Friday, August 07, 2015

Did Mario Savio ever do stand-up comedy?

For a long time, I have been blogging about higher education, especially about:
The entire system treating students as if they are kids at a four-year camp;
The growth of bureaucracy to make sure students are happy and comfortable; and, thus,
Various kinds of "parental" disciplining of students; and, finally
Higher education being run more and more as a ponzi-kind of business scheme.
So, of course I was very happy to read this essay on how today's college students can't seem to take a joke.  The author, Caitlin Flanagan, has a track record of going after the contemporary variations of political correctness in education, and almost always I don't have too many disagreement with her takes.  In this essay, Flanagan reminds us about the context:
Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”
Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are no Puritans and their politics are nowhere conservative.  One would think that these two comedians would be an ideal fit for college campuses, right?  But, when these mainstream comedians complain about the PC environment that straitjackets them, well, hey, to the PC crowd they might as well be Fox News anchors, eh! ;)

Perhaps you are thinking, "don't colleges have better things to do with the money than to invite comedians to campuses to entertain students?"  If you ask such a question, then that means you have forgotten that residential colleges are less about education and more about student affairs.  Colleges, big or small, make sure students are sufficiently entertained--should I remind you about football and basketball?  Comedians and music groups are part of the mix.  Why?  Flanagan writes about that too:
it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.
Resort is perhaps the best way to describe residential colleges anymore, with the fancy dorms, recreation facilities, fancy foods, and entertainment.  If I were being brutal, I would say that colleges are pimping out, but I would not say that; oops, did I write that? ;)

It seems so quaint that there was once a free speech movement on college campuses that pissed off the establishment.  Now, all those free speech students have all grown up and become the establishment.  And free speech is now harder to find in colleges than back then!  Comedy, and that too stand-up comedy, has always unsettled the audience.  Comedy is free speech.  If they were alive, George Carlin or Richard Pryor would not be allowed to perform on campuses
When you talk with college students outside of formal settings, many reveal nuanced opinions on the issues that NACA [National Association for Campus Activities] was so anxious to police. But almost all of them have internalized the code that you don’t laugh at politically incorrect statements; you complain about them. In part, this is because they are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses.
 All because the establishment wants to "protect" the "kids." Only in colleges will you hear adults being referred to as kids!
Sarah Silverman has described the laugh that comes with a “mouth full of blood”—the hearty laugh from the person who understands your joke not as a critique of some vile notion but as an endorsement of it. It’s the essential peril of comedy, as performers from Dave Chappelle to, most recently, Amy Schumer understand all too well. But to enroll in college and discover that for almost every aspect of your experience—right down to the stand-up comics who tell jokes in the student union—great care has been taken to expose you to only the narrowest range of approved social and political opinions: that’s the mouth full of blood right there.
Oh well.  I need to first fight for my own right to free speech at my own college campus! ;)


Anne in Salem said...

It's not just PC; it's also very thin skin. No one can say or do anything that might offend another human being, and human beings are mightily capable of taking offense. I am short, have been all my life. I think short jokes are funny. I have seen people react to short jokes said in my presence as if they think I will be wounded to my soul, ready to lambaste the jokester for lack of PC, lack of tolerance, lack of whatever for telling such an inappropriate joke. Perhaps college students have lost their sense of humor, or at least humor that doesn't require heavy bleeping. It's supposedly not actually about short people, but it is funny:

Ramesh said...

Good Lord ; this post is as American as it can get. I don't have a clue who Mario Savio is, who or what a Pell grant is, and whether I should be terrified or welcoming of a 529 plan. That there is something called a NACA is also news to me, but thankfully you have stated what the letters stand for.

The pox on PC !!

Sriram Khé said...

Ramesh, do you need more evidence after this post that I am an American? ;)
the student protests of the 1960s, across from the US to the UK to continental Europe, always fascinated me ... here in the US, one of the loudest and best-known student leaders for this free speech was Mario Savio. And you know how much I value the freedom to express ...

Anne, it is an interesting contradiction, right? On the one hand, the "kids" love all that bleeping talk and jokes and bodily humor, and on the other hand the very paternalistic university is intent on protecting them from comedians! Don't forget that some colleges even require "trigger warnings" in college syllabi ... it is one mad, mad, mad world!
There are jokes that are funny and there are jokes that are not funny. A joke about short people, or about a man speaking with an Indian accent, is funny depending on who says that and how that is said. There are people who tell jokes that are funny, and there are people who disguise their hate and bigotry via "jokes." As thinking adults, we know how to distinguish between these and then decided whether we want to watch those comedians or be friends with some people, right?