A New Liberalism
By David Ottlinger
Nathan Heller of the New Yorker recently made a substantial contribution to the contemporary debate over campus life.  Most of the article consisted of a report on the university and politics, and as someone who has been watching recent events at America’s college campuses, I appreciated all the new information. In addition to the reporting, Heller sketched an argument concerning what is wrong with college campuses at this political moment and how they might be fixed. Unfortunately, his argument, here, needs to be substantially filled in and fleshed out. The task seems worth taking up, in part because Heller makes a number of troubling suggestions . Though he sees the limitations and excesses that are typical of student protests, he also seems willing to make some very broad statements regarding an alleged failure on the part of liberalism as it is practiced by universities and in American society more generally. In doing so, he concedes something which, I believe, is far more important than he realizes. Indeed, it is a concession that may strike at the heart of liberalism, most broadly construed.
In reading the article, it becomes immediately clear that Heller thinks there is something wrong with the ideals and practices of universities today. However, it is not clear what he thinks the problem is. He sometimes refers to it as a “paradox” and other times as an “irony” or “contradiction.” His elusive way of articulating the problem is well evinced in this passage:
A guiding principle of today’s liberal-arts education—the gold-filter admissions, the seminar discussions, the focus on “leadership” and Emerson and exposure to difference—is the cultivation of the individual. And students like Eosphoros are where the inclusive-élite model gets tested. If students’ personal experiences are beside the pedagogical point, then diversity on campus serves a cosmetic role: it is a kind of tokenism. If they’re taken into account, though, other inconsistencies emerge.
Heller doesn’t say what those inconsistencies are (Eosphoros is a trans student and liberal activist profiled in the piece). Most often the ironies Heller finds have something to do with the supposed duality of students as individuals on one hand and part of a larger group on the other. The quotation given above already sounds this theme. Of course, this duality is familiar in ordinary life and is rarely problematic. Here I sit writing, a man, an American, a white person and whatever else, while still being an individual. This confuses no one. But Heller suggests that this duality becomes problematic in the context of higher education, today. He suggests that if students’ diverse backgrounds are “beside the pedagogical point,” the practice of finding diverse students would be essentially cosmetic. This is not necessarily so. Some diversity, such as that enforced under affirmative action, is not intended to make the university better, by way of a more diverse student body, but to make diverse students better by way of greater access to the university. Such grounds for increased diversity make what students can or cannot bring to the university, qua their diversity, irrelevant.
But Heller does not have this kind of justification in mind, and he is right that it’s not the justification universities typically use. Diversity is far from being “beside the pedagogical point.” Students of diverse backgrounds are supposed to bring different “perspectives,” where a perspective is constituted, I suppose, by knowledge of certain distinctive facts, values, cultural assumptions, etc. When students with differing perspectives are added to a discussion, it can assume new dimensions or take turns it otherwise might not take. Here’s an example: I remember sitting in on a teachers’ meeting and discussing the glib moral-relativism of a number of our students. (Many undergraduates have a shocking tendency to assert that moral statements are just opinions and cannot be argued, even when confronted with the most heinous of moral propositions.) A Chinese colleague remarked that this tendency was quintessentially American and a reflection of an austere individualism. Everyone has their own opinion as a kind of inviolable possession. To debate it was for a group to tread on individual sovereignty. This struck most of us as startlingly plausible. Of course, we would never have thought of it, because we were — almost all of us, anyway — Americans. I’m sure there are other examples like this. Ever since women have entered the university, new directions have opened up in the study of ethics.  Is it so hard to imagine how in a crowd of suburban, middle-class, white students, an urban, black student could add to a discussion on any number of subjects and issues?
But such a view, Heller thinks, leads to “inconsistencies.” What are these? As we saw in an earlier quote, he says that “A guiding principle of today’s liberal-arts education…is the cultivation of the individual.” He implies that this is somehow at odds with selecting students in virtue of the groups to which they belong. He returns to the same theme, when he says:
For most of the nineteenth century, Harvard [and other liberal arts schools’] professors taught a single, prescribed canon to a single, prescribed social circle. Today, horizons of knowledge are broader. A paradoxical promise—we’ll programmatically educate a group of you by drawing out your individuality—is inherent in modern liberal education, and a lot of classroom pedagogy tries to finesse the contradiction.
If this contradiction is supposed to be the same as the former inconsistency, as it seems to be, then it clarifies a few things. Higher education, on this view, offers students a “program” that will lead them to be “individuals.” And yet, “programmatic” and “individualistic” are thought to be mutually exclusive. If a group is subjected to a program, the group thereby becomes less individualistic, as the program tends to have the same, homogenizing effect on all the students. Accordingly, the university’s value of individuality is at odds with its practice of offering an educational program.
