Do Yale's Students Need a Lesson in Manners?

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Mr. Sleeper, Yale '69, teaches a seminar in Ethics, Politics & Economics and Political Science on "New Conceptions of American National Identity." He is the author of "Liberal Racism" and a is former political columnist of the New York Daily News.

As a supporter of the current war who is dismayed at how some others have supported it, I'd be glad if the worst of the controversy on this campus were confined to a few instances of barging into people's rooms, spitting on them, or defacing property. Such acts have been so widely and rightfully condemned that I doubt we'll see more. But we do endure something more chronic and perfectly legal: the belligerence of some students who think themselves entitled to subject their peers and even professors to baiting, ridicule, and ad hominem attack.

Some will shout down a speaker in a classroom. A little flying squad of rhetorical "hit men" has descended like flies on Yale Daily News post sites to assail people whose comments were reported in the paper. Yale's Students for Democracy and a project called Campus Watch remind me of Students for a Democratic Society way back in the last century, when I was an undergraduate here during another war.

And when freshmen arrive here primed to attack professors in public, as two did in a recent article in Front Page, an online off-campus publication, I smell something worse than youthful exuberance, a neo-Stalinism wafting up not from SDS of the 1960s but from YCL of the 1930s -- the Young Communist League and its right-wing counterparts.

I also remember a better way, and never mind that it's from people who opposed a war. One wintry morning in 1968, plodding across Beinecke Plaza to a class, I came upon 50 students gathered silently around three seniors and the University Chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr. A senior was speaking barely audibly over his fear. "The government claims we're criminals," he said, as I leaned in to listen, "but we say it's the government that is criminal in waging this war." He and the others handed Coffin their draft cards, like the ones we all carried, and vowed to refuse conscription into the Vietnam War.

"Believe me," Coffin said, smiling, "I know what it's like to wake up in the morning feeling like a sensitive grain of wheat lookin' at a millstone." It was Calvinist humor, a jaunty defiance of the powers that be on behalf of a higher power; and something in us grasped at it, because we were scared. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested, and we felt arrested morally by their example.

I felt arrested in another way, too: A few yards away were names we've all passed, of Yale men dead in other wars, inscribed next to Periclean citizen-warriors under apothegms such as, "Courage disdains fame and wins it." The draft resisters were challenging us to join them in disdaining fame, but with no chance of winning even a memorial's posthumous regard.

Something about that made them very "American," -- and as free of anti-Americanism as Rosa Parks was when she refused to move to the back of a bus. Her dignified bearing embraced a flawed civil society instead of trashing or deconstructing it as inherently. I felt that these grave seniors were doing that, too: American civil society had arisen from a slumber and was breathing and walking again, remoralizing the state and the law. And as we watched, our silent, wild confusion gave way to something like awe.

"The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right," said Martin Luther King Jr., and the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at the "constitutional patriotism" of Americans who resisted the state to advance not fantasies of racial and ethnic destiny but an experiment testing whether republics that rely on a culture of personal responsibility and civic virtue can endure.

But let's complicate that vision: Constitutional patriots might be anti-abortion activists who believe that life is a continuous, sacred thread not to be broken by the state -- or by individuals exercising their "rights" -- and who risk their own liberties in peaceful civil disobedience to stop government from funding what they consider murder. You might loathe them as conservatives did those who opposed the Vietnam War and the false racial comity of the old South. But the test of constitutional patriotism is whether you're true to a civic comity that's big enough to be challenged by people who dissent without violence and hatred.

For all SDS's posturing, there wasn't violent protest at Yale in the 1960s; certainly my old Davenport neighbor, George W. Bush, doesn't remember any. But there was enough belligerence of the kind we see now to make pro-war and ROTC students duck and keep quiet. Conservatives should ponder this and Gaddis Smith's recent warning that the generational wheel may turn yet again.

Yale's duty is to help the American experiment get a learning curve. Unlike us in 1968, though, none of you has to risk your life, fortune, or sacred honor for your convictions. You haven't had to oppose this war by risking imprisonment and life as a felon. You haven't had to support it by serving in it -- and I note that none of the Fedayeen Uncle Sams who've intimidated people here has enlisted, as did many Yalies whose names and dreams outlasted their 20s only on those icy, marble walls.

The country's political landscape is littered with the wreckage of movements that turned violent. You need to know that, and that your college has trained statesmen and even warriors who were strong and smart enough to sustain the American experiment itself.

