Monday, May 30, 2016

David Brooks on Nathan Heller on Oberlin

Seems David Brooks was also impressed by Nathan Heller's essay on student radicalism at Oberlin. His reaction:
Today’s elite college students face a unique set of pressures. On the professional side life is competitive, pressured, time-consuming, capitalistic and stressful. On the political side many elite universities are home to an ethos of middle-aged leftism. The general atmosphere embraces feminism, civil rights, egalitarianism and environmentalism, but it is expressed as academic discourse, not as action on the streets.

This creates a tension in the minds of some students. On the professional side they are stressed and exhausted. On the political, spiritual and moral side they are unfulfilled.

On the professional side some students are haunted by the anxiety that they are failing in some comprehensive but undefinable way. On the spiritual side they hunger for a vehement crusade that will fulfill their moral yearnings and produce social justice.

This situation — a patina of genteel progressivism atop a churning engine of amoral meritocracy — is inherently unstable and was bound to produce a counterreaction. In his essay “The Big Uneasy,” in the current issue of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller describes life at Oberlin College in Ohio. In his penetrating interviews with the activist students you can see how the current passion for identity politics grows, in part, as a reaction against both sides of campus life.

The students Heller interviewed express a comprehensive dissatisfaction with their lives. “I’m actually still trying to reconcile how unhappy I’ve been here with how happy people were insisting I must be,” one student says. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work,” says another.

Many of these students have rejected the meritocratic achievement culture whole cloth — the idea that life is about moving up the ladder. . . .

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.

On the other hand, this movement does not emerge from a place of confidence and strength. It emerges from a place of anxiety, lostness and fragility. It is distorted by that soil. Movements that grant themselves the status of victim lack both the confidence to lead change and the humility to converse with others. People who try to use politics to fill emotional and personal voids get more and more extreme and end up as fanatics.

There is a vacuum at the heart of things here. The meritocracy has become amoral. 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.
What are the values of contemporary America, the things we take seriously? Well, there is success – being the best, climbing to the top, getting ahead. But if that isn't your thing, what else is there?

David Brooks sees this as fundamentally a spiritual problem and longs for some sort of religious awakening. Alas he, like most members of his class, is weak in faith and simply can't find the passion in religion that he wants. In his view the student activists have turned toward social justice in search of meaning and passion, and while I'm sure he finds much of what they say silly, he admires their struggle for justice and their ability to find some sort of passion in doing right.

As a person even weaker in faith than Brooks, so weak that I am incapable of seeing how religion could answer our needs, I see this differently. The besetting problem of contemporary America, it it seems to me, is a sense that ordinary life just isn't good enough. We spend huge amounts of energy wondering what we ought to be doing differently.

The meritocracy and great inequality of our economic life feeds this sense, because we give so much of the best we have to offer to the stars who rise to the top of the system. This is why I support socialistic measures to reduce inequality: because I think that the riches we heap on CEOs and actors not only don't help the rest of us, but actually make ordinary life worse. We ought instead to be investing in what we have in common, from water systems to parks, and in helping those at the bottom. This is why I find the Trump campaign so disconcerting; Trump has put his finger on the sense millions of people have that we ought to be focused on the problems of ordinary (white) Americans, but he embodies everything that is wrong with America and needs to be overcome: celebrity worship, egoism, predatory capitalism, scorn for ordinary workers, distrust of any sort of outsider, impatience with careful thought, a spiritual void filled with the ceaseless pursuit of money and fame, propped up by bullying the weak. That's the best answer we can come up with?

Nor am I much interested in Sanders' call for a 'revolution.' We need more togetherness, not more conflict; more reason, not more anger.


David said...

You've put very well a lot of what I've been groping toward in my thinking about the American situation. Especially, "The besetting problem of contemporary America, it it seems to me, is a sense that ordinary life just isn't good enough." When the Oberlin student says they want to work their own piece of land and live autonomously, I hear a protest against precisely that "not good enough" ethos. Most meritocracy is, after all, about getting authorities' verdict that we are "good enough," at least for this round. And the person who doesn't want to be part of that grind is ipso facto not good enough. Further, many, many people have of course internalized the ethos, and, regardless of their level of success, never think they are good enough. And still further, much of the resistance to social investment in things that benefit ordinary people, I think, comes from the feeling that ordinary people simply don't deserve it.

Isn't the very idea of equal and inherent rights a great rejection of the meritocratic ethos? It states that all have inherent rights and a human legitimacy, whether they deserve it or not. And yet it is virtually inhuman not to think hierarchically of ourselves and each other, if nowhere else at least in some secret corner of our souls.

G. Velroren said...


"And yet it is virtually inhuman not to think hierarchically of ourselves and each other, if nowhere else at least in some secret corner of our souls."

I'd actually argue that it's not so much universally "human" so much as it is merely universal to the cultures which ended up becoming historically dominant. There are plenty of historical examples of non-heirarchical societies, they just overwhelmingly got conquered or otherwise marginalized by more heirarchical and militant neighbors.

The modern world is the product of extraordinary shaping by the values of the Abrahamic faiths and the societies that produced them. We are the inheritors of their systems of patriarchy, heirarchy, and war - even as translated through countless intermediary cultures over the ages.

Yet despite the overwhelming dominance of these values across much of the world, that doesn't make them "human" values. They are not intrinsic to our nature, but rather coincidental.

Or rather, they alone are not intrinsic to our nature. Every value system ever devised, no matter how much it differs from the rest, is equally "human", equally "natural", equally "valid" in terms of identity and meaning. It's simply up to us to choose which values we are going to embrace, and which we will reject and shy away from.

We cling to heirachy not because it is "human", but because it is by now so deeply ingrained - because we have collectively conditioned ourselves to expect it as the norm, and we unthinkingly rear our young within systems of heirarchy and instill in them the key concepts on a subconcious level, and they grow up knowing nothing else and assuming that because it is all they've ever known, it must be "right" or "natural" or "necessary" or otherwise the only valid way to go about things.

It's not about the secret corners of our souls - it's about the culture we are part of, the culture in which we are raised, and the culture in which we raise our own children. And unless you isolate yourself in the far flung corners of the world, you can't escape said culture - you can only hope to slowly change it over time, influencing people to shift their views bit by bit.

David said...

G., I am unconvinced. Is there a human group where some are not perceived as more desirable than others, or more funny, or more generous, or faster, or better at finding Mongongo nuts? Are there human groups where some are not more "my friend" than others? Has any human society not distinguished between us and them, even without being emphatic about it? And do not all these judgments amount to statements of what is good enough?

I'd need a pretty rigorous empirical demonstration of a society that really was absent all analogous phenomena to be convinced.

Regardless, my understanding is all complex societies--by no means just Abrahamic ones--involve fairly emphatic hierarchies.

John said...

I think contemporary American conservatives miss the radical, anti-hierarchy side of our Revolution, and the Enlightenment more broadly. The world that people like Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams wanted was not just politically more equal, but also economically more equal. They equated vast wealth, especially hereditary wealth, with aristocracy, and aristocracy was what they were trying to get rid of. Obviously many American revolutionaries did not share all of this thinking, but it was important then and has been an important strain of American thinking ever since. It is absolutely not "un-American" to want to bring down the rich.

David said...

John, I would agree, but it is striking to me how much my students tend to assume that, if wealth is not hereditary, that excuses all. They seem taken aback when I try to show that, to a medieval guildsman, a sans-culotte, or to Marx, Andrew Carnegie would be as bad as or worse than the Duke of Westminster. Even after detailed class discussion, many write that all the sans-culottes wanted was a fair chance to get ahead.