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Woke Kids Are Speaking; Weak Adults Are Listening

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The university protest movement largely took shape at the same time when our society’s disproportionate valorization of youth and youthful opinion began in the 1960s, when our whole nation began to come apart at the seams, an unraveling that, despite brief periods of rollback, has continued apace to this day.”

In recent weeks, we have witnessed elite college students across the nation stand up boldly to defend the terrorist group Hamas’ right to terrorize, execute, and kidnap children and the elderly alike and parade half-naked bodies of female victims through the streets. Although the denizens of elite universities represent a particularly egregious species of moral monstrosity, those students are, sadly, also representative of a much larger contingent of their age cohort. But the problem, as I will explain in what follows, is not only their views; it is also that we encourage people so young (and even younger) to voice their uninformed and unenlightened views in the first place and that we then proceed to approach those opinions as though they were anything more than teachable moments, as though they were worthy of our serious political, rather than pedagogical, engagement. 

In October, a Harvard-Harris poll had found that while 95% of those over age 65, 91% of those 55-64 and 88% of those 45-54 sided with Israel in the conflict, among those between the ages of 18 and 24, only 52% supported Israel, with the other 48% taking the side of Hamas. As opposed to the 9% of those over 65 who believed that “the Hamas killing of 1,200 Israeli civilians [i]n Israel can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians,” among those 18-24, a slight majority—51%—held the killings were justified, even though 62% in that age category believed those killings were also “genocidal.” 

As that survey likewise reported, those same young’uns also had a very tenuous grasp of basic facts. Among many other misconceptions they had, more than a third—36%—of them did not know that Hamas is a terrorist group, as designated by the American government (among many others); only 16% of those 65+ were unaware of that designation. Moreover, though the call for the annihilation of Israel is right there in Hamas’ charter, the survey showed 42% of the 18-24-year-olds believed Hamas is trying to make peace with Israel rather than destroy it, as compared to the 4% of those over 65 who credited such nonsense, and though the notion that Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza on October 17th, as initially reported by Hamas, has been thoroughly discredited, 45% of the 18-24-year-olds, as opposed to just 13% of the over-65-year-olds, lacked the cognitive flexibility to revise their opinions to fit the facts. 

Still more alarmingly, an Economist/YouGov poll from early December shows that while the overall percentage of Americans who think the Holocaust is a myth is 7%, with 0% of those aged 65% and 2% of those between 30 and 44 holding that view, among those aged 18 to 29, 20%—one out of every five—hold that view.

So what accounts for our rising generation being so uninformed and so morally challenged? 

Before proceeding to venture a response to that question, we should pause briefly to observe that the complex rights and wrongs of the broader, historical Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one’s opinion of whether Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks is entirely proper or needlessly brutal and whether the United States should intervene (I myself am entirely against such intervention for roughly the same reasons I am against World War III) have very little to do with whether or not we are able to command the basic moral decency it takes to condemn Hamas’ initial act of barbarism. But many of our young people do not appear to possess that modicum of moral decency, and it is important to understand the reasons for their failures. 

On the one hand, it is a simple truth that people tend to get more conservative as they get older. Research by Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business followed individuals over the course of more than half a century, from 1974 to 2018. Peltzman found that at the age of 25, 33.7% of subjects were liberal, and 25.8% were conservative. By age 45, their youthful liberal fantasies had mellowed somewhat, with 24.9% now being liberal and 35.8% being conservative. And by age 75, only 19.8% were still liberal; 41% were now conservative. 

This, then, offers one obvious answer to our question: The young are uninformed and morally challenged because they are not yet fully matured human beings. The gradual “righting” of people’s worldviews offers us hope that a healthy dose of reality experienced over the course of their lives will eventually tame our little terrors. But, unfortunately, the picture is not quite that simple. Other research by New York University’s Michael Hout examined the drift in overall political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors from 1972 to 2018 and found that each successive rising generation is more liberal than the generation that preceded it, this effect being especially pronounced since the 1990s; in other words, as most people with a pulse have probably noticed, the United States as a whole is drifting leftward. “Overall, of 283 trends analyzed here, recent cohorts were more liberal than earlier cohorts on 62 percent of opinions and attitudes; they were more conservative on only 6 percent of them.” Among the most apparent changes were left-shifting attitudes on issues of gender, sexuality, race, and personal liberty. 

One major component spearheading the shift is the dramatic transformation of education that has taken place ever since the youthful radicals of the 1960s counterculture moment aged into positions of power within all manner of educational institutions. Belying any notion that the “thinkers” among us are inherently far-left, as of 1984, just before the ideological takeover of those institutions began in earnest, 39% of university faculty were left/liberal, and 34% were right/conservative. It was, in other words, a rather even distribution. By 1999, with the countercultural takeover of our institutions already in full swing, the faculty had become 72% left/liberal and only 15% right/conservative. And, by 2018, the Jacobins were fully in control: a report by Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College found that among 8,688 tenure-track professors at top liberal arts colleges, “78.2 percent of the academic departments in [the] sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.”

