On Liberalism, Identity and Political Education

The following essay is cross-posted with Inside Higher Ed

Educated men of a certain age often seem to look at college kids with more resentment than is necessary. They criticize the young for not being more like we were (“perfect in every way,” as the song goes). Decades ago, philosopher Allan Bloom complained about young people gyrating to music that appealed only to their bodies without elevating their souls. Just a few years back, former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz turned op-eds into a book marketing his disdain for the conformity of undergrads under the label “excellent sheep.”

And now Columbia University professor Mark Lilla has followed suit, expanding into a new book his much shared op-ed blaming boutique liberals for the election of Donald Trump. In that expanded version, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (HarperCollins), campus politics are ridiculed as “Reaganism for lefties.” Most college towns, he writes, “have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes.” Lilla wants readers to be by turns annoyed and amused by the irony of leftist campuses breeding bourgeois consumerism, and he probably has a couple of colleges and universities in mind. He doesn’t name any.

The book stirs the pot among self-styled progressives who believe that the celebration of difference is the key to creating a more just society. Lilla argues that the scandalous ascent of Trump was only made possible by the “abdication” (a word he likes a lot) of liberals, particularly those who emphasize identity at the expense of solidarity. Unfortunately, Lilla says very little about the white identity politics activated by Trump’s campaign. I found no analysis of those voters who had supported Obama but switched their allegiance to a man who promised to restore their superior status as white Americans. I also didn’t find anything of substance on how white citizens who felt threatened by a loss of status and economic potential were energized by Trump’s brand of identity politics. Claiming that we are in a postvision America, Lilla devotes little to no effort to examining the vision that led to the Trump victory — nor does he say much about the vision that inspired Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. Instead, Lilla asserts (echoing Walt Kelly’s Pogo character) that “the only adversary left is ourselves” and condemns campus radicals for abdicating their responsibility to go beyond movement politics and build successful electoral coalitions.

Can it be that Lilla chooses to focus on college campuses because he has spent most of life working at them? No, he explains, they are so important politically because they educate the professional classes from which future liberals will be drawn. “Liberalism’s prospects,” he writes, “will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.” The most important things Lilla has to say concern the kind of political education we are giving our students today and the kind we should be developing — if there is to be a healthier American democracy.

Lilla convincingly shows that under the guise of increased attention to identity, there has been a noxious depoliticization among people who consider themselves progressives. Argument through testimony and confession proceeds by making “the winner … whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. Academic trends encouraging students to get in touch with their identities, Lilla writes, “give an intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.” Skepticism about the capacity of government to provide authentic social justice leads to a sanctimonious “plague on all their houses” attitude. That may earn one points as a purist radical on campus, but it leaves the fields of local and state politics open to others with very different values, allowing them to seize power for their own ends. “Evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend truth.”

Lilla wants colleges and universities to do a much better job of educating students to understand the mechanisms of power and how to engage in electoral politics so as to exercise that power more equitably. Fair enough. Sophisticated skepticism, no matter how intersectional, should not just be an excuse for giving up on the practices of electoral politics.

Recalling the “Roosevelt dispensation,” Lilla also longs for new images of solidarity to replace what he thinks of as an unhealthy emphasis on difference. And here’s the rub. I, too, believe that we need to weave together disparate strands of potentially progressive coalitions. But those in higher education who have developed academic fields emphasizing particular groups marginalized by mainstream scholarship have done so because past visions of solidarity have made these groups invisible. Lilla must be aware that the old solidarity came at the expense of all too many, and that thanks to the movement politics he derides, our politics now has the potential to be more inclusive. One can hope, despite the occasional outbursts of intolerance, that students and professors engaged in the study of identity and difference will be more prepared to reject coalition building that replicates the old scapegoating and erasures.

It is a core responsibility of liberal education to contribute to the political capacity of our citizens, and the challenges of this endeavor must not be reduced to the twin parodies of fragile undergraduates or politically correct student warriors. Political education at colleges and universities should not be indoctrination into any faculty member’s particular policy preference nor into a professor’s hip indifference to the political realm. Political education should inspire civic participation in ways that allow students to connect with people who share their views and to engage with those who don’t. That’s why intellectual diversity is so important on campus: to give students opportunities for debate and not just sharing. Through engagement with difference — including intellectual difference — students will find their own views tested, and their ability to effect change will grow as they learn to work with people with varied vulnerabilities and aspirations.

Even if Lilla sometimes caricatures the social justice warriors he says he wants to recruit for a new liberal solidarity, he has raised crucial questions for activists who disdain efforts to connect with people who don’t share their views. But the great issue today facing the once and future liberal is not how to overcome identity politics. The great issue for liberals and conservatives alike is how to overcome inequality. It’s not today’s campus activists who make coalition building so difficult; for decades, economic inequality has been destroying possibilities for solidarity, which means destroying possibilities for democracy.

