What interested me was the way the concerns of the protesters intersect with my biggest worry about our universities, our lack of any consensus as to what education means. The angriest protesters seem to be completely alienated from the college's educational mission, whatever that might be. They feel lonely and unsupported on campus – “There’s this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone”, one says – and have no sense of what they are supposed to be getting out of their time at Oberlin. Since they have rejected neoliberal capitalism, they have no interest in furthering their careers. But though many of their professors share the same hostility toward corporate careerism, these students have trouble connecting with those professors, too. Why?
I thought this conversation with a group of black students was key. They are discussing the list non-negotiable demands presented by the students to the college president, which he waved off with an assertion that non-negotiable demands are wrong and what is needed is dialogue. (I bet he is a fan of the Dalai Lama.)
“Even those who didn’t write it had things to put into it,” Taylor Slay, a fellow Abusua member, says. She is sitting next to Adams, taking notes. Adams goes on, “Me trying to appeal to people? Ain’t working. Me trying to be the quiet, sit-back-and-be-chill-and-do-my-work black person? Doesn’t work. Me trying to be friends with non-black folks? Doesn’t work.” She draws out her final syllables. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work! So you’re just, like, I’ve got to stand up for myself.” “I have to be political,” Slay says. “I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.”If you don't care about entering on a career, and don't want to be changed, why are you in college?
There were negative responses to the fifty demands (which included a request for an $8.20-an-hour activism wage, the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty).
But the alumni reactions were the worst, according to Adams. “They are quick to turn around and call twenty-year-old students the N-word, and monkeys, and illiterate uneducated toddlers, and tell us to go back to Africa where we came from, and that Martin Luther King would be ashamed of us,” she says. “We knew realistically that most of those demands were not going to be met. We understand legality. We understand finances—”
“We see the pattern of nonresponse,” Slay says.
Zakiya Acey furrows his brow. “The argument was ‘Oh, so students ask for this, but it’s not legal,’ ” he says. “But it’s what I need. And it’s what this country needs, and it’s my country. That’s the whole point. We’re asking—”
“We’re asking to be reflected in our education,” Adams cuts in. “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” She shrugs incredulously. “As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
That was a serious question, not a dismissal of these students. I tend to think that a huge amount of what all people do is about developing and asserting our identities, but this generation of activists seems to be particularly obsessed with identity. They want, more than anything else, to be who they are. Jasmine Adams seems to be saying, “I don't want to study Marx, because I am not the sort of person who cares about the European working class; I am the sort of person who cares about race, and I want the university to help me deepen my understanding of my own concerns.”
We are asking to be reflected in our education.
Seventy years ago American higher education was about molding adolescents into young gentlemen and ladies – more precisely, about moving people into the upper middle class. You studied things because they were the things that people in the upper and upper middle classes knew, or that prepared you for upper middle class careers. Obviously that is a distorting generalization, but I think it is close enough to the truth to serve the purpose.
But if you reject careerism, and reject the whole notion of being molded into a certain sort of person, what does college have to offer you?
I do have answers to that question: to expand your knowledge of the world and of scholarship about the world, to develop writing and thinking skills, to make friends, to mature in a supportive environment, and so on. But I understand that other than making friends these things are just not very appealing to many and maybe most people. The professors who did the most to encourage my elder daughter's intellectual pursuits all seem to assume that she should become a professor herself, as if academic life is the only place for people interested in history and art. Many professors, at least, see the academy as the only place where once can pursue a life of the mind, making curiosity into just another carer path.
So my main reaction to Heller's article is to see identity politics as another attack on any generalized notion of education. If the most important thing is to be your own most authentic self, why study anything in which you don't see yourself reflected?
One of the students Heller interviewed, asked about her future plans, said,
“Working my piece of land somewhere and living autonomously—that’s the dream,” she said. “Just getting the eff out of America. It’s a sinking ship.”How is education going to help her with that?