It’s been exactly 40 years since my late wife and I quit as English profs at Middlebury College, where hundreds of screaming students wouldn’t allow Charles Murray, one of the nation’s foremost conservative intellectuals, to speak to them yesterday, as a campus conservative group had invited him to do. Like everything else in America, no doubt much has changed at the now-trendy college, nestled in Vermont’s maple-clad mountains, in four decades. Back in the 1970s, the Arab-launched oil crisis forced school officials to choose between shutting off the electricity to the library or to the school’s private ski lift. After a student referendum, the library went dark. In those days, too, the dorms had just become co-ed, and a woman dean bemusedly told my wife about an epidemic of impotence sweeping the campus. Did the boys think of their girl dorm-mates as their sisters, and thus off-limits, she wondered; or had the glamor and mystique just vanished after they’d just seen them one time too many in curlers, face cream, and rumpled pajamas?
I remember two salient traits of the majority of students in those days. One was their extraordinary intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity, especially infuriating because so many were such intelligent kids. The other was their immense privilege. Shiny new BMWs filled the student parking lot, each fitted with racks holding the most technologically advanced skis for whizzing down the slopes. There were battered Volvos, too. They belonged to us teachers.
Since the rest of the collegiate world, hostile to any new or challenging idea, has adopted the anti-intellectualism that characterized the Middlebury I knew, it’s hard to imagine that much has changed in the Green Mountain Shangri-La in that particular. And with a yearly cost now topping $66,000, I expect the same fancy cars are ferrying similarly pampered owners to frolic on the slopes.
But their very privilege should make these students want to pay close attention to what Murray has to say, since his most recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has much to report about them and the part they played in a presidential election that may change the American political landscape for a long time to come. White Americans have fractured into two distinct classes, Murray argues. There are the Middlebury kids and their ilk: moneyed, well-credentialed (if ill-educated), and brought up by parents who arranged their playdates, soccer games, SAT tutors, summer “enrichment” travel programs, and résumé-building community “service” activities. These kids belong to a culture that values career, hard work at your job (if not much creativity at it), finding a mate with the same background and staying married to her or him, and bringing up your children with equal care. By contrast, there are the high-school grads or dropouts, whose low-skilled jobs have vanished, who either never marry or get divorced—producing carelessly brought-up broods of children in either case—who have gotten hooked by the millions on prescription pain-killers, whose health is poor, and whose lives are short.
This latter group forms a significant portion of the Trump electorate. And one of the things they voted against is the smug self-righteousness of the Middlebury grads and their Ivy League-bred cousins. Never Trumpers like to talk about the insufferable tone of the man from Queens: his barroom crudity, his Twitter-brief utterances, his personal vituperation, his contempt for the mainstream press, his hyperbole and boastfulness, his exaggeration, his anti-globalism, his ignorance. How divisive! say the critics. But how do you think the group of less-privileged white Americans whom Murray identifies would hear the self-cherishing, Ivy League snobbery of a Barack Obama, with his contempt for those benighted Americans pathetically clinging to their God and their guns, as the arc of history sweeps them away? And how do you think they feel about the politically correct shibboleths that make the Middlebury kids and their ilk feel they don’t have to listen to anything that doesn’t allow them to revel in their moral superiority to the unenlightened multitudes—and that justifies their privilege?
In truth, many Americans, not just Murray’s poor whites, have lost patience with people who don’t respect the reverence for freedom of conscience, thought, and speech on which America was founded. So enjoy your run down the mountain today, students of Middlebury. Nothing lasts forever.
Photo by Don Shall