The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils

They say you can trace the exact moment the Great British Public fell out of […]

David Zahl / 3.16.17

They say you can trace the exact moment the Great British Public fell out of love with Morrissey to the release of his 1996 album, Southpaw Grammar. It sounds like just the sort of brazen pronouncement rock critics love to make, more of a conversation-starter than a statement of fact. And yet, you can’t really argue that opening a ‘pop’ record with a 12-minute glam-rock dirge heavily sampling Shostakovich was the safest strategy for holding onto the affections of a wide audience. Which is precisely what Morrissey did with his “The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils”, an epic that sounds more like something off Physical Graffiti than The Queen Is Dead. The song is oh-kay, neither as bad as its reputation would have you believe nor as good/dynamic as it would need to be to justify such an absurd running time.

Perhaps it speaks to Moz’s peculiar brilliance that one of his more unremarkable recordings would continue to attract attention 20 years after its release. Because while “Teachers” may have proved a commercial and artistic flop, on a prophetic level, it’s up there with “Panic.”

The song says in a single phrase what it’s taken us an embarrassing number of blogposts (and words) to capture. Namely, that power dynamics in higher education are not what they used to be. The locus of authority has shifted away from the administration and faculty to the students themselves. Specifically, the small group of students who have learned to leverage the prevailing subjectivist ideology of the academy most effectively. As a result, The Teachers Are Most Definitely Afraid of the Pupils.

Now, before you groan “ugh, not another thinkpiece about political correctness” (didn’t they declare a moratorium?!), allow me to place the blame for this post at the feet of critics William Deresiewicz and Andrew Sullivan, both of whom, in the past week, have issued mammoth summations of the phenomenon.

The gist? Instead of mellowing post-election, it would appear that the fervor of our country’s undergraduate activists has only heightened, to the point where both left-leaning Deresiewicz and right-leaning Sullivan are resorting to the imagery of religious fanaticism to do their subjects justice. Sullivan asks “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”, while Deresiewicz goes as far as to title his masterful new essay for The American Scholar, “On Political Correctness: Power, Class, and the New Campus Religion”. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel vindicated.

Before we go any further, perhaps it’s wise to define what’s meant by “political correctness”. It is a term, after all, that has proven remarkably susceptible to caricature, misinterpretation, and hype. Deresiewicz consciously rejects using the term to describe “the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets.” Indeed, you sometimes get the sense that critics of political correctness aren’t advocating for freedom so much as looking to baptize bad manners or general asshole-ishness.

Instead, Deresiewicz is more concerned with “the older, intramural denotation [of the phrase]: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.” A passing glance at the video of Middlebury students that prompted Sullivan’s column is all it takes to realize that we’re way beyond linguistic sensitivity here. The real issue not being propriety so much as purity, purpose, and ultimately, power. Indeed, one of the sadder elements here is what the situation reveals about the relationship between religion and power–in the popular consciousness, at least.

But again, I promised not to get all think-piecey. Thankfully, though, there’s not much to say that Deresiewicz doesn’t say better:

This is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion…

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude…

Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves… If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship. It makes a perfect, dreary sense that there are speech codes, or the desire for speech codes, at selective private colleges…

The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution. The ante is forever being upped… Regimes of virtue produce informants (which really does wonders for social cohesion). They also produce authorities, often self-appointed authorities.

Let me be clear. I recognize that both the culture of political correctness and the recent forms of campus agitation are responding to enormous, intractable national problems… But so much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power... Campus activists are taking advantage of the fact (and I suspect that a lot of them understand this intuitively, if not explicitly) that students have a lot more power than they used to. The change is the result not only of the rise of the customer-service mentality in academia, but also of the proletarianization of the faculty…

Racism may indeed be a system, but bigotry and prejudice are personal attitudes, and they are freely distributed (“cis white bitch”) across the political spectrum…

Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them. All groups are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Political correctness creates a mindset of us versus them. “Them” is white men, or straight cisgendered white men—a.k.a. “the patriarchy.” (The phrase “dead white men,” so beloved on the left, would have little force if its last two words were not already felt to constitute a pejorative.) “Us” is everybody else, the coalition of virtue (virtuous, of course, by virtue of an accident of birth).

Sound familiar? This is Gnosticism 101. Thankfully, Deresiewicz goes one step further and, like a good socialist, mentions the unmentionable, AKA that most awkward of subjects and the one that cuts through the romanticism that informs more of our identity politics than we would care to admit. One clue: starts with a ‘c’ and rhymes with ‘glass’. (The absence of which in all these discussions is, in itself, a testament to just how much Foucault has supplanted Marx in the academy):

There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class.

