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.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?
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.
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.