The problem with this argument is that it makes a false claim and then follows it up with a bad inference. To begin with, universities subject students to a program only in a weak sense. Liberal arts institutions do have core curricula to be sure, but these will only take, at most, half of a student’s college career. Students are free to choose their own majors, on as individual a basis as they please. Some will go to these universities to become scientists. Some will go to become artists. Some will study history or philosophy and go on to become lawyers. These are very different paths, leading to very different lives.
But even if students were forced to take the same curriculum, it would not necessarily prevent a student from “drawing out” his individuality. The standardized program to which students are subjected in the form of the core curriculum need not have a homogenizing effect. To be sure, it does focus on a “single, prescribed canon.” But teaching students the Western canon does not make them all the same. In the last class I took to satisfy my humanities requirement as an undergraduate, we focused on three ethics texts by Hume, Kant and Nietzsche. The entire point of the class was to show that the ethical outlooks represented in these books were mutually exclusive. Accordingly, three students could go into the class with quite similar views and come out with strongly differing views to the extent to which each one identified with a different book. When the canon is taught well, it should have this effect. It should not, as some conservatives seem to think, pass down some monolithic culture or a set of coveted answers to life’s questions. Rather, it should highlight how difficult and enduring these questions are, and offer a variety of answers.
At other points, Heller seems to diagnose what strikes me as a different, though possibly related, kind of dissonance. He writes:
A school like Oberlin, which prides itself on being the first to have regularly admitted women and black students, explicitly values diversity. But it’s also supposed to lift students out of their circumstances, diminishing difference. Under a previous ideal, one that drew on terms such as “affirmative action,” students like Eosphoros and Bautista [two profiled minority students] would have been made to feel lucky just to be in school. Today, they are told that they belong there, but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities, whatever that might mean. They bear out the school’s vision. In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class. An irony surrounds the whole endeavor, and a lot of students seemed to see it.
I would like to see where students are told by Oberlin, or any university, that they have a responsibility to “do the work of diversity” and “perform their identities.” I read Oberlin’s general mission statement, as well as its statement on diversity and social justice, and could not find it.  Obviously one can claim it is transmitted informally, but where is the evidence ? And yes, I have heard the stories of teachers and classmates turning to a black student and asking them to respond as if he or she was an appointed representative of an entire race. But is this all that was meant? Can such interactions, however awkward, confer a responsibility? Interestingly, Heller refers to these supposed responsibilities as “extracurricular,” so this must not be what he has in mind. Furthermore, the students Heller interviews do not seem to be burdened with such a responsibility. At one point Eosphoros says, somewhat ambiguously, “It’s always disappointing to be proof of concept for other people.” This is the only evidence Heller employs to support the idea that students feel burdened in this way, and it is far from decisive. Mostly they complain of what they perceive as harassment, “micro-aggressions,” “hostile environments” and so on. Neither the Professors nor President of the University seem the type to make such demands.
Heller also points out that Oberlin “explicitly values diversity” and yet is “also supposed to lift students out of their circumstances, diminishing difference”. This is certainly inspired by the line from the college’s diversity and social justice mission statement, which reads that Oberlin “recognizes and actively supports the distinctive cultural identities and histories of individuals and groups, while encouraging them to transcend these boundaries through encounters with those whose experiences and perspectives are different from their own.” I do not find this even vaguely ironic. It simply expresses the very basic liberal value of cultural tolerance. If the idea is meant to be that the university demands that students abandon their identities, then that is clearly false. In some ways, a college or university can deepen the identity with which a student comes to it. If a southerner comes to a university and studies William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, he or she may leave, in some sense, more southern than before. If one comes in a Christian and studies theology or religious studies, one may leave more deeply Christian. No courses of study demand that students abandon their identity, though admittedly they can have that effect. But more fundamentally, asking students to encounter and engage with beliefs and traditions other than their own is in no way an attack on their own beliefs and traditions. The “lifting of students out of their circumstance” need not “diminish difference.” Only the intolerant refuse to entertain the cultures of others.
Obviously, Heller-style arguments are resonating, because I see other attempts to diagnose some essential tension in higher education all around the web. A stark example came from Li Zhou in The Atlantic.  In a follow-up discussion to a previous article, she published correspondences with a reader, who writes, “Finally, there is a notion that Harvard wants to present itself ‘inclusive not exclusive.’ (That’s laughable and I don’t see why they’d want to present that; Harvard’s brand is based off eliteness.)” This is forgivable in a reader, but to my surprise Zhou responds, “I agree that the premise of an exclusive institution like Harvard striving to be more inclusive embodies an inherent contradiction”. But this is – if you’ll forgive me — silly. If I am making a fruit basket and want a diverse selection of fruits, I presumably want to get bananas, apples and oranges, dragon fruits, kiwis and so on. If someone wants to come along and say “This is not a diverse basket of fruit! You have no unripe fruit, no bruised fruit, no spoiled fruit!” that person is confused. What we wanted was not a basket of fruits that was diverse in quality but that was diverse in variety. A group does not have to be diverse along all axes, in order to count as diverse in the relevant sense.