Lilla is right that we need an “inspiring, optimistic vision” for America, but that will be only shallow political branding if we don’t find ways to deal with economic inequality while acknowledging our differences. Finding such ways amounts to insisting that as a polity we “live up to our principles” — that we try to, in James Baldwin’s oft-quoted words, “achieve our country.” Without overcoming inequality, America will drift farther and farther from this task, and we will continue to propagate poverty, addiction, resentment and the closing down of hope. Education, like democracy, depends on hope — on a belief that we can find ways to improve our lives in common. Cultivating that belief and making it real are momentous tasks for colleges and universities today.

Welcome to Wesleyan!

Students have been trickling in over the last several days, and now the big day is here when the class of 2021 arrives. I’ll be heading out soon to help our athletes assist in the move in process. Welcome to Wesleyan!

Calm Before Arrival Day Begins
International Students
New Faculty Gathers

If you have Arrival Day photos you would like to submit to Wesleyan’s Communications office, please send them to newsletter@wesleyan.edu.

Images from Arrival Day 2017:

Welcome to the 2017-18 Academic Year!

Today, I sent the following message to the campus community:

Dear friends,

Welcome to our university’s 186th academic year!

This fall marks my tenth year as president of Wesleyan. I’m using this occasion to try to look at our university with fresh eyes: What could we do better? What should we preserve, and what should we change? I look forward to feedback from all around campus and will be meeting with a wide variety of groups throughout the fall.

In recent months, we’ve worked to strengthen the curriculum – hiring new faculty and preparing new programs such as the minor in integrated design, engineering, and applied sciences. I’m also particularly excited about changes to the Shapiro Writing Center (now located at 116 Mt. Vernon) that reflect the importance we place on writing here. There have also been positive developments in the Theater Department, including the hiring of Kathleen Conlin as the new department chair, and several additions to the curriculum.

Promoting equity and inclusion on our campus remains a primary focus. Thanks in large part to input from students, faculty and staff, our new Resource Center will open September 11 at 167 High St., the former home of the Shapiro Creative Writing Center. We’re pleased to welcome Demetrius J. Colvin as the director, and invite everyone to visit the Resource Center. An open house will be held in the fall.

The good folks at Allbritton are hard at work on a Civic Action Plan, which will guide Wesleyan’s future engagement with Middletown. Based on conversations on campus and in the city, this plan will determine how to best allocate our resources in order to have the greatest impact on the surrounding area.

We have begun preparations for some major facilities projects, beginning with the Film Studies, the CFA and the PAC. We are also starting long range planning for a new science building. As you might guess, given these projects and the ongoing need to raise funds for financial aid, we are beginning to plan the next university fundraising campaign.

As the academic year begins, our hearts go out to those facing the consequences of Hurricane (and Tropical Storm) Harvey. As I write this message, the waters are still rising and the forecasts are not promising. My blog has some links to how one might help.

We’ll be getting the new year started on a musical high note, with the sixth annual The MASH festival and the Main Street Stroll both happening on September 9. Campus and downtown will be filled with music, street performers, specialty workshops, and much more!

Wesleyan has the well-deserved reputation of being a caring community, and I am confident that we will all be looking out for one another. Sometimes a friendly, helping hand is all someone needs to get on the right path.

Let’s make the university’s 186th year a great one. If we take care of one another, the boldness, rigor, and practical idealism of a Wesleyan education will surely come through!

Michael S. Roth
President

Helping those Affected by the Floods

We watch with horror as floods continue to ravage East Texas. Many are homeless, and the continued rains in an already saturated landscape are sure to result in more suffering. Our hearts go out to those struggling with this historic catastrophe.

Many Wesleyans want to find ways of helping those in the path of the storm. You can find lists of relief agencies working in the area here, here and here.

Coming Back to Campus (and the Eclipse!)

Having spent a productive and rejuvenating time in the Berkshires, I came home to Wesleyan early this morning. Lake Garfield is a lovely spot, as you can see from the picture below, but I always get a thrill coming back to this campus I love.

 

Lake Garfield (pond)
Andrus Field on a Summer Morning
Crowd gathers on Foss for Eclipse

 

Staff are busy finishing summer projects and planning for the students’ arrival, and faculty are finishing up their preparations for classes that will soon be animated by discussion.

The virtues of a pragmatic liberal education are more evident when aggressive ignorance abounds. One doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of the perils of narrowness, close-mindedness and obfuscation. Our educational project is vital, and we will pursue it with energy and empathy.

Summer is winding down, and I am excited about the fall semester to come!

