Mark Lilla Strikes Again

mark-lillaMark 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.

Read the entire piece and the interview here.  For my thoughts on identity politics and the teaching of American history, click here.

3 thoughts on “Mark Lilla Strikes Again

  1. First of all, I think the way the academic left has lately been publicly policing the statements of those perceived as heterodox are very problematic. In terms of how Mark Lilla is tapping into that, I think he is being both brave and effective in his response.

    HOWEVER, I do think there are many points here that are themselves problematic. First and foremost, his flat refutation of the potential conflicts presented by his privilege demonstrate why identity studies are so important. Arguments are most certainly not arguments, period. Arguments are tied to the experiences of the body that is forming them. I cannot, as a white, cisgender, straight, protestant man, embody the arguments of the people of color–specifically American Indians–whom I study. That is not to say that my arguments are worthless, or that I think I should be silent on American Indian issues, but when I discuss the Dakota Access Pipeline for example, I do so as a settler, and it would be naive to think that I could do otherwise.

    Secondly, where at first glance I think Lilla has a point, in the end he is substituting his own impression with the reality. He is correct that academia needs to be working towards diversity, not segregation, and I do think that there is a growing sense that such things as African-American Studies or Queer Studies are reserved for those who identify with those groups. That being said, I’m not sure his sense of this growing disciplinary segregation is entirely accurate. For example, I remember attending my first academic conference, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association meeting, in which Jean O’Brien (Ojibwe) was discussing future directions for the association. On the panel were both white scholars and indigenous scholars. Jean was emphatic that NAISA was a big tent and that a diversity of scholarly voices was essential for disciplinary vibrancy. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has said that same thing about African-American Studies, arguing that is isn’t an academic subject unless everyone can study it and everyone can teach.

    If anything, I think colleges and universities need to be MORE focused on identity, not as a limitation to academic exploration but as a subject that requires serious academic investigation and that should be an attractive option for a wide range of students. I think we who teach more identity centered subjects need to be aware of the ways in which our disciplinary discourse communities make it hard for those outside of the community to engage with our work. But ultimately, we need more identity studies departments, if only to employ professors and teachers who are capable of helping students — perhaps most especially white, straight, cisgender, protestant males like myself — uncover the ways in which the worlds we see are refracted through the lenses of identity.


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