Campus Culture Wars and the Future of American Community

Thirty years ago this summer two students filed suit in federal court against Dartmouth College charging the administration with racial discrimination. The students were both white, and had been disciplined by the school for harassing a black professor.

At the time I was in my second year at Dartmouth, a school that was simultaneously in the backwaters of New England and on the frontlines of the culture wars. For several years the archconservative Dartmouth Review had been making national headlines for tactics like the one that had gotten the two students, Review editors Chris Baldwin and John Sutter, suspended. In this case they had confronted music professor William Cole in his class with racist barbs, refusing to leave until they had provoked a physical altercation. In the wake of the incident the Review’s staff, which had previously included present-day firebrands Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham, garnered ever greater support from the national conservative media, specifically the National Review, whose founder William F. Buckley weighed in on the debate in person, opining that, “Professor Cole, the tape recorder revealed, sounded as though he were strung out on dope, reciting a disjointed soliloquy on … poverty, racism, and the kitchen stove, peppered by the language of the streets, as one would most charitably call it.”

As John Casey pointed out in his coverage in the New York Times Magazine, the Review’s staff shared an obsession with a book that had been published the previous year and that quickly had become a bible for campus conservatives: “They swear by Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. They believe that it is morally imperative to study the classics of Western civilization in order to guarantee its survival. They want their reading list to be required at Dartmouth.”

Indeed, Bloom’s social conservatism made him a darling of the right while his undeniable erudition allowed him to claim the intellectual high ground. Although he could have complained about students’ ignorance of Plato, Rousseau, and Kant without blaming feminism and the Civil Rights movement, not only did he do both, he also engaged in venomous screeds against the introduction of new programs like women’s studies and black studies into college curricula. Likewise, by associating those who do agree about the importance of intellectual history with his diatribes against feminism and minorities’ claims to inclusion, his work clouded the truth that these movements were the outcome and expression of an evolution toward ever greater self-criticism, tolerance, generosity, and diversity in good part generated by the very liberal tradition he claimed to be defending against their arriviste onslaught.

It is clear today that the campus culture wars of the 1980s helped lay the groundwork for the noxious divisiveness that plagues our country today. It is equally clear that today’s conflict is different in profound ways.

The heightened sensitivities that subsequent conservative torchbearers have denigrated as PC are a symptom of how far we have come as a nation in respecting those whose rights have been trampled on. The curricular innovations and opening of the academy to traditionally excluded groups in the 1970s emerged from the hard work of the Civil Rights, women’s, and gay rights’ movements, and reflected an internal truth of liberal philosophy that these movements fought hard and suffered mightily for. It does a disservice to our national narrative to pretend, as Bloom did and many of his followers continue to do, that the liberalization of canons to include an ever-wider swath of identities and perspectives is some kind of aberration of that tradition as opposed to what it is: its realization.

At the same time, some progressives have acted as if the goal of the opening of the curriculum should be a wholesale rejection of any pre-existing canon. As that discourse has aged it has in some cases been radicalized; where before the emphasis was on inclusiveness, on what texts should be taught, more recently some have used it to dictate what should not be taught, and more insidiously, who should not be teaching it.

Recently one of my graduate students at Johns Hopkins, a young man from Italy, posted a flyer for his course on contemporary Mexican culture, a topic he can rightly be considered an expert on given that he has been studying Mexican culture and literature for years and is writing a dissertation in that area. Within days one of his flyers was covered in writing that warned students that this course was an example of “whitesplaining.” The instructor’s Italian name was circled and next to it was written, “not Mexican.” Sadly this minor incident fits a growing pattern of stories in which artists and intellectuals are being pressured not to explore the experience of others because that exploration could be a form of cultural appropriation.

It seems to me that the original motive of progressives was the right one: that curricula be more open and inclusive, and that we respect and encourage the exploration of others’ points of view. But if universities increasingly become places where one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation is assumed to be the source of an ineffable and ultimately incommunicable knowledge, the very classrooms that should be forums for wide-ranging discussion with professors who pride themselves for the reach of their inquiry will become increasingly constrained and limited in scope.

Ironically, the excesses of identity liberalism share something essential with their ostensibly conservative critiques: the celebration of the individual as an economic and social agent at the expense of a broader commitment to sense of national civic duty and community. At their core progressives understand the cultivation of community as their fundamental mission. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are about healing the larger community by spreading understanding and empathy for those whose lives have mattered less, or whose bodies and wills have been systematically manipulated. But when students protest introductory humanities courses, as they have at Stanford University and Reed College, shouting down in one case a self-described mixed-raced, gay woman with PTSD solely because of the classical texts she was trying to lecture on, they are taking a noble impulse to include and understand others, and perverting it into something darker and troubling. At the core of such protests is not the idea that we are all in a shared community and we need to find ways to bridge our differences, but rather that the attributes that define me and my group are ineffable, that we are besieged, and that we must lash out to protect ourselves. It is more than understandable that generations of violence and oppression would generate such feelings; but the place of the university should be to foster community-creating conversations, not smother them.

I am a humanities professor and I fervently believe that studying fields like literature, philosophy, and history is not only indispensable for developing into a fully actualized human being, but also for cultivating the historical awareness, critical acumen, and cultural curiosity necessary for being an informed citizen. Our canons have changed and continue to change; and this is for the good. But the larger story these canons feed, the story of who we are as a nation, must also be renewed. If not, all we are left with is a community in splinters. A major goal of our education system should be to constantly seek ways to rejoin the splinters of the American experience, which is something that only searching discussions about literature, history, and philosophy can do.

Studying the liberal arts, in other words, is crucial for democracy. Today the most pressing social and cultural challenge our nation faces is the degeneration of a larger sense of community. In losing sight of the balance between expressions of individual identity and the larger democratic community to which those identities belong, our education system and our society as whole is thus failing in its duty to transform children into a citizens.

One reason for this today is that liberal arts education, rather than a universal tool for exploring the American experience, has become the exclusive patrimony of the most privileged families; and even at elite colleges, humanities courses are often seen as a guilty pleasure that serious students need to justify, or avoid altogether. As one student recently confessed as he broke into tears, he would love to study art history, but his father told him he would cut him off if he used his Hopkins education to do anything other than attain the medical degree for which his family was investing so much in him. The exclusivity of elite colleges combined with an understanding of education as a purely economic investment ultimately intensifies inequality and exacerbates divisiveness, because it deprives our society of citizens with the cognitive tools, historical knowledge, and ethical commitments to forge a better civic space.

Thirty years ago a conservative college professor found traction by accusing tenured radicals of closing the American mind. But the American mind wasn’t closing, it was splintering into a thousand different individual selves, sorting itself into ever more specialized explorations of identity and into gated communities that could only see value in what would give those selves a competitive edge. By treating the central ideas behind a liberal arts education as an optional elective, an ornament to be enjoyed by those privileged enough to be able to afford it, but unnecessary for really getting ahead, we are running the risk of losing the most precious and vital tool a democracy has: the citizen whose role it is to ensure its survival.

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