The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it.

Wowza. I strongly suspect he is right about 99% of this. Of course, one of the pitfalls of this stuff is that it can amount to a “ganging up” on what are in reality a bunch of 19-year-olds, most of whom are doing their best to pursue the nudgings of their conscience. Who among us had any idea about anything when we were 19? Not I, said the fly. (Still don’t, which is probably why the certainty on display irks so). For that matter, I’ve yet to come across a generation that has the market cornered on listening.

The truth is, lecture and coercion won’t work any better with ‘them’ than it did with you or me. Strong-arm tactics will have the same effect on ‘them’ that it is having on ‘us’ right now. For there to be any hope of moving forward, compassion must find a foothold. And the one Deresiewicz locates is also where he wades into what was fresh territory for me:

And here we come to the connection between the religion of success and the religion of political correctness. Political correctness is a fig leaf for the competitive individualism of meritocratic neoliberalism, with its worship of success above all. It provides a moral cover beneath which undergraduates can prosecute their careerist projects undisturbed. Student existence may be understood as largely separated into two non-communicating realms: campus social life (including the classroom understood as a collective space), where the enforcement of political correctness is designed to create an emotionally unthreatening environment; and the individual pursuit of personal advancement, the real business going forward. The moral commitments of the first (which are often transient in any case) are safely isolated from the second…

Inquiry into the fundamental human questions—in the words of Tolstoy, “What shall we do and how shall we live?”—threatens both of the current campus creeds: political correctness, by calling its certainties into question; the religion of success, by calling its values into question. Such inquiry raises the possibility that there are different ways to think and different things to live for…

The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle is whether you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree. If you are using your speech to try to silence speech, you are not in favor of free speech. You are only in favor of yourself.

It turns out, then, that the religion in question isn’t new at all. It is one which is all too familiar: the religion of self, which is, by definition, a religion of control, the priests of which (you and me) will do anything to keep the reigns of power in the hands of numero uno. A religion of law, in other words, not one of hearing but speaking. Which sounds a lot like my own default religion. Anything to avoid the death/surrender/sacrifice of pride entailed in having to listen (truly) to another person.

Cue Andrew Sullivan, who spells out the nature of the beast in devastating terms:

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

You could easily sub out the world “salvation” for “grace”, could you not?

If so, one has to wonder if Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and Robert Capon) were onto something even deeper than suspected. Whether a religion of grace so breaks the bounds of what we conceive of as religion that the term doesn’t rightly apply to what we find in the New Testament. Better to call it an irreligion, a la NYC Conference speaker Fleming Rutledge in the first chapter of her brilliant The Crucifixion:

“We are on safe ground to argue that the crucifixion of Jesus was the most secular, irreligious happening ever to find its way into the arena of faith. The space thus opened up for irreligion at the very heart of the Christian message clears the way for all kinds of people in a way that the various forms of gnosticism simply cannot do. In gnosticism there is always an inner circle, there is always a spiritual elite. Gnosticism promises mysteries that only the illuminati [ed note: “woke persons”] can fathom. It subtly or not so subtly suggests that ‘the capacity for being redeemed” is a condition for redemption.

By contrast, the Christian gospel–when proclaimed in its radical New Testament form–is more truly ‘inclusive’ of every human being, spiritually proficient or not, than any of the world’s religious systems have ever been, precisely because of the godlessness of Jesus’ death. In fact, the ‘word of the cross’ is far more sweeping in its nullification of distinctions than many by-the-book conservative Christians are willing to admit.

The Christian Gospel, in slicing away all distinctions between ‘godly’ and ‘ungodly’ (Rom. 4:5), spiritual and unspiritual, offers a vision of God’s purpose for the whole human race, believers and unbelievers alike, so comprehensive and staggering that even the apostle Paul is reduced to temporary speechlessness (Rom 11:36).” (pg 54)

To return to Morrissey’s imagery, then, the pupils didn’t just turn on the teacher. They we found his message so unbearably offensive that we silenced him for good. And yet, such is his love that no amount of rebellion or protest could degrade it into a hierarchy of deserving, religious or non-.

Fear has not been allowed the final word, or the final verse. Forgiveness has:

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4 responses to “The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils”

  1. Ryan S. says:

    Morrissey knows. He always has.

  2. Duo Dickinson says:

    From 1.5 years ago: when Yale went thru paroxysms of self-loathing amid the townies laughing their asses off the parallels to architecture and most “elite” professions were both real and sad:

  3. Thanks for an intriguing essay. In total agreement with Father Capon.

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