08 January 2016

How the libertarian technocracy spawned the victim-identividualist moment in our schools

A couple of weeks back, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, chimed into a long and protracted argument over the prevailing culture in American higher education. He argued that American institutions of higher education in particular are suffering from a ‘victimhood culture’, marked by an increase in the aggressive tactics used by campus liberals in particular who attempt to police speech they don’t like. Such aggressive tactics include the deployment of concepts of ‘microaggression’, ‘triggering’ and ‘safe space’ to curtail the physical and cultural spaces in which controversial ideas can be freely expressed. Brooks sees this as a threat to freedom of speech and individual expression, which isn’t particularly interesting, but with the twist that he peppers his rather flaccid and uninteresting analysis with libertarian buzzphrases throughout (being concerned with the victimisation of ‘wealthy people’; saying one can tell genuine visionaries who laud ‘earned success’ and ‘treat people… as individuals’, from demagogues and charlatans who treat them ‘as aggrieved masses’).

I say this analysis is ‘uninteresting’ in part because he joins a long list of people who have spoken up about the topic of campus political-correctness culture, with varying degrees of lucidity and usefulness. This list includes people like Laura Kipnis, Edward Schlosser, Michelle Duguid et al., Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, Caitlin Flanagan and, of course, Jonathan Chait. Though I have some serious (and indeed fundamental) disagreements with the philosophical and political premises from which many of these professors, journalists, columnists and authors argue, it’s hard to ignore the reality of the ‘chilling effect’ that the campus political-correctness culture has had on the intellectual climate of the modern American academy. There has indeed been an impoverishment of the campus, and the entire enterprise of language- and tone-policing on the basis of identity politics is only one of the more visible manifestations of it. And the obsessive focus on this particular aspect of our educational malaise is exacerbated by the perennial paranoia in the American psyche that someone out there might tell us that there’s something we aren’t allowed to do.

But there’s something far deeper to the malaise of higher education than the free-speech crusaders seem to suspect, and a deeply bitter irony in such staunch champions of technocracy as Brooks beginning to wring their hands. What psychological need is there which drives students to flock to these causes of cleansing the campus of offensive and ‘problematic’ speech? Jonathan Haidt reports that the campus itself may not even be to blame, but that the problem of political-correctness culture may have its roots in secondary schools – which would seem to suggest that the students who are doing the policing are not being coached into it by over-zealous and overly-ideological professors. What is clear, though, is that the political-correctness policers do not think of themselves as stifling free speech; they think of themselves as actively contributing to the betterment of the campuses they find themselves on. They see themselves as advocates. They see themselves as the ensign-bearers of a new paradigm which is ‘just and kind, sensitive and free’. In short, there is an idealism that students are literally acting-out by finding outlets in campus activism. And they flock to it because activism promises them meaning. It promises them that they are going to make a difference, that they are going to change the society and the world for the better.

In short, looking at how they themselves argue for it, and how and when they begin arguing for it, the students who are looking to make ‘safe spaces’ of their campuses are flocking to a source of meaning which has been denied to them by their educational upbringing to-date. They get certain platitudes – more like mathematical formulas, really – drilled into their heads from day one of their public schooling. They are told, straight from the yellowed and venerable pages of the National Founding Myth, that hard work plus education is a formula for upward economic mobility in America. They are told that success is a formula for happiness and meaning in life (defined, naturally, in utilitarian terms). Students do take these formulas very much to heart. They look for meaning in life in terms of the formulas they’ve been taught, even and especially when they find these formulas themselves intellectually, emotionally and spiritually unconvincing.

And by Jove, have we ever found them unconvincing. Just ask us, if you please.

But think about the depth of what we miss out on teaching young people, when we teach them along the technocratic, libertarian lines prescribed by Arthur Brooks and his think-tank. We don’t teach children quietude. We don’t teach children that greater wisdom lies in the past than in the mad scramble for future payoffs. We teach children that youth and health and able-bodiedness only are valuable, and don’t teach them to respect age and experience. We don’t teach children how to deal with adversity or failure in existentially-healthy ways (if at all). We don’t teach children the importance of building virtuous habits other than industry. We don’t ask children, or challenge them, to wonder about what it means to be human. So mad are we to impart to children the ‘marketable skills’, to wedge them into excelling in the technical STEM fields, that we are no longer bothering to instruct them in the humanities. English literature, music, history, social sciences education are all becoming increasingly rote and even vestigial as they are shoe-horned into a results-oriented rubric. Long story short: if we don’t teach our children in ways which allow them to reflect rather than simply to react, should we wonder at the fact that they understand themselves as victims? Should we wonder at the fact that they seek to construct special ‘identities’ for themselves, to give their lives meaning, when their intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives have been deprived of so much else?

We are looking out upon the brave new world. That world has been built assiduously by the ideological forebears of the people who are now surveying their handiwork from a safe distance.

No comments:

Post a Comment