As the professors went, so their dutiful students followed in due course. Education—or rather, what passes for education at this point—has become our main driver of ideological polarization. As a 2016 Pew Survey showed, the more education one has today, the more liberal one is likely to be: Most people with a high school education or less are actually politically moderate, with only 5% far-left and 8% far-right. A college degree brings 24% of us over to the far-left, and that number rises to 31% among postgraduates. But this, again, is not because education merely opens our minds to any inherent leftward bias of reality itself. The same Pew Survey showed that in 1994, only 8% of postgrads were in the far-left category, with 7% being far-right. Much of the change from 8% far-left in 1994 to 31% by 2015, moreover, came at the expense of a stark diminution in the percentage of political moderates. Educational environments, over the course of the intervening decades, with once-elite universities leading the way, had transformed into ideological left monocultures, where nonconformists could no longer be tolerated. 

Indeed, far from enlightening us and opening our minds to other ways of conceiving of the world, education had come to make us more intolerant of countervailing political attitudes. As 2017 research from P.J. Henry and James Napier concluded, “ideological prejudice is stronger among those with high (vs. low) levels of education. These results call into question the notion that education promotes tolerance towards those who are different.” Consistent with that conclusion, the More in Common Project’s “Perception Gap” research revealed in 2019 that with every additional degree earned, Democrats’ perceptions of Republicans (but not Republicans perceptions of Democrats) become more and more deranged, i.e., unmoored from reality and facts about Republicans’ actual beliefs. The likely reason for that finding, the researchers posit, is that as Democrats ascend up the educational ladder, they find themselves more thoroughly surrounded by people who share their political views, creating a funhouse hall of mirrors in which all connection with reality is lost. 

Further reinforcing the data showing that our contemporary education is not opening our minds is the aforementioned fact that while our education is steering us sharply to the left, we tend to become more conservative as we get older and wiser. Some might say that this occurs simply because the young are more attuned to the reigning Zeitgeist and more possessed of the cognitive flexibility needed to pick up the new dance steps in rhythm with the current drumbeat, while the elderly stumble along, set in their old-fashioned ways and attached to their various vested property rights protected by the status quo. In fact, the young are merely better at sniffing out and hopping on cultural, social and political trends, blissfully free, as they tend to be, of the cultural baggage conferred by greater experience, knowledge, and perspective. While research does confirm that older age is the single best predictor of how informed we are likely to be, we knew this even without recourse to such research: If we do a simple bit of introspection and ask ourselves, whatever our age may be, whether, over time, we have become a far wiser, more informed, more experienced and more morally grounded version of our younger selves, we know the answer. Even the property rights we usually acquire over the course of our lives constitute, in their own way, forms of information about common life circumstances—real estate, cars, children, labor, earnings, savings and debt and so on—that we may expect to encounter in our personal lives and about which our younger brethren tend to be oblivious when they come to their oft-impetuous conclusions about the world.

While the data presented here explains why college students tend to be so uninformed, so left-leaning and so closed-minded about contrary facts and views—resulting in their seeing the complex Israel-Palestinian conflict through the unyielding, simplistic prism of the woke “decolonization” narrative that imagines Israelis are oppressive, white-skinned settler-colonists and Palestinians as oppressed, brown-skinned natives—what still remains to be explained is why our society as a whole pays so much attention to these unripe saplings. One aspect of the answer, certainly, is that we are rightly concerned both about the state of our system of education and about what our future holds in store for us if these Hamas-loving hooligans ever ascend to power en masse without having first reformed their errant ways. 

But it is also important to observe that there was a time not so very long ago when children were expected to be seen and not heard and when it was not the norm for college students to speak out on political issues, much less to partake in disruptive protests. The university protest movement largely took shape at the same time when our society’s disproportionate valorization of youth and youthful opinion began in the 1960s, when our whole nation began to come apart at the seams, an unraveling that, despite brief periods of rollback, has continued apace to this day. So alien was the notion of students speaking out before the 1960s that universities commonly exercised something akin to parental authority over students’ lives, placing limits on speech, imposing curfews and regulating their socialization through the enforcement of various character-building policies, under a legal doctrine known as in loco parentis. Students who defied the rules were commonly disciplined or expelled, and courts routinely greenlighted the practice. As the Supreme Court of Kentucky put it in its Gott v. Berea College decision in 1913 after students had been expelled for visiting a restaurant across the street from the college and thereby violating a rule intended to protect students from wasting their time and money and keeping them focused on their studies, “College authorities stand in loco parentis concerning the physical and moral welfare, and mental training of the pupils, and we are unable to see why to that end they may not make any rule or regulation for the government, or betterment of their pupils that a parent could for the same purpose.” However, in 1961, considering the expulsion of some black Alabama State College students for taking part in a civil rights protest after they were refused service at a courthouse lunch counter, the activist United States Supreme Court of those days, in the case of Dixon v. Alabama, held the in loco parentis doctrine that permitted such expulsion without due process to be unconstitutional. The decision opened the floodgates. The student protest movement was born.

