The Chronicle Review

What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

August 24, 2017

I had to wonder where Mark Lilla was on November 9, 2016, as I read his new essay in The Chronicle Review, "How Colleges Are Strangling Liberalism." Early that morning, Donald Trump was declared president of the United States. Perhaps, like me, Lilla woke up all too aware that his next class would be especially demanding. Students would have one thing on their minds: How to make sense of an outcome that few predicted, many feared, and the consequences of which no one could wholly anticipate.

Did Lilla find solace in this circumstance? I did. As a teacher, I was fortunate in that I would fill my day with real-time, probing, and reasoned discussions. That is, if my students showed up. And they did. Rather than asking "to be excused," they were right on time. Signs of a late night showed on their faces. Still, they were present: 30 young adults, a diverse group seated at loosely arranged desks, knit together by a shared concern about our future.

Lilla’s charge — our students have turned "back onto themselves, rather than … outward toward the wider world" — does not ring true. How had Lilla managed to overlook my students, and others like them? It is perhaps because he relies upon little more than broad, untethered musings that only imagine students who have lost "a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation." I differ, if only because my thinking grows out of the granular everyday of campus life. From my vantage point, students are democracy’s newest agents, able to engage the wider world while also understanding their places in it.

Lilla is skeptical if not dismissive of classrooms like mine. For nearly 20 years I have taught African-American history and critical race theory as sites of what Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has called "democracy maintenance." Through this work, I’ve developed a strong sense that the classroom is a real-world place, not a cloistered refuge. Lilla and I agree that what we teach and how we teach matters. Our students leave campus to become community members, activists, teachers, professionals, and leaders. Lessons about citizenship, equality, and justice will shape our world long after many facts and figures are forgotten. Lilla decries young people who are self-referential, navel gazers, while I teach students who are taking our future in their hands.

From my vantage point, students are democracy's newest agents, able to engage the wider world while also understanding their places in it.
Confronting Lilla’s charge that today’s students act out of political interests circumscribed by "self-definition," I was compelled to return to my best evidence: examples from my classroom of young thinkers living out our shared ideals. Therein lies one story about democracy.

Far more than "identity" politics led up to the November election. For many weeks, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor campus, where I then taught, was subjected to a white-supremacist poster campaign. Opposition to these anonymous provocateurs was led by, among others, Lakyrra, a young woman in my class. One late-September afternoon, she told me that she would miss our regular session to speak at a rally aimed at pressuring university leaders to develop a response to the hate-filled messages littering walls and walkways. When I finished class, I headed over to the protest. I saw young people posing questions about the future of our university. How, for example, should freedom of expression operate in the face of hateful acts that threaten another of our ideals, the dignity of all community members? It was the right question, one that goes to the heart of our 21st-century democracy.

Lilla warns that what I encounter on campus is little more than "pseudo-politics." Would my students turn out, as he fears, to care more about their smallest selves than they would about the "great out there?" It’s a hard question to answer. Every teacher knows how affirmation can be a long way off. I myself am guilty of penning grateful missives to teachers only decades after their lessons finally became clear. Then, this past Monday night, I received an email from Tony, a former student. He thanked me for helping to improve his writing. That might be thanks enough. But what was attached reassured me that my students are as engaged with the problems and the possibilities of democracy as any previous generation. It was an opinion piece: "Confederate Memorials Endorse Treason And Racism." Tony was weighing in to help readers understand why the threads of the nation’s fabric are today so strained. His words aim to answer questions about the past, present, and future of our democracy.

Let students like Lakyrra and Tony be the test of our ideas. Lilla’s essay, when it looks for evidence, never considers my students or others like them. Instead, Lilla posits an imaginary student, one he terms a "recognizable campus type drawn to political questions." Let’s forgo the substitution of "types" or fictional characters, especially ones that parody students and their efforts to meaningfully engage with the world. Instead, let us recommit to the best of our campus culture. Let us teach — by the classroom lesson, with the writing assignment, and through the humility that is demanded when students seize the podium and speak for themselves. If we listen carefully, we will recognize that they are speaking for all of us.

Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University.