Copyright © 1995-2003 Yale Daily News Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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More Comments:

A.O. Wilber - 5/4/2003

See cogent comments replying to Sleeper on Yale Daily News sites:

Editor - 4/28/2003

This is from Mr. Horowitz's blog:

On Friday we published an article by two Yale Students about the anti-Semitic venoms of the campus anti-war movement. One of the student's professors fired off an email attacking his own student for writing about this in (See Eliana Johnson's article in today's frontpagemag). The professor's email betrays an extreme leftist perspective, and poor grip on reality. But the outrage lies in the fact that a professor would hector and intimidate a student in such a partisan manner. This is a testament to the abysmal condition of professional ethics in the contemporary university. Professors are hired to teach all their students, not to make some students whom they disagree with politically uncomfortable in their classrooms or in their school. This is called creating a hostile learning environment. Yale is a school in which 180 professors boycotted the President at a Yale graduation thus communicating to all Republican students at Yale their contempt for them as well. For professors to display partisan passions (and the emphasis should be on "passions") in their professorial role is an abuse of students' academic freedom and a dereliction of professorial responsibilities. Teachers are hired to educate all their students, not just those who agree with them politically. The professor's letter was not educational; it was a bid to indoctrinate students over whom he has institutional power. The American Association of University Professors condemned this practice nearly a hundred years ago and has repeated the condemnation many times since. But the tenured left could care less about educational ethics since it regards the university as an institution of higher learning, but as a political party.

Now comes a Monday op-ed piece in the Yale Daily News by journalist Jim Sleeper, now a professor at Yale to complain about the lack of civility on the part of -- the conservative students who wrote the frontpage article! He detects a whiff of "neo-Stalinism!" What chutzpah. Sleeper's campus is over-run with actual Stalinists (including the aforesaid professor) yet he singles out two conservatives who have the temerity to complain about leftwing anti-Semitism -- and to do it in no less. Harold Bloom, the most distinguished scholar on the Yale liberal arts faculty -- no conservative -- has for years complained about the Stalinists at Yale. "All of the traits of the Stalinists in the 1930s and 1940s are being the universities in the 1990s," Bloom told the Paris Review in an interview reprinted in Mark Edmundson's White Orchids and Trotsky . The Stalinists at Yale have obstructed conservative speakers, torn down fliers advertising their events, hurled insults at students, committed anti-Semitic excesses and have been so effective in purging conservatives from the Yale faculty and permitting only leftists like Jim Sleeper to be hired that frontpage's gesture will probably be the only defense of these students. It says a lot that a man like Jim Sleeper, who had an honorable leftist career as part of the Dissent community, should act as an enforcer for the communists at Yale in their ongoing battle to crush any brave soul who dares to challenge them.

Editor - 4/28/2003

On April 23, 2003 Eliana Johnson '06 and James Kirchick '06 responded to Mr. Sleeper's article in a letter to the editor of the Yale Daily News, which first published his piece.

Their letter can be accessed by clicking here:

jim sleeper - 4/28/2003

This is a very interesting example of a coordinated campaign, although, thankfully, as Prof. Carey explains, he was not subjected to any of the "blame and shame" tactics I mentioned. To expand on what I meant by referring to Stalinism in connection with the experiences at Yale, I published a second column in the Yale Daily News ( on April 14. I hope that by the time you see this response, HNN will have posted it. If not, I'll be glad to post it here eventually. No, I wasn't likening a bunch of militant conservative kids to the KGB; I was examining a tendency to report "enemies of the people" to Party-run media and elders who are even more powerful. Jim Sleeper

I matjecko - 4/26/2003

I am a graduate student at a large research university, and from my experience taking and teaching classes here, your experience rings true. I have seen examples here of undergraduates who are enrolled in classes not so much to take the course as to surveil its professor. They arrive in class with rigid ideological commitments, more or less sophisticated preconceptions or foreknowledge of the professor's politics, and active affiliations with such groups as Pipes's.

Many of them have an acute sense of their consumers' rights, post-secondary education costing what it does. Many of them have political ambitions. The Right cultivates its young turks. An attempt to discredit a professor perceived as 'liberal' or 'radical' can gain them future political employment, even if the attack is based on distortion and manipulation.

