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These Are the Kids They Wanted
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These Are the Kids They Wanted

Elite universities select precisely for the types of students causing mayhem right now.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrate at Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“If you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel. Get it off the tree.”

That’s Sean Connery’s advice to Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. I should say it’s the character named Jim Malone’s advice, but let’s face it, Sean Connery always played himself regardless of the role. 

This is a bit of a strained analogy because, well, kids don’t grow on trees among other things. But it gets at what I think is a big part of the problem bedeviling schools like UCLA and Columbia: These are the kinds of kids they wanted. 

I’ll get back to that point in a second, but let’s first review some of the events from yesterday and today that inspired me, against all my plans, to write once again about the campus protests. Yesterday afternoon social media went kind of bonkers—me included—about Johannah King-Slutzky, a graduate student at Columbia, who demanded “basic humanitarian aid” for students illegally occupying Hamilton Hall. The confidence she displays defending her ridiculous demands is truly impressive:

King-Slutzky is a professional “digital activist” and leader of the graduate student unionization movement. Indeed, she is a member of the United Auto Workers. (Fun fact: 1 in 4 members of the United Auto Workers union are actually in academia. One has to wonder what your average auto plant worker in Ohio would make of her academic pursuits.) This is from her Columbia web page, now taken down:

My dissertation is on fantasies of limitless energy in the transatlantic Romantic imagination from 1760-1860. My goal is to write a prehistory of metabolic rift, Marx’s term for the disruption of energy circuits caused by industrialization under capitalism. I am particularly interested in theories of the imagination and poetry as interpreted through a Marxian lens in order to update and propose an alternative to historicist ideological critiques of the Romantic imagination. Prior to joining Columbia, I worked as a political strategist for leftist and progressive causes and remain active in the higher education labor movement.”

Now, a few things. First of all, I am not an expert on “metabolic rift,” but I had encountered the term before. It’s part of Marx’s theory of alienation fostered by capitalism. But I’m pretty sure that it’s not Marx’s term, but John Bellamy Foster’s paraphrasing of what he thinks is Marx’s idea. Bellamy defines metabolic rift as “the material estrangement of human beings within capitalist society from the natural conditions which formed the basis for their existence.” I’ve done a good deal of searching to confirm this and went down quite a rabbit hole: The term “metabolic” doesn’t even appear in Das Kapital—the supposed source of this idea. At least not in the several versions I’ve searched. Also, her use of the term “prehistory” is a little strange. Prehistory typically means the stuff humans did before we wrote stuff down. Also, it’s a little intriguing that she wants to use a Marxist lens to provide an alternative to historicist ideological critiques of the Romantic imagination, since Marx was a historicist and, I would argue, a Romantic. But, as Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach, whatever dude. 

Still, even if I’m wrong on all that—totally possible—I’d love to ask one of those actual autoworkers in Ohio, or really anywhere, whether they think their tax dollars should go to paying off her student loans (assuming she has any). 

But back to the issue at hand. The notion that the school has a moral obligation to feed students illegally occupying a campus building is so cringey, so parodically perfect in its tidy summation of what’s wrong with these protesters and schools, I struggle to find the words. As Jodie Foster says in Contact upon seeing the staggering beauty of an alien realm, “They should have sent a poet.” 

I mean, talk about “the material estrangement of human beings within capitalist society from the natural conditions which formed the basis for their existence!” We all know that in pre-capitalist societies, digital activists and unionized grad students who unlawfully seized buildings from the crown or church or whoever in order to show solidarity with terrorist enemies had an irrefutable right to as much quinoa and avocado toast as they needed to sustain their defiance of authority. 

But let’s get back to my point. 

Elite schools have more qualified applicants than they can admit. Harvard admits 3 percent of applicants. Columbia, MIT, and Stanford take 4 percent. All of the political and cultural fights over affirmative action, legacy admissions, etc. stem from this basic fact of math. The demand for enrollment wildly exceeds the supply. That is obviously by design for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. These schools are basically massive tax-free hedge funds that offer classes on the side; they could easily admit more students if they wanted to. But they could never accommodate everybody. So they have to choose who gets to go there and who doesn’t. 