 

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” These were, according to several reports, the words of a recent Facebook post by Heather Heyer, killed yesterday in an act of domestic terrorism. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville threatening violence while evoking their Nazi heroes; with torches and fascist salutes, they call for the restoration of regimes of racial terror. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

“It is disheartening for black folk to see such a vile and despicable replay of history,” writes Michael Eric Dyson. I know that Jews, gays and many other Americans also feel disheartened — we feel our hearts ripped apart when we watch the torches, the Nazi “Heil!” salute, the sickening displays of resentment and anger. Prof. Dyson goes on to say that “facing this unadorned hate tears open wounds from atrocities that we have confronted throughout our history.”

But face it we must, and we must reject the rise of unadorned hate and American style Neo-Nazism. As educators and students, as participants in our local communities and in our national polity, we must confront those who would restore violence and terror as mechanisms for fulfilling their contemptible fantasies of white supremacy.

And we must remember Heather Heyer, whose outrage led to action in Charlottesville, and who lost her life fighting for what she believed. May her memory inspire others and be a blessing to her fellow Americans.

Affirmative Action: Now More than Ever

This morning I published this op-ed in Inside Higher Education on the importance of defending (and, I think, expanding) our programs aimed at creating a dynamic, diverse student body. I cross-post it here.

Even after weeks of macho vulgarity, preening and unruly incompetence, this week the Trump administration still managed to send shock waves through the higher education and civil rights communities. The New York Times reported that the White House wants the U.S. Department of Justice to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Subsequently, the DOJ announced that it was really just seeking “volunteers” interested in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans.

Perhaps this is a move by the White House in concert with Jeff Sessions, playing to their shared political base. Under the guise of protecting the rights of Asian-Americans, this could save the beleaguered attorney general by making him the defender of white people who feel threatened by opportunities given to minorities. But apart from the cynical political opportunism of this move, we can also see the threats against affirmative action as another effort to use higher education to protect those who already have key social advantages.

Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented poor should be educated at public expense so that inherited wealth would not doom us to rule by an “unnatural aristocracy” of wealth. A few years after Jefferson’s death, African-American shopkeeper David Walker penned a blistering manifesto pointing out that “the bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” Some years later, the young slave Frederick Douglass received a “new and special revelation,” namely, that learning “unfits” a person for being a slave.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.

Residential colleges and universities have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s, many institutions steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect. Education, as Douglass said, makes you unfit for slavery.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals — here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”

Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have often had to depend on the federal government to ensure that states provide access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration commandeering the civil rights division of the DOJ to shore up privilege. This latest threat to higher education — like recent decisions undermining voting rightsand plans for a “merit-based” immigration system — is at its core another attempt by elites, scared “almost to death,” to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.

President Trump has become the leader of what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” and perhaps we should not be surprised that it should attempt to increase its privileges. We who work in educational institutions must push back against this attempt, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.

College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived — including intellectual diversity — and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it.

From ‘Unruly Hearts’ to Open Minds

Inside Higher Ed asked me for a response to the new Pew survey results regarding colleges, and I wrote the following op-ed, which was published this morning. 

 

Commencement was over, and we had awarded diplomas to the more than 800 graduates in a timely way. I had made remarks, as I always do, connecting the education they had received with events in the world at large, especially the combination of corruption and inertia in Washington. While marching across the stage, a few dozen graduates managed to express their disappointment that the administration in general and the president (me) in particular weren’t as progressive as they would like on issues such as sexual assault, divestment from fossil fuels and support for underrepresented groups.

The commencement address at Wesleyan University this year was given by the MacArthur grant-winning poet Claudia Rankine. As president and master of ceremonies, I admit I was focused on the way she engaged the students — no easy task. The address was political, as antiracism speeches must be, and it was smart, funny and moving by turns. She concluded by expressing, “Love to each of you and love to your bad behavior in the boardroom, on juries, in the office, on the street, at your dinner tables in all and every space that believes it can hold racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and on and on. Love to you and your wild and unruly hearts imagining our world again.”

As families milled about after the ceremonies, taking pictures, sharing hugs and high fives, I was suddenly called out by an angry voice: “You annihilated my existence,” yelled a middle-aged man. Taken aback, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You annihilated my existence,” he repeated and went on to say that the ceremony had left him out and was an example of why people hate closed-minded universities today. Evidently, he did not feel included in the poet’s reference to unruly hearts.

I was surprised by this outburst, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I had recently encountered pushback from some on the other end of the political spectrum when I published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an affirmative action program for conservative ideas on campuses. Noting the tilt to the left in many humanities and social-science divisions at selective colleges, I argued that it was not enough to take a free-market approach to intellectual diversity. Being unruly at a Northeastern university these days should include making a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived. We should avoid the hate-filled provocateurs of the alt-right and instead encourage the serious study of ideas outside the progressive consensus.