Harvard does not want students who are diverse in that they vary widely in terms of their intelligence (highly unintelligent individuals could actually be harmed by acceptance). They want diversity in socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds and the like. All these students can be uniformly brilliant, without that fact negating their diversity in the aforenamed senses. (In fairness to Zhou, I am discussing one line from a follow-up piece. This is not meant to be an assessment of her original article. Also I am sorry for likening less gifted students to bruised fruit, but I couldn’t think of a kinder metaphor.)
David Brooks makes a similar argument, with quite a bit more sophistication.  Giving it full justice would require a separate piece, but I do want to highlight some potential areas of trouble. After describing campus life much as Heller does (and just before citing Heller directly), Brooks comments that “This situation [on campus] — a patina of genteel progressivism atop a churning engine of amoral meritocracy — is inherently unstable and was bound to produce a counter reaction.” After looking up the word ‘patina’, I concluded that this was false. Progressivism, as usually understood, is in no way in tension with meritocracy.
Progressives generally envision a society with a competitive market and a competitive process for democratic leadership, but with a social safety net — something to give a reasonable starting point for those poorly placed to compete and to catch those who fail catastrophically in the competition. And while meritocracy is certainly amoral, it is not immoral. You give the ‘A’ not to the student most morally deserving, but to the student who did the best job. This process is amoral in the sense that questions of moral desert do not enter into it, but it is not immoral because that practice, rewarding talent and not virtue, is itself justified by all kinds of reasons both moral and amoral. For one thing if a student who is a jerk works hard and does A+ work, and a student who is a saint does B work, because he was busy ministering to the poor, it seems plausible that it is moral, even obligatory, to give the jerk the ‘A’ and the saint the ‘B’. After all, the jerk could assert that he is, in a moral sense, owed the ‘A’ because he did the work. It is not clear that other facts about character are relevant.
More important are the overwhelming non-moral reasons. We assign grades in order to distinguish between the more capable and the less capable. If we failed to do so and instead assigned grades according to virtue, we would have no idea who had talent and who did not and could not funnel them towards appropriate roles in society. We want someone who is going to run a hospital to be capable first and virtuous second—and second, after a great distance. I don’t mean to suggest Brooks would be unfamiliar with these basic rationales for meritocracy, but it is good to rehearse them. Elsewhere Brooks suggests that a particular kind liberalism is inconsistent with a particular form of meritocracy. That argument I will not touch. But in the above passage he seems to imply that progressivism is inconsistent with meritocracy simpliciter. That I reject for the reasons given.
I understand the appeal to narratives like the one Heller offers. He understands perfectly well that the values played out on the campus have implications for the world beyond. In fact, adopting these values in all domains would mean adopting an entirely new kind of liberalism. Heller depicts the students as the “innovators,” and the “Firebrand generation.” Just as the 1960’s liberals accepted and redefined the liberalism of their parents, so the new Millennials will accept the torch their parents passed to them and redefine liberalism. This narrative is conciliatory. It flatters the young protesters as innovators, even if it chides them as somewhat misguided. It also speaks to liberal anxieties. Those older liberals whose feathers are ruffled are just the owls of Minerva, not yet flown. They are startled by and resist the protesters, because they have become rigid and entrenched. They have forgotten the historical flow in which they were once innovators and now have to bow to new innovation. It is a hopeful narrative in many ways. It has everything going for it but truth.
The traditional values of liberalism include unity through plurality, a shared set of rules and procedures to settle disputes, a common culture of tolerance, and democracy. The students’ views on these matters can be surmised from an anecdote which Heller relates. In a seminar offered by the Comparative American Studies program, apparently a kind of cross-sectional identity studies department, a professor was facing a considerable problem. The students in the seminar had begun to seat themselves by race. Worse, they refused to engage in class discussions across color lines. The students “of color,” Heller notes, would not listen to or dispute with white students; “they didn’t want to hear it anymore.” No doubt these students took themselves to be arbiters of the truth, relevant to their own identities and groups and did not see any way to enter into equal dispute with their peers. The professor tried dutifully to rectify the situation, but in the end, no doubt exhausted, she felt compelled to allow them to complete an independent study for a grade. I submit that should we accept the kind of innovation on offer at Oberlin, this classroom could be an image of our politics.
 I recommend particularly the section on ethics of care:
 The follow-up discussion from which I quoted:
A previous follow up discussion:
The original piece: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/05/a-more-inclusive-harvard/481878/