How America’s Students Need to Get ‘Woke’

Today’s university students want to “wake” the nation to problems that they and their professors have identified as threatening our very existence. And they issue these periodic alarms in hyperbolic terms: we have just 10, 20—fill in the blanks—years to end fossil fuel use or else die from global warming.

They warn us that there is a veritable war waged on American women who have been limited to a mere 800,000 abortions on average per year. Sexism must explain why only 56 percent of college students are women.

The woke university lectures us that ubiquitous racism, white privilege, sexism, homophobia, transgender hatred, Islamophobia, nativism, and xenophobia supposedly make life deadly for people of color, gays, immigrants, the transgendered, and women. Apparently, such endemic hatred explains why the United States is the most tolerant, freest, most leisurely and affluent country in history for racial, religious, and gender minorities.

To address these supposedly existential concerns and agendas, the university has radically reinvented itself over the last 30 years. The relative and absolute number of tenured and tenure-track professors on campus has nosedived. In their places, the legions of noninstructional  employees and part-time lecturers have soared. The former are mostly highly paid race, class, and gender diversity and inclusion provosts, deans, and czars. The latter are low-paid and largely exploited temporary teachers.

Student aid packages have been front loaded with federally-guaranteed debt, as tuition in response has naturally soared over the last few decades above the rate of inflation. All sorts of “studies” majors have blossomed—ethnic studies, peace studies, environmental studies, black studies, Latino studies, Asian studies, feminist studies. The curricula now expand into popular culture, as if comic books, Hollywood movies, hip-hop music, and cartoons need academic study, professional scholarship, and professorial guidance.

In the university’s zero-sum game, something was lost to provide the needed space for these therapeutic new classes. And what was tossed were precisely those traditional courses in English grammar, composition, literature, foreign languages, philosophy, and history that sharpened reasoning, honed written and oral expression, developed an aesthetic sense of art and music, and provided the student with the facts-based architecture central to fundamental education.

It was once agreed that reading Sophocles’ Antigone was more valuable for young minds than deconstructing “The X-Men,” and that Dante’s Inferno offered students more insight than did “To Pimp a Butterfly.”  Might our 20-year-olds become less self-absorbed, and less ignorant if they knew what Shiloh, Normandy, and Iwo Jima were? Do any think that they could have survived the Oregon Trail, the Meuse–Argonne offensive, or the Schweinfurt raid?

In addition, the university went through one of the most bizarre cultural transformations of any institution in our society—albeit in a completely paradoxical way.

Students were no longer considered young, independent adults—at least sort of. They instead were apparently no longer always mature enough to make their own social and cultural decisions—and live with the consequences, good and bad.

Instead, students were recalibrated as episodic pre-teens who could not hear speakers, read texts, or listen to professors if they challenged their safe spaces and status quo beliefs. Independent thinking apparently could harm such fragile souls and therefore had to be carefully restricted and rationed.

The First Amendment, as we have known it, really no longer exists on college campuses. Speech codes predominate and supersede it, citing the need for censorship as a protection from “hate speech,” a tool that can be used to smear almost any form of expression.

Visiting speakers know that if they are deemed unapologetically conservative, they either will need guards to speak or are likely to be shouted down, or both—usually with the wink and nod of approval from careerist and itinerant administrators who no sooner arrive on campus than they virtue signal in hopes of advancing to higher paying billets elsewhere.

The public is bewildered by masked and hooded campus protesters breaking the law, storming barricades and trying to disrupt politically incorrect speakers. They suspect that if the police would actually arrest—and district attorneys indict—these barricade braggadocios, the latter would likely curl up into fetal position, crying about “getting an arrest record” and how that might impair their later privileged trajectories.

Who Are the Snowflakes?

“Snowflakes” arose as a term for sheltered students who regressed to needing puppies, coloring books, milk, and cookies to comfort them even before Donald Trump won the 2016 election. But just when we thought colleges were nursery schools of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and racially segregated dorms, we saw that, in fact, they are incubators also of edgy adult sex, alcohol and drug use. Courses, lectures, and symposia openly discuss the need for sexual awakening and experimentation, while the university has become a safe space for the use of particular recreational drugs.

