The Chronicle Review

How Colleges Are Strangling Liberalism

An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves.

August 20, 2017 Premium

Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

Donald Trump is president of the United States. This momentous event has turned our campuses upside down. The day after his victory some professors held teach-ins, some students asked to be excused from class, and now many have gotten engaged and have been joining marches and attending raucous town-hall meetings. This warms the heart of an impassioned if centrist liberal like myself.

But something more needs to happen, and soon. All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation. We need to accept our share of responsibility. Anyone involved in Republican politics will tell you that our campus follies, magnified by Fox News, mobilize their base like few things do. But our responsibility extends beyond feeding the right-wing media by tolerating attempts to control speech, limit debate, stigmatize and bully conservatives, as well as encouraging a culture of complaint that strikes people outside our privileged circles as comically trivial. We have distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognizable.

After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, American liberals faced the challenge of developing a fresh and truly political vision of the country’s shared destiny, adapted to the new realities of American society and chastened by the failures of old approaches. And this they failed to do. Instead they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. An image for Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.

The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. And it is not dead, as the recent events in Charlottesville remind us. The white nationalist march that set off the conflict, and then led to one protester’s death, was not only directed against minorities. It was also directed at the university and everything it stands for. In May 1933 Nazi students marched at night into the courtyard of the University of Berlin and proceeded to burn “decadent” books in the library. White nationalist organizers were “quoting” this precedent when they flooded Thomas Jefferson’s campus looking for blood. This was fascist identitarianism, something liberals and progressives have always battled in the name of human equality and universal justice.

What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party. This has been disastrous for liberalism's prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.

There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But the only way in a democracy to meaningfully assist them — and not just make empty gestures of recognition and "celebration" — is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does just the opposite, and reinforces the alt-right’s picture of politics as a war of competing identity groups.

Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people — African-Americans, women, gays — seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it — especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of effective liberal political consciousness.

Campus politics bears a good deal of the blame. Up until the 1960s, those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities, and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors. Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism, and education. Liberal political education, such as it is, now takes place on campuses that, especially at the elite level, are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country. This is not likely to change. Which means that liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.

Flash back to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Republican activists are setting out on the road to spread the new individualist gospel of small government and pouring their energies into winning out-of-the-way county, state, and congressional elections — a bottom-up strategy. Also on the road, though taking a different exit off the interstate, you see former New Left activists in rusting, multicolored VW buses. Having failed to overturn capitalism and the military-industrial complex, they are heading for college towns all over America, where they hope to practice a very different sort of politics aimed at transforming the outlook of the educated classes — a top-down strategy. Both groups succeeded.

The retreat of the post-1960s left was strategic. Already in 1962 the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote, "we believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence." Universities were no longer isolated preserves of learning. They had become central to American economic life, serving as conduits and accrediting institutions for post-industrial occupations, and to political life, through research and the formation of party elites.

Anyone involved in Republican politics will tell you that our campus follies, magnified by Fox News, mobilize their base like few things do.

The SDS authors made the case that a New Left should first try to form itself within the university, where they were free to argue among themselves and work out a more ambitious political strategy, recruiting followers along the way. The ultimate point, though, was to enter the wider world, looking "outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice."

But as hopes for a radical transformation of American life faded, ambitions shrank. Many who returned to campus invested their energies in making their sleepy college towns into socially progressive and environmentally self-sustaining communities. These campus towns still do stand out from the rest of America and are very pleasant places to live, though they have lost much of their utopian allure. Most have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes. They are places where you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso, and perhaps attend a workshop to ease your conscience. A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.

That’s the comic side of the story. The other side — heroic or tragic, depending on your politics — concerns how the retreating New Left turned the university into a political theater for the staging of morality plays and operas. This has generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, political correctness — and with good reason. But these developments mask a quieter and far more significant one.

The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. Some certainly try, but that seems not to have slowed the line of graduates shoving their way toward professional schools and then moving on to conventional careers. The real story is that the ‘60s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its own idiosyncratic historical experience.

The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that actually changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).