If schools relied solely on some relatively objective metric, like standardized tests, the student body would “look” different from what administrators want. I put “look” in scare quotes because I mean this in a bunch of different ways. Yes, the share of Asian kids would grow and the share of African American and Latino kids would shrink. But there would also be fewer exceptional athletes and more nerds. The student body would probably get richer in the aggregate, not because poor kids can’t be qualified, but because rich kids have more educational resources available to them. This obviously includes SAT tutors, but it also includes the more controversial fact that such kids—statistically speaking—are more likely to come from households with two parents who put a lot of emphasis on educational attainment. 

But these schools don’t just rely on SAT scores—or grades, or extracurricular activities. They prioritize all sorts of things, and not just race or sexual orientation or athletic prowess. A lot of schools privilege applicants who are the first in their family to go to college. Being the child of an alumnus or a donor can matter, at the margins. Being the child of a faculty member can matter even more. Geographical diversity is a factor. Recommendations, essays, etc. play a role, too. Interviews can be important as well. If you drop a lot of f-bombs and pick your nose during your interview, odds are good it will be held against you. All of these factors are defensible to one degree or another, in no small part because they’re unavoidable. 

But even with all of these factors at play, the admissions bureaucrats still have a lot of leeway. And one of the things they value is whether you have a social conscience and share the kinds of values the school values. 

This, too, is defensible, but the devil is in the details. Being a proven “activist” helps. Ziad Ahmad got into Stanford by answering the question, “What matters to you, and why?” with a Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter 100 times. Now, you could say this is dumb because it’s just an unthinking, even Maoist, recitation of slogan over and over again. But, obviously, it was brilliant because the kid knew it was the kind of thing Stanford wanted to hear. A kid with even better grades and test scores who wrote about how the carried interest deduction or medical innovations during the Civil War matter to him would be signaling he didn’t know his audience. Sometimes schools are not subtle about what they’re looking for. Barnard College—Columbia’s sister school, from which Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter was recently suspendedasks:

Barnard’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mission statement says “Our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity has the potential to disrupt and transform entrenched practices and thinking.” In what ways have you challenged ideas, practices, or spaces? What did you learn from these experiences?

(When she was kicked off campus for unlawfully refusing to leave a tent encampment, Isra Hirsi spoke truth to power to that radical organ of the masses, Teen Vogue, and complained yet again of her material estrangement, “There was no food support, no nothing.”)

When Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard over its admissions policies, we learned that the school emphasizes “effervescent” students. William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, testified that, “One thing we always want is humanists,” but, sadly, there were fewer and fewer of them. This premium on humanist effervescence resulted in Asian American applicants scoring lower than other groups on their personality ratings. Fitzsimmons also claimed that white students get better recommendations from high schools than Asian kids do. Maybe that’s true, but that just shows how the dynamic I’m getting at starts in high school. 

And what is that dynamic? That the elite education system is geared toward a very specific understanding of what “[insert fancy school name here] material” is and it leans very much to the left. I’ve long argued that Asian students aren’t discriminated against because of anti-Asian fears of some modern “Yellow Peril,” but because they disproportionately come from the ranks of immigrant families who come to this country and educate the crap out of their kids for the old-fashioned goal of achieving the American dream. For them, the dream isn’t to get a Ph.D. in “metabolic rift” theory, but to make a decent living as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or banker. That’s boring. Creating cadres of elite investment bankers or successful knee surgeons isn’t why people go to work as education bureaucrats. 

Instead, creating cadres of educated activists, journalists, and academics committed to social justice is why they’re there. It’s not the only reason, and it’s not true of all of them, but at the margins it’s a huge factor, and the decision of who to admit and who to turn down is made at the margins. And the Asian kids are, at the margins, worse at speaking the language of that tribe.

