*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Mark Lilla Continues His Assault on Identity Politics in American Higher Education

LillaToday I ordered his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity PoliticsI am looking forward to read it.

Here is a taste of Lilla’s recent piece on the subject at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticizing force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. But by undermining the universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled, and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end this approach just strengthens all the atomizing forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: What was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s Greatest Generation, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were eager to engage in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice” for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the ‘60s generation, they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like “Yankee Doodle” than Wagner.

The fact that they received a relatively nonpartisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work — that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Read the entire piece here.  After several conversations I have had over the past six months or so, I am more convinced than ever that identity politics and historical pedagogy do not mix very well.

Mark Lilla Returns With a More Sustained Treatment of Identity Politics

LillaLast November, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla released a bombshell in the form of a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  We spent some time here discussing it.  I found Lilla’s argument pretty compelling.

Lilla decided to capitalize on the popularity and controversy of his Times piece with a 143-page book titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  I have not read the book yet, but just came across a review from Yale historian Beverly Gage.

Here is a taste:

…he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

Ouch.

Read the entire review here.  I’ll reserve judgement until I get a chance to read the book. You can also listen to an interview with Lilla at “All Things Considered.”

Yet Another Interview with Mark Lilla

lillaSean Illing interviews Lilla at Vox.  He asks some tough questions.  (Not familiar with the whole Lilla/identity liberalism conversation?  Get caught up here).

A taste:

Sean Illing: I’ve argued that all politics is identity politics insofar as politics involves the assertion of values in the public sphere. If you grant that values are bound up with identity, it’s not clear to me how you circumnavigate this problem.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias made a similar point in his response to your piece, which is that politics is not — and has never been — a public policy seminar. People have identities, and they’re mobilized around those identities. And so, as Yglesias wrote, “there is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Mark Lilla: To begin with, identity can be used to mobilize people for political action — that’s for sure. But political action is something else. I certainly agree that someone’s identity may affect their political views. Again, though, democratic politics is about persuasion. It’s not about self-expression.

However you come to your values or positions, you become political the moment you enter the arena trying to persuade other people of your values. If you have a certain value and you attach to that a whole picture of your identity, and then ask the other person not only to accept your position but to accept your account of your identity, you’re setting the bar very high for political agreement.

If I can convince someone with a very different identity, or someone who doesn’t accept my account of my identity, to agree about certain principles, I can then walk that person down from a principle to a particular case.

I think that this is a very good point.  As many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am a Christian and I teach mostly Christian students at Messiah College.  Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has a language all its own.  That language is spoken in church and it is often spoken on campus at Messiah.  In most cases, this language stems from my students’ belief in the Bible or the authority of the Christian church.  So when they argue with one another they make appeals to this language.  They may quote the Bible as part of their argument or appeal to a Christian theologian in the past or present.  (Frankly, I wish they did more of this!).  This is because they have a shared identity–a common religious language.

But sometimes the language they speak in their churches or in their dorms at Messiah College may not be suitable for public discourse with people who are outside this identity group.  I want my students to develop a public voice–one that allows them to speak in the public square with people who do not share their identity.  For some of my evangelical students, this might mean learning how to engage with people from other Christian traditions–such as Catholics–who do not share their particular view of Christianity. This might mean trying to figure out what aspects of the Christian faith–and there are many–that they share with Catholics.  It means finding common ground.

The same might be said about their engagement with people of different faiths or no faith at all.  I do not want my students to enter public discourse using the language of their evangelical identity.  They are not going to persuade people who are not Christians by citing Bible verses or appealing to the Judeo-Christian God.  Again, if they care about moving the conversation forward and working for the good of the whole they must find some common ground. In other words, they cannot lead with their particular identity–whether it be a religious, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or political identity–when not everyone in the conversation shares that identity.  It seems to me that the act of participating in a democratic society requires this.

Here is another part of the interview:

Sean Illing: Can you explain that last point by way of an example? What would that process look like in practice?

Mark Lilla: Here’s an example of the kind of argument you’d make: Black motorists are being targeted and mistreated by American police officers — we know this. If my principle here is equal protection under the law, and I want to convince someone who doesn’t know black people or doesn’t particularly care about the black experience, if I want to persuade that person to get engaged and care about this issue, I can do one of two things. I can get that person to agree to the principle of equal protection under the law, and then I can walk them down to saying that black motorists, as citizens, deserve to be protected.

If, on the other hand, I try to persuade that person of a certain picture of the black experience today and the injustices of the country, or what it’s like to be black or how I define myself as black, I’ve made my job much harder and increased the odds, fairly or not, that they’ll reject my message.

So I think identity politics mixes the work of social reform, which has to do with recognition and incorporation and diversity, with the work of political action, which requires political speech that encourages people to agree with you.

And one more excerpt:

Sean Illing: Another concern I’ve heard on the left, and this was articulated nicely by Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, is that you’ve conflated the illiberal excesses of the “social justice warriors” with race and gender politics as such, and these are not the same things.

Do you take this point at all?

Mark Lilla: I want to distinguish political discourse from general cultural discourse. In general cultural discourse, there’s a lot to be said about race and gender, and talking about it has led to extraordinarily positive changes. Making these arguments is critical to mobilizing people, and I didn’t say that in my article.

But when it comes to seizing power, that will not win you a single election. It will not pass through the spam filter of Fox News. Appealing to principle is our best chance of passing through the right-wing media filter.

Read the entire interview here.

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.

Another Kind of “Identity Politics”

Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism.  It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.

In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation.  Wilson writes:

Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.

In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:

I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.

While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.”  I agree.

In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties.  The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics?  Yes.

After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:

Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good.  Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness.  It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”

I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:

At the 2:45 mark  in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election.  If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over.  The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years.  But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades.  I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.

Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this.  Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves,  one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.  All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”

Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

dickinson_college_18_college_classroom

Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.