America has a long history of anti-intellectualism, but this election revealed widespread distrust and hostility toward expertise, and the institutions, like universities, that produce it. Are scholars trusted less than ever? Absolutely. Part of that is due to the public image of the university as being full of spoiled, privileged professors and students who are wrapped up in crazy issues, who are snobs and are contemptuous of other people’s work, their opinions, and religions.
The day after the presidential election, Mark Lilla had to get something off his chest. “I wrote in a fever,” he says. The article that resulted, which appeared in The New York Times, argues that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.”
Mr. Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, pinned the blame, in part, on academe and its fixation on identity politics. “How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose … gender pronouns?” he asked. “How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in ‘His Majesty’?”
The article has provoked an avalanche of response and rebuttal. “Stop blaming our society’s political and social crises on campus-based demands for color- and gender- coded justice that reflect the crises far more than they cause them,” wrote Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University, in the Times. “It is unconscionable, this know-better recrimination, directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension,” wrote Rebecca Traister in New York magazine.
A Columbia colleague accused Mr. Lilla of aiding and abetting white supremacy. The article also struck a chord in Europe, where it was republished on the front page of Le Monde and debated in newspapers across the continent. Mr. Lilla has been interviewed nonstop for a month and is considering writing a book on identity politics.
After checking the NFL schedule, he found time to talk with The Chronicle last weekend about political correctness, being likened to David Duke, and why academics need to watch more Fox News.
Are colleges too obsessed with diversity?
They’re too obsessed with identity. There’s a subtle distinction. Diversity as a social goal and aim of social reform is an excellent thing. But identity politics today isn’t about group belonging; it’s about personal identity. From the ’70s into the ’90s, there was a shift in focus from group identity to the self as the intersection of different kinds of identities. Identity became more narcissistic and less connected to larger political themes. For many students, their political interest and engagement end at the border of how they’ve defined themselves.
“There has been a radicalization of student demands and also a loss of a sense of proportion. Our campuses are not Aleppo.”
It’s extraordinary how much time and thinking they devote to exactly what they are as the subtotal of other identities, rather than seeing their time at the university as an opportunity to leave those things behind, or overcome them, or become something that’s actually themselves and autonomous in some way.
Are identity-based departments and centers part of the problem?
Well, they do many things. Research on the history of women, the history of gay groups, that’s all a very good thing. But when one has majors or faculty lines that are devoted simply to a particular identity, or to the question of identity, that leads to a kind of withdrawal from a wider engagement with the university. These programs tend to be closed entities in which people talk to themselves and encourage one another, and students can fall into this and major in women’s studies or African-American studies or gay and lesbian studies, and I think that’s a missed opportunity for them.