Commencement Culture Wars

18 May 2014



The Culture War is not over. Instead of being waged over textbooks for elementary and high schools, it has moved into universities, and the inflection point has become the symbolic role of the commencement address. Even while the most prestigious institutions seek the most prestigious speakers for their commencement celebrations, interest groups on campuses across the US have been agitating and campaigning to block the appearance of some of these prestigious speakers, which action constitutes a kind of symbolic victory over imagined enemies — the greater the prestige of the speaker prevented from speaking at commencement, the greater the symbolic victory.

There have been two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind” by Ruth R. Wisse (Monday 12 May 2014) and “Bonfire of the Humanities” by Daniel Henninger (Thursday 15 May 2014), that have taken particular aim at the withdrawn invitations for three high-profile speakers: Christine Lagarde of the IMF was to speak at Smith College, but withdrew after 480 students signed a petition against her appearance; Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to speak at Brandeis University but was uninvited due to a claim of her making anti-Islamic statements; Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of UC Berkeley, was forced to withdraw from speaking at Haverford College’s commencement due to accusations that he had condoned the use of force by Berkeley police to clear away Occupy protesters. (It’s times like these that I have no regrets about not going into academia.)

It is easy — all too easy — to spin this latest round of battles over commencement speakers as political correctness gone out of control at major universities. The readers of the Wall Street Journal are likely to lap up this narrative like a cat laps up cream. And rightly so. Colleges today have become places of “ideological conformity” (as Ruth R. Wisse puts it) and “tendentious gibberish” (as Daniel Henninger puts it) — all in the name of “tolerance.” As Pascal said, “‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” And here the “religious conviction” is the surrogate religion of diversity.

This could have been the opportunity for some new and innovative political thinking — only, it hasn’t been. It has, rather, been a pretext for the same old, same old in politics. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the response to campus radicalism deteriorates into all the familiar tropes of the trad-con axis (“trad-con” is the term used by some today to designate “traditional conservatism”). A case in point is another news story that has energized trad-con types and become a minor cause célèbre among the chattering classes, reported in Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged and Harvard’s so-called ‘white privilege’ class both by Anthony Zurcher, Editor, BBC Echo Chambers.

The young man who wrote this now widely-circulated essay in which he refuses to apologize for his “privilege” could have used the opportunity to question the left//right dialectic, but instead (and in spite of his youth) settles comfortably into a trad-con rut from which he is unlikely to ever extricate himself. Having become a hero of the moribund right in his early years, he need to do little more in order to assure himself a bright future in telling people what they want to hear. And if you can tell people what they want to hear while making their political opponents outraged, well, so much the better.

The left-right dialectic belongs to the past, and those today who seek to keep the flame alive — whether they come from the left or the right — are beating the carcass of a dead horse. In my post Ideas that will Shape the Future I wrote of the decline of left/right politics:

The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization, globalization, technological unemployment, exponentialism (albeit selective), and bitter conflicts over the life sciences that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.

The decline of left/right politics will not transform the nation-states of today into apolitical communities; political communities will continue to be political communities, but their politics will change over time, old coalitions and marriages of convenience will fall apart while new coalitions will emerge. All of this will take time. It will be a slow and very gradual political evolution. In fact, it will be such a slow transition that it will be plausible to deny for many decades — perhaps for a century or more — that anything has fundamentally changed in the political structure of society.

The “debate” today — if we can call it that — cannot move forward because it is mired in the past, it is conducted in the terms of the past, and it cannot do more than to reassert the values, meanings, and purposes of the past. And when I here write of “the past” I am not only speaking of trad-cons nostalgic for an imagined past, but also of their political opponents who are equally deluded about the world as it is today. Moreover, it is debate that is contextualized in other debates occurring simultaneously, and so it cannot move forward unless and until progress is made in these other debates.

All of this is happening at a time when college tuition is significantly outpacing inflation, students are taking on increasingly large debt burdens to pay for their education, potential employers are skeptical of the qualifications of graduates, and many see online courses as the future of higher education. No one knows in detail how these issues will play out, but the transformation of the university from an educational institution into an economic institution, and the transformation of education into a commodity, is one of those larger social forces to which the university can only respond, and it cuts across ideological lines. Some trad-cons like the idea of education as an industry, since it corresponds to their own economic preoccupations, while other conservatives are among the staunchest supporters of the traditional ideal of a liberal education.

There is a larger and older debate going on as well. Higher education in the US has always been subject to an underlying social tension, which is the desire on the one hand to fulfill the traditional ideal of a liberal education, and on the other hand to provide practical skills that are applicable in the workplace. Both imperatives have their representatives inside and their advocates outside academic institutions. The result is an ongoing compromise that shifts as the underlying social tension shifts, sometimes tending toward the traditional mission of the university and sometimes tending toward the “hands on” and “good ol’ American know-how” school of thought. Because the shift in educational institutions always follows after the shift in social attitudes, the university is never fully in harmony with American society, and always seems to be struggling to make itself relevant in the particular way that society believes higher education should be relevant at any given moment in history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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