The Problem With Liberal Education image

The Problem With Liberal Education

Mark Lilla's new book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is short, punchy, pithy and provocative. In three well-written and brief essays, he summarises the fragmentation and individualism of the American right since Reagan (chapter one), the corresponding disintegration of the American left into ever smaller bubbles of identity politics (chapter two), and what can be done about it, which is essentially the progressive rediscovery of "we," of citizenship, of the demos on which democracy depends (chapter three). Guaranteed to infuriate both liberals (for criticising identity politics) and conservatives (for not going far enough), it is basically the book that Yuval Levin would have written if he was on the left rather than the right.

One of Lilla’s main targets is liberal education, and universities in particular (which is interesting, to say the least, given that he is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia himself). Here he is on campus liberals:

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X ... This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. (One never says Speaking as a gay Asian, I feel incompetent to judge this matter.) It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B ... What replaces argument, then, is taboo.

This, Lilla points out, is not how Martin Luther King and co did it:

It’s strange: liberal academics idealise the sixties generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: what was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the Greatest Generation you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional schools and colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one.

It’s a thoughtful book all round, although I doubt if anyone alive—except perhaps Lilla himself—will agree with all of it. I recommend it.

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