It's very tricky terrain. Professors of course are and ought to be accountable for what they say. And critical dialogue out to be just that, dialogue. But it's not about manners. The stakes are higher now than they were in the 1960s. The competition is fiercer. The education is much, much more expensive, and the prospects upon completion far less secure.

30 years ago a B.A. or B.S. from an elite school was a pretty solid meal ticket. Today it just positions you to begin participation in the next and even more demanding round. There, the competition comes from all over the world, not, as it did for Sleeper's generation, from your fraternity brothers at Harvard or Princeton. Rent and health care too have skyrocketed since the 1960s, even considered in proportion to inflation.

America has made a commitment to make economic product. It's pretty good at it. America has not made a commitment to produce much else, manners included. Such students as you describe a problem, but they're not the problem.

HC Carey - 4/25/2003

The point isn't the ctiticism per se: it's the way the criticism is orchestrated. here is a personal example

About ten years ago I taught at a small but prominent liberal arts college. The college had a small but very well funded conservative student organization which published a very slick magazine, on glossy stock. I mention this only to point out that this magazine was funded by conservative foundations--it had resources well outside the typical student paper.

I taught a special topics course on the history of psychology. The editor of the conservative magazine was in the class. On the first day, a student asked if he could take the course, even though he had no formal course in psychology. I replied that the course was asking different quesitons than a psych course, that it was a history of the discipline rather than a practice of the discipline, and that i had no formal training in psychology either. It was a history course, not a psychology course

A month or so later this "admission" appeared in the campus conservative magazine as part of a general attack on the supposedly shoddy state of the liberal dominated curriculum. Things had gotten so bad, the article claimed, that professors were openly admitting they had no training in the things they were teaching. It was clearly a distortion, a deliberate mistatement of what i had said, and part of a general shotgun blast at a wide range of different issues.

What's interesting is that within a few weks, this little nugget reappeared in a wide range of conservative newspaper columns--Willim Bennett, Philys Shlafley and a number of others I've since forgotten, Each time, it was more distorted. The last time I saw it, I had been transformed into a psych professor at an ivy league school who admitted he had no training in psych.

Let me hasten to say i suffered not at all for this--i was not chastized or punished or denied promotion or anything else as a result. But it's one thing to be criticized, it's another, as Sleeper points out, to have your words and deeds willfully distorted as part of an ad hominem attack. That's what Daniel Pipes does, regularly, and it's now part of a nationally funded campaign to tar all leftist academics with the brush of "america hating" brush. Don't believe it.

Criticize away--we all contend in the marketplace of ideas. But let us be aware of who is pulling the strings

I Matjecko - 4/23/2003

ha. amazing. i would think that the real decline here is the lack of change in the mentality of some baby boomers'. since when is it considered good "manners" for a faculty member to provoke a pissing match over contemporary politics with a couple of undergrads?

Waxer - 4/23/2003

Sleeper's article has caused a stir. see his latest column here:

I Matjecko - 4/22/2003

Considering that the current generation is standing eyeball deep in the toxic mess of Sleeper's generation, his sentimental walk down memory lane for agit-prop purposes is particularly offensive. Yes, there is no more draft. But Sleeper should also remember that since the elite schools have opened to women and non-whites, getting there is far, far more difficult. In other words, Sleeper's students had a much more difficult time getting into Yale than he did.

But at bottom the issue is not generational at all. There were a lot of young people in the Vietnam era who supported the war, just as there are a lot of students who support the Bush regime. Sleeper seems to be suggesting, based upon comparing a couple pieces of anecdotal evidence from, first, his days as a Yale student and, second, his days as a Yale faculty, that the current anti-war movement is comparatively uncouth. He puts it in terms of honoring the rites of civil society. Then he trots out Habermas to try and make civil society a uniquely American thing.

He writes "For all SDS's posturing, there wasn't violent protest at Yale in the 1960s." Of course, as most readers here will already know, there was violent protest, very violent protest, in New Haven, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, Madison, Lawrence, KA, etc etc. Sleeper can only make the above statement by confining its purview to the actual Yale campus.

Finally, whether one supports or opposes the war, the war has happened. It is not over but it has happened. People on both sides have been killed, maimed, and traumatized. To close the essay with finger-wagging at the violence of the anti-war contingency is a fantastic and obscene affront to people who have suffered actual violence. Only American academics and journalists endlessly spew out these martial metaphors, and they should take more care.