The lesson of these two lessons, so to speak, was that if you want to be a political person you should begin not by joining a broad-based party but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you. In the 1950s and early 1960s there were already a number of such movements — about nuclear disarmament, war, poverty, the environment — that engaged the self, though they were not about the self. Instead, engaging with those issues meant having to engage with the wider world and gain some knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, science, and especially history.

With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression."

This new attitude had a profound impact on American universities. Marxism, with its concern for the fate of workers of the world, all of them, gradually lost its allure. The study of identity groups now seemed the most urgent scholarly and political task, and soon there was an extraordinary proliferation of departments, research centers, and professorial chairs devoted to it.

This has had many good effects. It has encouraged academic disciplines to widen the scope of their investigations to incorporate the experiences of large groups that had been somewhat invisible, like women and African-Americans. But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.

Imagine a young student entering such an environment today — not your average student pursuing a career, but a recognizable campus type drawn to political questions. She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward toward the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she is encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. (Little does she know. …) She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity which, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not to progressively become a self — the task of a lifetime, Kierkegaard thought — through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.

And so she begins. She takes classes where she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she determines her identity to be, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus group that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be genuine but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes nonnegotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity (economics, war and peace) are hardly perceived.

These academic trends give an intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.

The more our student gets into the campus identity mind-set, the more distrustful she will become of the word we, a term her professors have told her is a universalist ruse used to cover up group differences and maintain the dominance of the privileged. And if she gets deeper into "identity theory" she’ll even start to question the reality of the groups to which she thinks she belongs.

The intricacies of this pseudo-discipline are only of academic interest. But where it has left our student is of great political interest.

An earlier generation of young women, for example, might have learned that women as a group have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address. Today the theoretically adept are likely to be taught, to the consternation of older feminists, that one cannot generalize about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on. More generally, they will be taught that nothing about gender identity is fixed, that it is all highly malleable. This is either because, on the French view, the self is nothing, just the trace left by the interaction of invisible, tasteless, odorless forces of "power" that determine everything in the flux of life; or, on the all-American view, because the self is whatever we damn well say it is. (The most advanced thinkers hold both views at once.)

A whole scholastic vocabulary has been developed to express these notions: fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, transgressivity, and more. Anyone familiar with medieval scholastic disputes over the mystery of the Holy Trinity — the original identity problem — will feel right at home.

What matters about these academic trends is that they give an intellectual patina to the narcissism that virtually everything else in our society encourages. If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it. If, as is more likely, she accepts the all-American idea that her unique identity is something she gets to construct and change as the fancy strikes her, she can hardly be expected to have an enduring political attachment to others, and certainly cannot be expected to hear the call of duty toward them. Instead she will find herself in the hold of what might be called the Facebook model of identity: the self as a homepage I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can "like" and "unlike" at will. "Intersectionality" is too ephemeral to serve as a lasting foundation for solidarity and commitment.

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they are to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X … This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: The winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one "epistemology," black women have another. So what remains to be said?

Things seem to have come full circle: Now the students are the narcs.

What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.

It’s a strange and depressing development for professors who went to college back in the 1960s, rebelled against the knuckle rappers, and mussed the schoolmarm’s hair. Things seem to have come full circle: Now the students are the narcs.

That was hardly the intention when the New Left, fresh from real political battles in the great out there, returned to campus in hopes of encouraging the young to follow in their footsteps. They imagined raucous, no-holds-barred debates over big ideas, not a roomful of students looking suspiciously at one another. They imagined being provocative and forcing students to defend their positions, not getting emails from deans suggesting they come in for a little chat. They imagined launching their politically committed and informed students into the world, not watching them retreat into themselves.

Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticizing force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. But by undermining the universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled, and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end this approach just strengthens all the atomizing forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: What was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s Greatest Generation, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were eager to engage in "the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice" for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

Conservatives are right: our colleges are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don't touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the ‘60s generation, they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like "Yankee Doodle" than Wagner.

The fact that they received a relatively nonpartisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work — that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University, His new book is The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Harper), from which this essay is adapted.