What Mark Lilla Misses

To the Editor:

The timing of Mark Lilla’s “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism” (August 20), roughly a week after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, published August 24, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students. While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.

At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm. Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with. Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.” The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live. Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns. The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself. Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better. Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better. Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better. Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.

In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

Ellen Mayock
Professor of Spanish
Washington and Lee University
gendershrapnel.org

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