Wokeness on Campus: The Reign of Stupidity

Members of the Nexus Institute can log in to read the full essay. A Dutch translation of this essay is published in Nexus 87,  ‘Over domheid en leugens’.


Several years ago, I taught a course in public writing at the Claremont Colleges, the consortium of elite liberal arts institutions in Southern California. Public writing, as I defined it, means argumentative writing intended to have an effect in the public sphere — op-eds and longer essays of opinion and persuasion such as appear in newspapers and other periodicals. My students were juniors or seniors, mostly humanities or social science majors, almost all them smart, a couple genuinely brilliant. All, needless to say, were expensively educated and impressively credentialed. All had also volunteered for – indeed competed for admission to — the course. I assumed that they’d arrive with a fairly good idea of how to make an argument within an academic context — how to write a college paper — and that I would be teaching them how to apply those skills to a very different set of rhetorical occasions, that we would be talking about issues like audience and voice and form.

What I discovered, as soon as I began to read their first set of pieces, was that none of them had much idea of how to make an argument in any context. Nor, I quickly saw, were they particularly skilled at analyzing the arguments of others. They didn’t know how to read; they didn’t know how to write; and they didn’t know how to think. Here is what they did know how to do: they knew how to talk, especially about themselves. Such evidence as they did present leaned heavily on personal experience, so much so that many of their pieces were effectively personal essays disguised as public arguments. Or rather, they didn’t understand the difference between personal essays and public arguments.

What do I mean when I say that my students did not know how to read, write, or think?

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