At the same time, many adults who ought to have known better got swept up in the spirit of the times in much the same fashion as adults in our own times made fools of themselves as they got caught up in the destructive frenzy of the #BLM riots in the summer of 2020. Those adults of the 1960s decided, in a topsy-turvy reversal of age-old roles, that they would follow the rising generation leading the way. They began to genuflect before their inexperienced, uninformed, and impulsive progeny.

What had actually happened to crystallize among these adults the impression that wisdom was suddenly emanating from the mouths of babes was, as Steven Pinker has argued, that the emerging medium of television had disseminated an almost real-time generational consciousness among the young. This was the first generation that could watch images of its own coming-of-age on television, and that meant that any trend that took root in one place in the United States could spread like wildfire throughout the land. The young, always adept at trend-hopping, as I have already observed, sensed the new aroma wafting through the air and began latching onto and imitating the words and actions of more wizened and experienced civil rights era pioneers. Their imitation of protest was not much more deep-rooted than the rightly maligned Pepsi Superbowl advertisement that had tried to commodify the protests of 2020, but the die had been cast: Rebelling against traditions and social conventions had become something of a rite of passage, while many adults were becoming accustomed to perceiving the younger generation as inspired and preternaturally sagacious heralds of the coming age. 

Directly relevant to these grown-ups’ confusion is a concept promulgated in a series of books by the pioneering theorist and author Ken Wilber. That concept, known as the “pre-trans fallacy,” takes as a starting point the Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of development. We start out “preconventional,” not knowing the way things are normally done. Children might eat with their hands and pick their noses in public because they have not yet understood and internalized that these things are “not done.” Then, we go through the “conventional” stage, wherein we do internalize and adopt common social mores. Many of us stay at that stage for the rest of our lives, but some move beyond to the “postconventional” stage, whereupon we may begin to think independently and to question prevailing norms. The observation Ken Wilber makes is that because preconventional behaviors that defy social norms—e.g., screaming about our unmet needs in public because we have not yet attained impulse control—may be superficially identical to postconventional behaviors that likewise defy social norms—e.g., screaming about our unmet needs in public as part of a protest or simply to épatez la bourgeoisie—we are prone to mistake one for the other.

We know, for example, that there are among us certain knowledgeable and sophisticated postconventional thinkers, especially prevalent in the halls of academia, who have, whether rightly or wrongly (in my view, wrongly in most respects) rejected conventional morality and embraced either moral relativism or else a counter-morality rooted in Marxism, critical theory a/k/a Cultural Marxism and/or postcolonial theory. Many young college students also embrace these notions, but they do so, most often, from a preconventional vantage point, as they have not had the time and life experience to delve into and grasp the essence and rationale behind even conventional morality, much less its postconventional would-be successor. They are little more than ignorant children barely past adolescence doing the thing that so many adolescents do on instinct: Act up, latch onto outré crazes, and, in effect, flip the bird to their parents and society at large. Hippie communes, sex, drugs, and rock & roll, punk and hip-hop stylings, piercings, tattoos, sagging pants, the latest, trendiest forms of deviant sexuality, and advocating for the overthrow of capitalism and Western civilization, while embracing those “badass” Hamas “freedom fighters” lopping babies’ heads off in defense of their righteous cause are all par for the course. If university economics professors unleash screeds about “capitalism,” at least they are likely to have some understanding of what they are talking about. When high school or college kids who have never so much as held down a real job—stints scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s do not count—rant about capitalism, they are little better than parrots squawking out a cluster of phonemes they have overheard. 

The root of our problem, then—beyond, of course, our unforgivable turning of a blind eye to the hostile takeover of education by leftist ideologues who prioritize politics over the single-minded pursuit and dissemination of knowledge that should be educational professionals’ core mission—is that we value these kids’ views on all matters great and small. It is only against the background of a culture in which we pay so much attention to the opinions of kids and very young adults—a culture in which an unbalanced, shrieking scold like Greta Thunberg can become an idol and an “influencer”—that it makes all the sense in the world for opportunistic pedagogues and others to indoctrinate, rather than educate, our children and then reap the benefits with a quick turnaround when those puppeteered pups then proceed to echo their masters’ commandments out to the world at large, which listens to them with rapt attention, eager to hear what the kids have to say.

But they have nothing to say. What they have is much still to learn. The lamentably discarded doctrine of in loco parentis was a testament to that long-abiding truth, as was the still-more-lamentably discarded ethos of old in accordance with which the young were taught to respect and revere their elders, their nation, and their cultural patrimony, building up their knowledge-base and their character in preparation for assuming roles of responsibility within our social order. When it comes from individuals who have paid their dues and gained an understanding and appreciation of who we are as a people, informed, measured criticism of the status quo is constructive and necessary for progress. By contrast, the incoherent, ignorant screeches and yelps of today’s puerile protesters either must be so much mindless noise we dismiss and silence, or else they will ineluctably become the first glancing blows of home-grown barbarians at our gates, heralding our civilization’s imminent demise.

Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet. He can be found on X @Zoobahtov

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