How do world-class institutions of higher learning produce bigots and racial paranoiacs?
There is something quietly astonishing about the fact that the organizer of last week’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville was himself a graduate of the University of Virginia. It is hard to square the two images in one’s mind: on the one hand, Mr. Jefferson’s university—brimming with culture, intelligence, rationality, a sort of rural cosmopolitanism—and on the other hand, a guy who has probably, at some point in his life, given the Nazi salute un-ironically. That these two things could somehow be connected in any way is a bit of a head-scratcher.
This does not say anything about the University of Virginia so much as it says something about the potential impotence of our institutions of higher learning. We have grown accustomed to assuming that the American university is a kind of citadel of expansive worldviews, the place where people go to broaden their horizons rather than narrow them to a uniquely stupid singularity. In many cases this happens. In other cases—-those involving neo-Nazis, say—the result is a bit different.
To be sure, many modern American universities—and UVA is no different—have themselves surrendered to their own brand of paranoid racial politics, hosting, for instance, racially-segregated orientation programs with the bizarre justification that black students need specially-tailored attention from professors and administrators. It is not right to say that the historically-violent white nationalist movement is functionally the same as the stupid and pointless racial demagoguery of the modern campus. But they do both exist on the same continuum, one that emphasizes superficial and irrelevant physical characteristics, i.e. skin color, as a determining factor in one’s essence.
You would imagine that a student body exposed to a global knowledge base and a culture of rational inquiry would not be given to such dopey and potentially destructive ideologies. You would be wrong.
All of which is to say that it is appropriate to view the university not as it has historically been viewed—as a sort of beacon of smart, classically liberal, tolerant education and thought—but as simply one fallible institution among many, the sort of place that can offer good educations to good people while at the same time producing both virulent anti-white sentiment and white power Nazi wannabes. Thankfully, many if not most students will probably get through college without succumbing to either side of this nasty little coin. But it is good to remember that the many wonderful aspects of college are not, in and of themselves, enough to cure the human heart of the many poisons that can infect it.