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Don't Blame the
College

Don't Blame the "Check Your Privilege" Essay-Writer. Blame His Editors.

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If you possess sufficient curiosity, free time, and facility with Google, you can find and read any number of articles I wrote for my high school and college newspapers. I wish you wouldn’t. 

You see, they are, to the extent that I can recall, terrible. They are whiny and bitter. The writing is dreadful and the views expressed in them neither original nor even mildly interesting. They rot with inanities and clichés, and, if pressed, I will disown them all, except maybe the one in which I urge my high school English department to add golden-age science fiction to the curriculum. I stand by that.

I’m lucky they were published before the viral Internet, when it was still possible to maintain some control over one’s audience. Today any undergrad with an inflammatory opinion can make a splash, and they may never get dry. Just ask the Harvard student Sandra Korn, whose ill-conceived and almost purely rhetorical piece on “Academic Justice” was the talk of conservative blogs. Or the latest kid genius of punditry, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang, whose screed about white privilege was appropriate for the sandbox of his school’s conservative paper, but which Time magazine regrettably saw fit to repurpose for national publication. I feel bad for these kids—more for Korn than Fortgang, who eventually sought his undeserved fame.

I also feel bad for Belle Knox, the Duke freshman who told the world how proud she is to be a porn star (once someone else had already spilled the beans). And for Suzy Lee Weiss, who, in her adolescent rage, penned an op-ed decrying affirmative action for preventing her entry into the college of her choice. The moral paralytics who edit the Wall Street Journal op-ed section had no qualms about milking young Weiss’s naïveté for pageviews. The New York Times, for its part, seems to have lowered the bar for NYU junior Zachary Fine’s attempted takedown of pluralism, an essay that fits easily within, and adds nothing to, the style of reaction with which Allan Bloom made his name. It is an example of how quickly we forget: Fine appears to believe that the millennial generation—we still haven’t gotten enough of it— is uniquely encumbered by moral and aesthetic relativism. Because of, you know, the Internet. Somehow this made the grade at America’s most august purveyor of opinion.

I feel bad for these youngest of writers because no one should care what they think about weighty issues of public life, yet now they are in the unenviable position of defending their undercooked ideas, not to mention their juvenile prose, before audiences they are not ready to encounter. Knox’s manifesto got a surprising amount of ink—from myself included—considering that it is unreadable.

It would be unfair to subject a handful of kids to serious critique (sorry, Belle). They are still in school, and their professors should be doing that for them. Hopefully Korn will take a class in constitutional law so she never again writes something along the lines of “Does Government Professor Harvey Mansfield have the legal right to publish a book in which he claims that ‘to resist rape a woman needs … a certain ladylike modesty?’ Probably.” Hopefully Fortgang and Weiss will take classes in critical race theory, a field whose insights may be our best hope for combating racism in a country that refuses to acknowledge it outside the occasional well-publicized gaffe. Maybe Knox will learn something about diverse feminist perspectives on sex work before she finishes her four years in Durham.

In other words, learn before you opine.

But because these young writers have, as yet, learned so little, we should not pull punches with Time, the Journal, the Times, and XO Jane, which published Knox. These publications (with perhaps the exception of XO Jane) are supposed to elevate discussion of civic life, not farm it out to those with the least understanding of it. For that is the condition of youth: the condition of emerging from insularity.

The editors of these publications seem to believe that op-eds are forums for provocation rather than argument, hence they spoil their pages with screaming children. The results demonstrate how little these editors care about fashioning cogent positions that help the public reason through its collective challenges. Someone at Time could have directed Fortgang to the reams of intelligent studies on white privilege and black disadvantage before signing off on his essay. Better still, Time could have hired an author whose insights on racism and privilege might educate readers rather than bait them. But that would have made for a more reflective and less traffic-grabbing work. A heaping of scorn might also be directed at the staffs of the Daily Caller, the Spectator, FrontPage, and other conservative magazines. Their bloggers and editors decided that Korn’s column was worthy of interest, as opposed to just another collegiate op-ed, likely one of hundreds published that day and ignored off-campus.

Yes, James Joyce wrote “The Dead” at 21, and Arthur Rimbaud wrote most of his poems in his teens. But there is a reason prodigies are rare in writing, especially on subjects of civic importance: having something worthwhile to say almost always requires experience or erudition and often a combination of the two. It is not like athletics, in which technical mastery is sufficient to impress, or performance, in which the uninhibitedness of youth can be an asset.

This is not to say that young writers don’t deserve a chance. Indeed, I’d like to see more young writers, albeit with at least a few years and a few accomplishments under their belts, displace certain old dogs of opinion journalism who’ve grown tepid and redundant. But these authors should work with editors who have their interests at heart, and they should be held to high standards, not exploited for their willingness to say anything or their desperation to find their names in print. 

There are plenty of writers out there who actually know what they are talking about; these are the ones we should be hearing from. 

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review and a contributor to The American ProspectThe Boston GlobeLos Angeles Review of Books, and others. Follow @SimonWaxman.

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