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. “I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values,” one student tells Heller. “I’m going home, back to the ‘hood’ of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
”Working my piece of land somewhere and living autonomously – that’s the dream,” another says. “Just getting … out of America. It’s a sinking ship.”
On the other hand they want a moral life that is more vehement, more strenuous than anything being offered by their elders. Oberlin College is as progressive as the day is long. But in mid-December, a group of students gave the Oberlin administration a list of 50 nonnegotiable demands, asserting that “this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.”
The identity politics the students have produced inverts the values of the meritocracy. The meritocracy is striving toward excellence; identity politics is deeply egalitarian. The meritocracy measures you by how much you’ve accomplished; identity politics measures you by how much you’ve been oppressed. In the meritocracy your right to be heard is earned through long learning and quality insight; in identity politics your right to be heard is earned by your experience of discrimination. The meritocracy places tremendous emphasis on individual agency; identity politics argues that agency is limited within a system of oppression.
The meritocracy sees the university as a gem tumbler, a bouncing place where people crash off one another and thereby hone their thoughts and skills. The students Heller describes sense the moral emptiness of the current meritocracy and are groping for lives of purpose. At the same time they feel fragile and want protection – protection from rejection, failure or opposing or disturbing ideas.
What one sees in the essay are the various strains of American liberalism crashing into one another: the admiration for achievement clashing against the moral superiority of the victim; the desire to let students run free, clashing against the desire to protect the oppressed from psychologically unsafe experiences.
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.
If we slowed down the frenetic pace of competition, and helped students think about vocation – the meaning and purpose of work – then life would have a firmer base. Political life – whether left or right, radical or moderate – wouldn’t be distorted so much by inner pain.