Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can’t Teach, Make Laws about Teaching, or Write Articles About What We Should Be Teaching and How We Should Be Teaching

On the latest episode of Real Time, Bill Maher hosted Caitlin Flanagan, author of the recent cover story for The Atlantic magazine. Her article, “That’s Not Funny!,” focuses on comedians playing the college-campus circuit and how they navigate the minefield of political correctness. Comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are staunch critics of the P.C.-culture of the modern campus; Seinfeld, in his interview for New York magazine, deemed campuses “too conservative” for most comedians’ material—“…they’re so PC.” In her article, Flanagan vilifies college campuses as incubators of politically-correct and ever-increasingly conservative students who are quick to be offended by jokes deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. She explains, “When I attended the [National Association of Campus Activities] convention in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed.”

I have often wondered how to teach comedy in the classroom, especially its intersection with racial, sexual, and gender politics. Baratunde Thurson’s How To Be Black, David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants all immediately come to mind as books that would make for exceptional teaching material. This is primarily the reason I was drawn to Flanagan’s article, as I believe comedy does have a place in the university classroom. The ways in which Flanagan historicizes the current moment, though, is something I take issue; her downplaying of the larger American culture and its impact on college campuses is something that must be attended to in any examination of American education. She writes, “College campuses have never been incubators for great stand-up; during the 1960s and ‘70s, schools didn’t dedicate much money to bringing in entertainers, and by the time they did, PC culture had taken off. This culture—its noble aspirations and inevitable end game—was everywhere apparent at [NACA].”

She argues that students have been conditioned to react this way to comedy for two reasons. The first is due to the fact that the students of college campuses today “are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses.” For Flanagan, this means social justice warriors, especially feminists. The second reason that she hypothesizes is that students are pressured to choose sides at the university: “These kids aren’t dummies; they look around their colleges and see that there are huge incentives to join the ideological bandwagon and harsh penalties for questioning the platform’s core ideas.” While Flanagan downplays the intellectual sophistication of students in the beginning of her article, she then pivots to suggesting that students are intellectually-savvy in choosing an “ideological bandwagon” in order to ‘play the game’ of partisan politics on college campuses. Students’ educational experience at the university has been narrowed to only a “range of approved social and political opinions.”

Flanagan’s article does not pick up on her accusations that teachers and professors at the university are to blame for PC-culture and students’ failures to understand rhetorical nuance. I would encourage you to view the (short) interview with Bill Maher to get a better sense of the implicit arguments that she makes in her essay (located below).

Let’s get real here: the conservatism that Flanagan and others point out is the conservatism of colorblindness perpetuated by neoliberalism in the wake of the post-Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the conservatism that Flanagan and others argue against is the conservatism that touts American patriotism, free speech, and the tenants of late capitalism that began under the Nixon administration and was carried to fruition by the Reagan administration. In the post-9/11 era in which these students were raised, it’s no wonder that free speech is increasingly policed, especially by those (e.g., conservatives) who argue that race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, and able-bodiedness no longer matters in the era of meritocracy (which, by the way, we know is a myth). Thus, the irony of what Flanagan calls “PC-culture” of college campuses is the increasingly colorblind rhetoric of “inclusivity” that would rather forget cultural and social differences in favor of ‘we’re all the same.’ Students have been conditioned to accept that the rhetoric of inclusivity (as purported by neoliberalism) must forget racial, sexual, and gender differences; thus, any mention of race, gender, and/or sexuality is considered to be inflammatory, even if that speech is in favor of celebrating those differences.  

The identity politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s celebrated cultural and social differences rather than erased them. This is, in fact, the key distinguishing point between that historical moment and the current one we live. Moreover, I would argue that college students are increasingly apolitical. I would venture to also suggest that perhaps the rise of PC-culture on college campuses is due, in part, to a technological age where students’ intellectual and cognitive abilities are not sophisticated enough to pick up on nuance and subtlety. Furthermore, Flanagan eschews culpability for the fact that American culture of the post-World War II era was largely responsible for raising children to see themselves as exceptional. We can see the apex of this in the post-9/11 era, where ‘everyone gets a trophy’ and students are risk-averse.

So, before Flanagan can critique college campuses and university professors and teachers for producing citizen-students who are more and more politically-correct, she would do well to attend to the historical legacies of American exceptionalism and the rhetoric of colorblind ideologies that have been simmering for more than four decades in the American imaginary, for it is these twin processes that have contributed to producing students who are increasingly apolitical and more apt to pursue occupations and degree programs that prepare them for labor production. Without such a historical critique of these antecedents to the contemporary moment, Flanagan espouses the same neoliberal ideologies that she purports are detrimental to students’ education.    



·      Caitlin Flanagan, “That’s Not Funny!”:

·      Flanagan’s interview on Real Time with Bill Maher: