One might call it an occupational hazard. A teacher hears someone say something critical about students in general and has an immediate response: “Not MY students.” It shows a particular form of identification. The teacher assumes the role of defender of the youths as if being their teacher entails being their advocate. It’s also a brand of parochialism, this assumption that one teacher’s students are more or less representative of larger populations of students. The teacher has contact only with a small number of kids but doesn’t realize how partial his exposure really is.
This is what happened awhile back in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It started with a long opinion piece by Professor Mark Lilla, “How Colleges Are Strangling Liberalism.” The subtitle makes clear Lilla’s contention: “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves.” Lilla terms himself a “centrist liberal.” He regards the election of Donald Trump as a disaster. But, as he argued in his widely-circulated New York Times op-ed a few days after the tally came in, left-wing identity politics have dealt conservatives a winning hand. The way to win political office is “to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together,” he said in the Chronicle. “Identity liberalism does just the opposite.”
Lilla turns to the campus as the place where identity politics have distorted real politics into a self-oriented search for meaning. He quotes the 1971 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective: “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” Instead of receiving lessons in the wider world, from history and religions and philosophy and the arts, a new student on campus interested in contemporary politics is “encouraged to plumb mainly herself.”
The teachers and curriculum turn her inward, blurring the distinction between self-exploration and political activity, to the detriment of the latter. We end up with a degraded intellectual climate where arguments give way to taboos, critique to indignation. Worst of all, Lilla says, the students who might be politically interested and come to learn about the world end up not caring about anything but their own identity condition. Or rather, they see the world through the condition and overlook everything else.
Professor Martha S. Jones, a historian now at Johns Hopkins but last year at the University of Michigan, doesn’t believe a word of what Lilla writes. She refuted his piece in the same venue, the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an essay, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students.” Her statement is a perfect example of the defensive parochialism described above.
Jones doesn’t contest Lilla’s characterization of identity liberalism, nor does she deny that identity politics cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. Instead, she denies that students have become so absorbed in their identities that they have retreated from the real world and the real politics that shape it.
And how does she know that? Because her students aren’t like that at all. She has 20 years of experience, she says, and her classroom is not a “cloistered refuge.” It is a “real world place.”
Her students, whom she calls “my best evidence,” are not pseudo-political narcissists. No, they are “young thinkers living out our shared ideals.” That’s the conclusion she has confidently drawn from her “vantage point,” which looks out to the student population and sees “democracy’s newest agents.”