So the public has become baffled at the result of these promiscuous Victorians, drunken prohibitionists, and zero-tolerance drug users—not to mention supposedly tolerant intolerant disruptors and social justice warriors fighting for the injustice of denying free expression.

The only possible common-denominator explanation of these radical disconnects is the gratification of the appetites and the paths of least resistance: students still like sex and parties and especially courses that are therapeutic, require less work, and confirm status quo pieties.

In other words, protesting and organizing are preferable to memorizing Latin declensions and physics theorems. Students as adults certainly like to drink, but so often after getting drunk and sickened do not like those who fostered that permissive atmosphere and allowed these sudden adolescents to drink in the first place. Sexual hook-ups are supposedly transformative and cosmopolitan—but only if later shielded from the age-old crass and unfortunate emotional consequences that result when the male is given free rein to indulge his sexual appetites without commitment or honor or love.

The University House of Cards

But hypocrisy is not the most dangerous paradox of the university. Its entire financial structure is far more hypocritical. And the fix goes something like this: 18-year-olds enter college after being sold a bill of goods that an undergraduate degree is so invaluable that it will more than justify tens of thousands of dollars in aggregate long-term debt. Often “aid packages” brim with showy fellowships, grants, and tuition waivers to disguise the reality that the discounted, rock-bottom, bargain-based, final total cost of a year at college is still exorbitant. Students are reminded that at least a B.A. or B.S. degree will provide status that will aid upward economic and social mobility. Sometimes that is true, but when it is not, the results wreck lives.

Woke majors centering on social justice are lauded and promoted on campus as the spear of resistance culture. Yet years later, such campus veterans don’t impress employers. The now indentured serf graduate is left to fend for himself, far away the previous reverie and energy of progressive protests and inculcation.

In other words, the next time you see a chanting crowd of woke students shouting down a speaker with a faculty member cheering them on, imagine such protestors five years from now, solitary without good jobs, but with lots of their own private debt and plenty of bitterness and angst.

Who then pays for the tenured full professor who indoctrinates students for 32 weeks of the year? Who pays for the assistant provost for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” who teaches no classes but monitors those who do? Who helps to subsidize a costly campus that is increasingly disconnected from learning?

Is it not the part-time lecturer driving between campus gigs without job security, retirement or good, if any, benefits?

Is it not the student carrying $100,000 in 6 percent loans, majoring in environmental studies?

If students were really “woke” to the abject exploitation in their own landscapes, they would march on the president’s office to protest the lack of transparency in student loaning, the bureaucratic fat that does not contribute to learning or academic excellence, and the disparity between helot part-time lecturers and full-professor overlords. They would demand to know how much they are paying for each class, for office hours, for much on campus that ultimately is leveraged by their own government guaranteed student debt that will be an albatross around their collective necks into their thirties.

Viewed through these lenses, the progressive campus project is a mere veneer. It is a scab of sorts, overlaying a wound beneath of progressive exploitation and class privileges and hierarchies of the exploiters and exploited.

The results spill over from campus and are deleterious for the entire nation, ranging from prolonging adolescence and infantilizing young adulthood, delaying marriage, child-rearing, and home ownership to radicalizing the Democratic Party to the point of near irrelevance—not to mention the cost of defaulted government loans. Many of those indebted who actually graduate will gravitate into low-paying jobs. And the professors and administrators who damned capitalism to them will be doing the same to each successive generation of naïfs, but always play-acting as radical mentors from tenured and six-figure salary billets.

In sum, today’s students are the most unaware, naïve—and unwoke—generation in our nation’s history. They pose as all-knowing and all-caring. But in the end, they are proving unwoken to the full dimensions of those who have channeled them into a decade or more of crushing debt, left them with unmarketable degrees, nourished both their ignorance of the world, past and present, and their political arrogance—and called it all success.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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