Another important factor: The faculty is dominated by similar people, with similar visions of the anointed (Thomas Sowell’s phrase), and so the demand for kids who will be interested in what they teach informs the decision-making process, too. I mean, King-Slutzky isn’t going to teach a class on Melville. Heck, there’s actually an opportunity for an interesting analysis, through a Marxian lens no less, of how the educational ruling classes and academic industrial complex structures society for its own self-perpetuation. Maybe another time. 

Meanwhile, type “protest” into Columbia’s course catalog and you’ll get 45 hits. Some of the classes are utterly defensible and legitimate. Others are defensible and legitimate—and telling.  Like the institutionally self-congratulatory undergraduate seminar “Columbia ‘68.” As I wrote in my column this week, these institutions are high on their own mythology of, and nostalgia for, protest.

Or consider “Activism, Performance, Social Movements.” Here’s the description:

This seminar examines how activism shapes the political process through performance, and how social movements often spread by theatrical means. We start our exploration with the notion of “the publics” as introduced by the twentieth-century German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and then expand our view of this concept to the contemporary political setting. We look at both how elected representatives use theatrical tropes to shape their public personas, and also how popular protests stage large-scale public interventions. How might performance as a series of citational strategies allow us to think about the political process?  How do we assess the success or failure of a tactic in a social movement?

We will draw heavily on the works of feminist scholars like bell hooks, Judith Butler, Kimberle Crenshaw,  and Peggy Phelan, to discuss movements such as ACT UP, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo. Equally, we will look at histories of student activism such as the 1968 Morningside Park gym construction, campus anti-apartheid actions, Carry That Weight at Columbia and Barnard, and Friday School Climate Strike and March for our Lives. Students reflect on their own histories or experiences with activism, as personal involvement and/or politics of the places they come from. Through the semester students are exposed to various techniques of protest performance including zines, podcasts, art campaigns and poetry circles. Based on shared interests and affinities, students work in groups to class devise activist performances as a final project.

Judith Butler is the godmother—godperson?—of gender theory. (She also rejects the idea that Hamas should be called a terrorist organization.)  Kimberlé Crenshaw is the inventor of “intersectional theory” and a professor at Columbia Law School. Peggy Phelan is a pioneer of “performance studies.” And bell hooks is, well, bell hooks. Put aside there are plenty of other scholars with very divergent points of view and expertise who might have something interesting to say that conflicts with the narratives and theories these women peddle. Just look at what counts as activism and social movements. There’s no mention of, say, the Tea Parties or the National Union of Social Justice. It’s all movements the left considers to be noble, heroic, and committed to their vision of social justice. Imagine being a relatively normal right-of-center kid taking this class. Either you’d have to accept the premises of these movements—in which case the line between indoctrination and education becomes very thin—or you’d have to choose between silence and becoming a pariah. 

Type “gender” into the course catalog and you get 490 classes. By no means are they all left-wing. Some are totally fine, even essential (stuff on gender disparities in medicine for instance). But type “Constitution” and you get 50 results (the same amount as you get for LGBTQ) and most of them are in the law school.  

Military history has been shrinking as an academic discipline for decades, but I would argue it’s more important for understanding, you know, history than a lot of other subjects involving metabolic rift and similar concepts. It’s also a subject that normal book-reading Americans are interested in. But universities are embarrassed by it. I get that you’d be a fool to type #MilitaryHistoryMatters 100 times on a college application. But the reasons it would be foolish tell you a lot. 

The crisis besetting these schools is one of their own making. It’s Aesopian. They went looking for scorpions eager to wage transgressive war on “institutions of power” and to question the fundamental assumptions of America, education, liberalism, gender, whatever. They were encouraged at every stage to cosplay sticking it to the Man. And now the people in charge are ill-equipped to do their actual jobs, because they thought their job was sticking it to the Man, too. But they are the Man, whether they like it or not.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.