Friday, May 27, 2016

David Brooks penetrates the student movement. Well, not quite.

Image via Amazon Fashion.
David Brooks is jumping today ("Inside Student Radicalism") into the rightwing crowd howling around Nathan Heller's "Letter from Oberlin" on the perils of intersectionality in the little to medium-sized private liberal arts college, in the current New Yorker, which offers many hilarious examples of campus excess, the student who wanted trigger warnings posted for Sophocles's Antigone (students could be affected by the heroine's argument in favor of suicide), or the theater professor who slipped on a Groucho Marx nose or something like it ("a rubber nose and glasses") during an interview, while Heller wasn't looking ("a grown man, having a meeting with a reporter from The New Yorker, behaving that way", shrieks Rod Dreher, who will certainly behave with the utmost sobriety if a New Yorker reporter ever interviews him), or the president who likes to talk over issues with students over ice cream, because "There is nothing like ice cream to bring people together".

(For Dreher, that function is better filled by "a salade gourmande, which was a green salad with haricots verts (those matchstick-thin French green beans), fresh mushrooms, in a mustard vinaigrette, with a side slab of pâte de foie gras" to start, followed by chicken in a creamy sauce with fresh morels. It's astonishing, by the way, what a timid Anglo eater Dreher is, considering how sophisticated he thinks he is, ordering the chicken in Lyon where he's afraid to try tripe, andouillettes—the man is from Louisiana!—or even the house specialty of pike quenelles. And he believes tripe [stomach lining] and chitlins [small intestine] are the same thing, the ignoramus.)

Brooks (he probably got the idea of writing about it from Dreher, too) isn't going to be so vulgar, of course, as to go into these outrages (though he can't quite stop himself from mocking the students who presented the administration with a list of "50 nonnegotiable demands" to atone for the way "this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy").

He's more interested in using the story as a springboard for his own recurring shtik against "meritocracy": stuck between the Scylla of meritocracy and the crushing competition from which only the keenest can emerge on the one hand, and the Charybdis of "identity politics" in which "your right to be heard is earned by your experience of discrimination" on the other, students are unhappy and lost: what they need, for Brooks, is an education that focuses on giving them a purpose in life instead of all that stressful nonsense about learning stuff:

We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.
If we slowed down the frenetic pace of competition, and helped students think about vocation — the meaning and purpose of work — then life would have a firmer base.
One of the things that wrecks Brooks's argument is his inability to understand that identity politics arises from people having, you know, identities, which other people use to taunt and diminish them. One black student remembered how alumni received those 50 demands:
“They are quick to turn around and call twenty-year-old students the N-word, and monkeys, and illiterate uneducated toddlers, and tell us to go back to Africa where we came from, and that Martin Luther King would be ashamed of us...” 
Maybe that's not an exactly accurate recollection, but it's informed by real experience, and I'm sure at least the bit about MLK was really said to them by some pompous white ex-liberal committeeman (no doubt a reader of David Brooks). Likewise, the student worried about Antigone's defense of suicide, a trans man, disabled, and a sufferer from bipolar disease and ADHD, had spent his whole brief life needing to be talked out of killing himself, and he wasn't trying to censor the text, merely to have people informed that that stuff is in there.

Brooks, though, seems wholly unaware that these students are interested in protecting themselves from shaming and microagression; he even praises the movement for its noble devotion to others:

The current identity politics movement, like all previous forms of campus radicalism, is sparked by genuine social injustices. Agree or disagree with these students, it’s hard not to admire the impulse to serve a social good and commit to some lofty purpose.
Not that hard, of course. He manages not to admire it pretty efficiently.

There's a wonderfully pungent insight around the middle of Heller's piece:
as I talked with Eosphoros and Bautista and other students I began to wonder whether they were noticing an ideological incongruity some older people weren’t. 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 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.
However radical the campus atmosphere might be, and however liberal its historical goals, a school like Oberlin remains, as it always has been, a venue for initiation into the ruling class. Indeed, more so than ever with the inflation in tuition (up "13% in 2015 dollars over the five years from 2010-11 to 2015-16, following a 24% increase between 2005-06 and 2010-11")—anybody who's paying full fare to go to Oberlin itself is spending north of $66,000 a year for the privilege.

Meanwhile, the old affirmative action ethos, according to which the system needed to open up to the victims of discrimination to provide them with a just share in the power structure, has been withering away under attack from the ruling class in the form of Congress and the Supreme Court, and replaced by an ethos of diversity for its own sake; minorities need to be "represented" on college campuses as a contribution to the richness of the college experience and its educational value. Which is valid, in a real sense, a diverse environment really is educationally superior to a parochial one, but it's also a bizarre pressure on the students who must do the "representing", like exhibits in a museum of the beauty of American tolerance and love.

They're in effect being paid to prove to the world what a virtuous place Oberlin is, by making an offering of the picture of their differentness, even as they're supposed to be acculturating themselves into the sameness of the paying customers. Not that the authorities at Oberlin intend such a horror, but without affirmative action, and the assumption on the part of the authorities that those particular minority students just deserve to be there because they're good (even if, as sometimes happened, somebody's SAT score wasn't as high as somebody else's), it's baked into the structure.

As to meritocracy, it doesn't exist, as no less a figure than Robert Putnam has been pointing out to anybody with ears to listen. It's increasingly birth and connections that account for success in American life. A little genuine meritocracy and a restored affirmative action (Scalia's dead!) might give these very bright kids hope that there's something for them on the other side of a degree that's so desperately difficult to attain if you don't have the backup of family money.

In fact, if David Brooks felt like looking for it, he could find some of that sense of vocation right there among the Oberlin students Nathan Heller interviewed. The one who says,

“I’m going home, back to the ‘hood’ of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
(actually, she says she's going back to the 'hood with a New Yorker apostrophe, not a "hood" in scare quotes, dear Times copy editors) means to go back as an activist, with some of that "radiating" behavior Brooks is always talking about:
“I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.
The one who talks about

“Working my piece of land somewhere and living autonomously — that’s the dream”
has a much more complicated agenda to get through before she gets there:
In the immediate term, she hoped to join AmeriCorps and build her résumé. She thought she might end up being a class-action or impact-litigation lawyer. Then she wanted to get as far away from the United States as she could.
But Brooks can't see it at all. He's still just projecting his own sad lack of a sense of purpose on everybody and everything he sees. I'm sorry, but why doesn't somebody help him think about "vocation—the meaning and purpose of work", so that he'll do some of it for a change?

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