Saturday, January 13, 2018

Eboo Patel at Inside Higher Ed writes about identity politics at colleges touching on every variable except for class and being able to attend an elite institution

Of course one of my recurring threads of thought here has been that academia as a culture tends to see itself as distinct from high finance and "the one percent", and it certainly is at many levels.  But as people from within academia fret that a post Trump era of belligerent populism reveals how anti-intellectual America has always been that seems to need some pushback.  People who work in and for or at universities can fail to recognize that we may not be looking at "anti-intellectualism" as the only way to understand this.  Colleges are expensive and exclusive so there is, you know, a class based basis for resentment that can come into play. 

So, in mentioning these things I want to make sure it's easily demonstrated that within academia there are plenty of people who can observe that to be within academia itself, whether as a worker or as a student, is quite a privilege.

There is an interesting exchange in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in which Haidt describes being criticized by a graduate student for speaking about the positive social impacts of religious identity. “But religions are all exclusive,” the graduate student exclaimed, citing the dynamics of the Roman Catholic Church in particular.

When Haidt pointed out that his graduate program rejected almost all of its applicants, the graduate student asking the question (who had likely won a place in a department because others had been rejected) seemed to think that this was part of the natural order of things, and not at all like the exclusive dimensions of religious identity.

As an American Muslim who runs an interfaith organization that works in higher education, I speak on about 25 college campuses a year, frequently filling the diversity slot. I have noticed something similar to what Haidt points to in his example: people on campuses rarely speak of being a college student as an identity.

Moreover, at least in my experience, the more elite the college, the more likely students are to be assertive on the politics of race, gender and sexuality, but the less likely they are to mention the implications of being at a top-25 college. It appears to me that there is much talk about race, gender and sexuality privilege during first-year orientation at Ivy League colleges, but not that much conversation about Ivy League privilege. [emphasis added]

This omission surprises me because the advantages associated with attending college, especially an elite college, are both clear and significant. In his book Our Kids, Robert Putnam observes that the American socioeconomic order can be neatly sorted into three categories. Those who have a high school education or less occupy the lower third, those with some college the middle third, and those who have completed college the upper third. A host of other quality-of-life indicators -- occupation, income, health, social status, self-identity -- are quite straightforwardly predicted by level of education.

This data includes people with any kind of college degree. If you are at a selective name-brand institution, your chances of success in the knowledge economy are significantly higher on average than the individual who goes to a second-tier state school.

Consider this: there are just over 2,500 residential nonprofit four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, what most people reading this publication normally think of as “college” (I am not counting the several thousand for-profit institutions). If you attend a top-250 institution, you are in the top 10 percent; if you attend a top-25 institution, well, you are surely smart enough to do the math in your head.

If the selectivity of these schools maps in any way to success in the current economy, you have just positioned yourself in the upper reaches of the top third of American society.

If you are at an elite college, you probably know this, at least intuitively, which is why you went to the trouble of positioning yourself to be admitted to such an institution in the first place.

I recently made this point in a heated discussion about identity politics at a highly selective liberal arts school and was met with the “merit” argument. It goes something like this: yes, there are significant privileges that accrue to being a graduate of a selective college, but that is an earned identity, very much unlike being white, male or straight.

As somebody who attended a flagship state university and an elite graduate school, I have a fondness for this line of argument. After all, it bestows virtue on a dimension of my identity. But then I remember that just as race, gender and sexuality are identities that are given meaning by their socially constructed contexts, so is education level.

I've managed to quote the majority of the piece by now so you can read the rest if you like but the salient point has been made, that within academia the very nature of the privilege of being in academia can be too easily ignored amidst discussions of the other modes of privilege.  Those modes of privilege are, actually, significant because they have and can often predict how easily you may be granted access to the privilege of participating in the ruling class that is academia.  Of course it doesn't feel like a ruling class when you're not in the top twenty percent but if you can remember what it felt like to be a kid whose fate could be determined by the pass or fail grade doled out by a teacher you can remember, easily, that if you're a teacher you are, in fact, part of a ruling class. 

That doesn't necessarily make you the "bad guy" anymore than it makes you the "good guy".  But as non-Americans sometimes point out, part of the difficulty of discussing a concept like class conflict or class obligation or class anything is that in the United States people either avoid discussing class or they may be reluctant to identify themselves within a class structure.  Another way to put it is that as I've read academics I've seen that there's a tacit assumption more often than an explicit statement that "if" there were a class war the academic would be on the side of light for being against capitalism or being for X, Y or Z traditional values without considering that if there were really some kind of class war they'd be on the same side intellectuals and academics have tended to be in those kinds of class wars for the last century or so, on the side that gets purged in nation states that have enough resources to be considered major players in the global scene.  There's a colloquial way of describing those nation states that do not have the resources to be major influences on the global scene in which a class revolution wouldn't lead to the liquidation of intellectuals because of their general absence as a large subculture ... but the colloquialism is hardly complimentary. 

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