Many students and colleagues who think of themselves as being on the left, as I do, worked themselves into a position of outrage, even victimization, after hearing about my short essay. A young alumna returning to campus for her reunion told me that I had made it more difficult for people like her to get an education because I was claiming that this education should contain ideas contrary to her own. She didn’t say I had “annihilated her existence” but seemed to feel that way.

What’s going on?

Survey data released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts have given me a better feel for the intensity of such reactions. It is clear that many national institutions with hitherto broad public support are now viewed very differently depending on one’s ideological position. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Republicans and right-leaning independents have a far more positive view of churches and a more negative view of labor unions than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Although the media’s popularity among those tilting left has grown over the last year, that doesn’t offset the steep decline among Americans on the right who think the national media is having a positive impact on the country. Interestingly, one can’t find a majority who think favorably about banks and financial institutions, though Republicans are more positive (46 percent) than Democrats (only 33 percent positive).

The sharpest partisan divisions appear when people are asked whether colleges are “having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country.” Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and their ideological friends now say that colleges are having a negative impact, while 72 percent of Democrats and their comrades see colleges as positive. This gap has widened significantly in recent years. In 2015, a majority of GOPers thought positively about higher education; in fact, the decline among those who lean to the right is close to 20 percent! The views of colleges of those who fall toward the left have been pretty stable.

Colleges and universities have long been the screens upon which groups project their own fears and anxieties. Older people wonder what the next generation is coming to, or worry that their children are having their lives distorted by a professoriate not part of their “real world.” In the past two years, the fantasy of political correctness on college campuses has been a catch-all for a range of people angry about the world, especially those concerned about their status in our age of rapidly growing inequality. The PC campus bogeyman has an important function — it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by university restrictions on how they organize parties, they find a new rallying cry in bemoaning “political correctness.” When middle-aged veterans of college protests of yesteryear no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today’s students, they complain about PC culture undermining free speech. When men, even elected officials, are caught bragging about sexual assault, they punch back at political correctness.

As I noted in the run-up to the presidential election, there just isn’t any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, and so people friendly to the status quo will continue to trumpet their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack society’s most vulnerable groups. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

At the same time, those attacked as PC shouldn’t take the bait and content themselves with labeling anyone who attacks them as racist. Those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony. Those who support a progressive campus culture make a big mistake if they think they are protecting that culture by insulating it from ideas that come from conservative, libertarian and religious traditions.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and lately it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information — be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news — that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. When they are confronted with disagreement, they may feel their “existence is annihilated” or that the person with whom they disagree wants “to make it harder for people like themselves to get on in the world.”

So those on the left and on the right surveyed by the Pew Foundation may actually share the same picture of colleges but just evaluate it differently. Democratish survey respondents may be imagining campuses as places where they would find people who hold views like their own, and Republicanish respondents may be thinking that people like them would simply be called nasty names were they to speak out there. Both groups may be imagining colleges in blue states and red states as places where like-minded people go to become more alike.

This is a disastrous view of colleges and universities, one that we who work on campuses must do our best to dispel. We must highlight and enhance the ways that students and faculty members consider alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses. By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to the campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

Even when colleges and universities are seen as places to engage with ideas and inquiry that break a consensus rather than support it, when students and faculty are seen as capable of trying out ideas without fear of reprisal, not everyone will say that colleges are having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” If we are doing our jobs, some should always object to what happens on campus. But when we are getting objections (and support) from people who hold a variety of perspectives, then we can be more confident that we are fostering the intellectual diversity essential for higher education’s role in this country.

Summer Send-Offs Underway

One of the first things Kari and I did after I was appointed Wesleyan’s president ten years ago was to attend a Summer Sendoff. We were living in Berkeley at the time, and the gathering of Wesleyans from around the Bay Area was both welcoming and exciting. We are grateful to the parents and alumni who host these special events at which pre-frosh get to meet others just starting their college careers. This year members of the class of ’21 will also discover the alumni and parent network, a resource that will be part of their lives for decades.

  • This year 21 Summer Sendoffs have been planned and they are occurring around the globe.
  • These casual gatherings are the perfect opportunity to welcome our newest students and their families to Wesleyan.
  • All alumni, students and their families, faculty, staff and friends are invited.
  • Specific details and registration can be found here.

These events are already underway. Here are pics from Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Taipei, Taiwan summer sendoff
Tokyo, Japan Summer Sendoff
Seoul, South Korea Summer Sendoff

Happy July 4th! Happy Summer

On this Independence Day, I am eager to share with readers of this blog a video by a Wesleyan alumnus who has done more than anyone to turn our attention to the revolutionaries who helped found the United States. Here is Lin Manuel Miranda ’02 and friends’ “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”

And since I know many of you will have already seen that video, I offer you a picture of simple summer happiness. Happy 4th!

Mathilde on Vacation