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.

No Sheep Here at Wesleyan

You’ve probably heard the buzz around William Deresiewicz’s polemic against the “miseducation of the American elite.” In the most widely read article in the history of The New Republic, Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools (and others) for attracting students who will do almost anything to build a resume that will get them through the admissions filter, and then wind up without a clue as to either how to pursue an education in college or how they might lead meaningful lives. Our most highly selective schools, he argues, have become “inimical to learning,” training people who aspire to be both technocrats and aristocrats. They may talk about checking their privilege in undergraduate humanities courses, but they have been well trained to pursue paths only for the sake of prestige, power and money. As one of Deresiewicz’s student sources put it: “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Deresiewicz offers a complaint about “those young people today” that many have dismissed as a familiar rant about youth culture by someone no longer part of it. The author evokes Allan Bloom, who provided a similar, if more deeply sourced, critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Deresiewicz is surely right to complain about the rat race among ambitious high school students eager to do whatever it takes to get into a school with the most social prestige, without having to pay attention to how they want to learn or to what kind of learning context might be right for them. His comments are chilling on how bright and hardworking students enter the most selective schools with a wide variety of dreams about what they do after graduation only to become more and more homogeneous by the time they graduate. Look down the rows on graduation day at the most elite universities and colleges, Deresiewicz emphasizes, and two of the three seniors are likely to aspire to being bankers (or consultants). They just don’t know what else to do, since they’ve been trained always to go for the biggest prize. They’ve been taught that what matters can be measured; money is easy to measure.

Many students have written to Deresiewicz with tales of similar high achievement/low meaning experiences. His work has certainly struck an important chord in a culture that seems bent on making education only a job-training program — even for the most accomplished students. But there have also been biting critiques of his penchant for cherry picking his facts, preaching to the elite’s choir, and falling into embarrassing clichés. (“Have I mentioned that it isn’t easy? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all.”)  The New Republic has just published a stinging rejoinder from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who agrees that elite universities are paying attention to the wrong things in their holistic admissions processes. Pinker claims that less than 10% of the Harvard entering class is chosen for just “academic aptitude,” and he finds this scandalous. But he will have none of Deresiewicz’s talk of a well-rounded, meaningful life. Pinker wants students who excel when tested; he wants students who can perform in the classroom. Not quite saying what academic aptitude is, he is sure Harvard should emphasize it to create a “true meritocracy.” Many perversities would be eliminated, he insists, if we had more faith in standardized tests. Sure, they correlate with wealth, he opines, but perhaps aptitude does as well. If we just focused on academic aptitude, he suggests, the professors would be well served. Would the students? Would the society that supports the university?

William Deresiewicz called his book Excellent Sheep because he thinks we have created a system in which young people are encouraged to conform — not to think. By getting students to become better test takers and resume builders, he argues, we create people less capable of asking themselves questions that challenge the status quo — we create people incapable of thinking against the grain. Pinker seems to think that really smart people will think against the grain because they will pursue information and argument wherever it might take them. Worry about academic aptitude, he suggests, and the soul will take care of itself. Columnist David Brooks sees the debate between Deresiewicz and Pinker at the heart of tensions concerning the role of college education today.

Deresiewicz mentions Wesleyan and other liberal arts colleges as places in which very capable and creative students escape the herd mentality characteristic of the most elite institutions. Teaching hundreds of students over the last few years at Wes, I certainly see young people eager to question their own and other people’s assumptions. I also see faculty and staff willing to engage in the “education of the whole person” and not just training for a specific task. I don’t find many sheep at Wesleyan; I don’t see people only following the herd or people who have already made up their mind about what the rest of their lives will look like. I see people on the staff discovering new talents and finding ways to share them with others. I find faculty learning about their specific, specialized research areas, but also about the wider society and natural world. And I discover students with whom I can learn, and who are eager to find meaning in their lives as well as skills with which to live.

I recently wrote that, “A country that wants to maintain the dream of social mobility requires real colleges and universities that encourage everyone to find what Dewey called “large and human significance” in their lives and work. This requires the opposite of a nano-degree: not just code but context, critique, and cooperation. It requires real colleges and universities—institutions that equip students to reshape themselves and the world around them by learning to think for themselves and continually reinvent what they do.”

People often tell me that students choose Wes because of the culture — “sheep” don’t do well in our ecology. Our culture prizes abilities to thrive in ambiguity, change our minds, and work with exuberance in creative endeavors. We believe we can reshape our world and ourselves, and we are here to continue to learn how.