!

Besides distorted language, bureaucratic bloat is also afflicting and encumbering VU and universities nationwide while jacking up tuitions to pay for the increased number of administrators, whose growth has outpaced faculty growth; and is exemplified at VU by a three-year-old Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) numbering eight, with slots yet to be filled per the organization chart. These EDI administrators detract from the university’s core mission by being front line promoters, instigators, and practitioners of the tenuous argument from circumstance, the least sound and most dependent upon expediency of all the argumentation types as typified by the professor’s derision when he stated the five honored scholars were “not politically correct”; a phrase which means whatever it needs to mean on the day of its utterance, and is therefore self-perpetuating.

One of VU’s retorts to my criticism might be that Princeton Review rated Vanderbilt students number one in happiness in 2017.  Seriously? Happy students is a parameter for which the university has a metric? But of course when the twenty-plus-year-old business-preeminent Platinum Rule is deployed, with its admonishment to ‘Treat others the way they want to be treated‘. It was and is advertised and taught as supplanting the Golden Rule, and I believe it has become firmly rooted and nurtured at VU so as to branch out and entwine students with its insidious tendrils; students who may one day find that what they thought of as the administration’s supportive embrace was in actuality a form of cultural strangulation.

My opinion is that VU’s alumni magazine has become a propagandist instrument as regards the university’s social justice pursuits. History informs that propagandists dissuade education not aligned with the ‘message’, resulting in intellectual attrition. An example of that attrition arose in that 2003 article, which quoted a retired fifty-year Vanderbilt English professor stating that “A lot of these people who are my ex-colleagues repudiate, for example, Aristotle. They believe nothing Aristotle ever said was any good for one reason: Aristotle believed in slavery. Now when you’re dealing with that kind of mindset, that takes a lot off the table“. Aristotle. Repudiated. The retired professor was speaking to a symptom of presentism which had taken hold in some VU classrooms, with application extended to not only five twentieth century intellectual titans, but also to an ancient pillar of Western thought and dialectical methods for pursuit of the nature of truth.

Presentism has since become a pandemic virus by which a university’s hall name was sandblasted from its facade, a college’s name was changed because the person behind the name was deemed incorrect, and offending statues were made to disappear in the darkness of night. This same exercise of presentism led the VU English department to diminish those men who had made that department famous.

It would be unfair of me to omit reportage of vibrant teaching and research going on at VU in engineering and medicine. But the majority of VU students take humanities courses, and for what are the humanities now striving? As an adult I came to admire how the university’s administration once strove to integrate humanities and engineering in such a way as to undergird engineering problem solving with studied rational reasoning.

The signs in 2003 that a VU classical liberal education was in self-imposed decline have magnified so that the slope of that descent has steepened. I now believe VU’s hard-earned tradition as a bastion of a classically liberal education to be under threat of systematic depletion by vilifying the mental tools necessary to acquire and disseminate that education; that there is a bureaucratically inspired diversion in pursuit of something less lofty, more ephemeral, and of dubious long term human value. If VU’s multicultural and social justice snipe hunt continues, then undergraduate students’ minds will be filled with $70,000 per annum blanks, and they won’t realize it until it’s too late.



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