Mark Lilla has academia pretty upset with him for writing this controversial New York Times piece about identity politics. As some of you know, I interacted with the piece here. My post triggered what I thought was a good Facebook discussion.
Since Lilla’s piece appeared it has been interesting to watch my friends on the Left respond to it. If my social media feeds are any indication, many are simply dismissing and disparaging Lilla by calling him names or saying something snarky without fully engaging his argument. I am sure some of this has to do with the limits of social media or the fact that it is “that time of the semester,” but I am not convinced that all of it is.
From what I can tell Lilla is a pretty smart guy. He is also a pretty smart guy who has broken with academic orthodoxy. Is there no truth in Lilla’s argument? Not everyone will agree with him, but is his argument so outrageous that no one can find any common ground? Can the Left learn anything from what he has written? Where is the honest dialogue? Where is the conversation? (To be fair, some have responded thoughtfully. For example, I think Yale’s Jim Sleeper’s response is worth reading. So if Jonathan Wilson’s response at The Junto. I am sure there are others, including nearly all of the posts on my FB page).
Anyhow, a new interview with Lilla was just published at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is a taste:
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.
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.
You’re white. You’re male. You’re heterosexual. Are you the best person to make this argument?
Arguments are arguments. Period.
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.
There’s a segment on Tucker Carlson’s show called “Campus Craziness,” and 90 percent of the examples are crazy. This informs the public’s picture of learning and scholarship. And you can even tie that attitude to skepticism about climate change. Nick Kristof had a recent column pointing out that people use the word “academic” not to mean scholarly, but to mean totally detached from reality.
What role can intellectuals play in the Trump age? They seem pretty marginalized at this point.
The most important thing for any intellectual — any human being — to have is a sense of proportion. And given the scale of the challenge not only to partisan liberals like myself but to the life of learning, the pursuit of truth, we must focus our attention and energies on the real big issues. Our focus must be outside the university, outside the ivy walls, and into the wider world. And we should encourage our students to engage with that wider world, not just with themselves.