I came to Cornell absolutely terrified. I had just spent my gap year in Israel, where I’d studied Jewish texts intensively, made some of my closest friends and met the girl I’m marrying this summer. I’d also read conservative columnist Thomas Sowell’s Inside American Education, which he wrote at the peak of the era of political correctness.
In excruciating detail, Sowell depicted the widespread harassment of conservative students at American universities, both within the classroom and without. He convinced me that my kind was not welcome at Cornell. To make matters worse, I’d also heard about the public burnings of the Cornell Review and celebrations of the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover, both of which the University administration supported. Needless to say, I did not arrive with high expectations.
What I actually found on campus was radically different. No one was burning the Cornell Review, though piles of new issues occasionally “disappeared.” Individuals who protested the Review or other conservative publications were on the margins — they could barely muster more than ten people. The University administration barely made a peep when the Review published an “offensive” comment in my freshman year, limiting itself to a bland exhortation for “reasoned inquiry and debate across the ideological spectrum.”
The legacy of the Willard Straight Hall takeover had also changed. Facebook informed me that the African Latino Asian Native American Students Programming Board was sponsoring a “Willard Straight Hall Takeover 43rd Anniversary” in the Ivy Room. The event description devoted two words to the “student performances” that would take place. It gave significantly greater emphasis to the event’s “amazing spread of food.” Indeed, the real draw were the “Vegetarian Samosas,” “Vegetarian Cubano Slider,” “Hummus Platter with Pita Chips” and the “Hula-Hula Chicken,” among others. We don’t care about the militants’ message anymore, just the buffet of multiculturalism they made possible.
Cornell has pretty much moved past the excesses of political correctness. Sure, we’re willing to entertain the provocations of pseudo-radicals — Occupy Cornell had about fifteen seconds of fame, after all — but at this point we’re more interested in gathering our food and moving along. This is a welcome development.
Another happy surprise was the strength of conservative political life. I would’ve never expected that Paul Wolfowitz and Ron Paul would visit Cornell in the same semester, let alone ever. Likewise, I wouldn’t have believed you had you told me about the minor role the College Democrats play here. I’m still surprised that I can’t even think of one large-scale event that they’ve hosted.
Here’s what I think happened. Cornell’s conservatives have felt obligated to make a strong showing since the early 1980s, when political correctness was in full force. They sought to combat the left’s grip on the campus culture. Hence the founding of the Cornell Review in 1984, which followed on the heels of Counterpoint at the University of Chicago and The Dartmouth Review. Since that time, the left has mostly retreated from the public domain: Their most vocal members are found in academic departments or ragtag protests.
In other words, Cornell is not what Thomas Sowell had primed me to expect. But this isn’t the only reason why I’ll miss it here. I’ll miss the long, heated and even sometimes vicious arguments; the sacred space; the irreverence; our foolish sense of optimism. It’ll be hard to sustain these things as we move ahead, but we must try. In that spirit, we should remember the words of the inimitable Walt Whitman:
“Beginning my studies, the first step pleased me so much, / The mere fact, consciousness — these forms — the power of motion, / The least insect or animal — the senses — eyesight — love; / The first step, I say, awed me and pleased me so much, / I have hardly gone, and hardly wished to go, any farther / But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in ecstatic songs.”
What does it mean to sing our studies in ecstatic songs? I don’t exactly know, but I think Whitman is arguing that we must always feel sincere, almost childlike joy in our pursuit of knowledge. I will always be grateful to Cornell because it has afforded me such an experience. So to all the teachers and fellow students who made it possible: Thank you.
Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at email@example.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.