Days of Wrath

Peter Wood

This article was originally published by NAS president Peter Wood in his capacity as a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

America is an angry place right now. And higher education bears some of the blame.

That wasn’t how Sasha Abramsky saw it back in July, when The Chronicle Review published an issue on the theme, “How We Became the University States of Fury.” Abramsky, a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California Davis, allowed that “the rage in some ways transcends politics,” but then narrowed his sights. That rage, he said, is “deeply rooted in contemporary conservatism.” He traces it to the anti-government sensibility of one faction within the modern conservative movement, and behind that the ebbing of U.S. global dominance.

That’s a storyline for which I see little foundation. The rage in question goes back well before “contemporary conservatism. ” It is rather the latest twist in a cultural shift that has been in progress since the 1950s. That’s when America’s avant garde, cultural sophisticates, and proponents of various emergent ideologies got hip to the idea that anger could be a positive lifestyle. The teenage Holden Caulfield was denouncing everyone and everything as “phony” in the pages of The New Yorker several years before J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a book (1951) caught the Zeitgeist. It was an early enunciation of what would follow—and entered into the cultural bloodstream. (Remember Mark David Chapman in 1980 after shooting John Lennon to death in front of the Dakota calmly sitting down on the sidewalk with his copy of the book, inscribed “To Holden Caulfield. From Holden Caulfield. This is my statement.”?)

Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl in 1955. Existentialist anguish was in the air and along with it that peculiar demand for “authenticity” that could only be met by displaying scorn for traditional American values. Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (1961) captured the new insufferable superiority of the self-enlightened. The pages of Partisan Review became a platform for a literary and intellectual elite eager to put an endto middlebrow American tastes. This was the era in which college-educated Americans swallowed wholesale the psychoanalytic nostrum that anger repressed comes back as neurosis. We now had a good therapeutic reason to act like boors and to pity those whose “hang ups” kept them quiet in the face of provocation.

Yes, today’s Tea Party movement has adopted an angry style. In doing so, it follows in the footsteps of the Moveon.org campaigners and Daily Kos bloggers of the waning years of the Bush administration. We have plenty of evidence of vituperative anger on both sides of the political spectrum and even the novelty of angry moderates. But to focus on this political theater is to miss a much more profound change. For centuries, American hewed to an ethic of self-control, in which recourse to anger—if it came too early or too often—was seen as a character defect. But beginning in the 1950s, we repudiated that ethic in favor of a more expressive individualism which often treats anger as a prize. We learned to applaud the man or woman who cranks up the nasty invective. And we invited this kind of angry performance into almost every aspect of our lives: the family, entertainment, music, sports, the marketplace, restaurants—and yes, the classroom.

In A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2006, Encounter Books) I observed that the new anger differed from the old mainly in that it was a preferred destination, not a final resort. The new anger is proud of itself and flamboyant. It is an all-about-me anger, and probably for that reason, it was relatively slow in finding its way into politics.

At one level, of course, politics is almost always angry. It is oppositional in its essence, and people invest themselves deeply in it. And the nation has had episodes in which the anger has come to a boil: the partisans of Jefferson and Adams were accusing one another of treason in the early republic. The prelude to the Civil War including Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina caning Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate in May 1856. I am used to people citing this familiar history as though it were an outright refutation of the idea that anything much has changed. But all these events really show is that when passions run high in politics, the formal constraints and the ethic of self-control can break down. What’s missing from the picture is that the constraints themselves and the underlying ethic have changed.

And that’s where higher education is implicated in all this. The university became in the 1960s the laboratory for this new ethic of expressiveness. The protests against the Vietnam War, the rise of a militantly angry form of feminism, campus support for the Black Power movement in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, the KentState shootings: America discovered that the campus was an excellent place to try out the persona of angry alienation and to cultivate the “authenticity” of rage. The dismantling of in loco parentis rules and the ideal that “higher” education had something to do with cultivating good character were part of this shift.

Today, colleges and universities care much more about instilling a “commitment to social justice.” Often that is a kind of character education in reverse. Instead of cultivating patience, forbearance, and self-control, it urges students to be indignant, scornful towards received social wisdom, and full of vivid consternation towards their own society.

The politicized classroom of the last quarter century is a nursery for immature and angry attitudes. The college classroom, of course, is far from the only school that teaches wrath. We have talk radio, anger-entertainment, and the blogosphere to reinforce the lessons.  Yet higher education bears a particular responsibility for advancing this cultural change away from self-control and towards self-delighted anger.

Much of the professoriate these days seems taken aback by the often very articulate anger of the electorate against President Obama and the Democratic Party. Why the surprise? If we have spent decades teaching people to turn their irritation into invective and their invective into political mobilization, doesn’t it stand to reason that a fair number of people would do just that?

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