Abandoned Ground

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David Brooks, well-compensated columnist for the New York Times and casual sociologist of everything, suggests that universities have set aside the education of the soul and the self, instead aspiring to match consumer tastes.  In doing so, he paraphrases William Deresiewicz, author of the much more subtle critique, Excellent Sheep, to suggest that administrators can’t think about moral purpose beyond cheap clichés like “community service.”  Moral education, which Brooks nostalgically endorses, is “largely abandoned ground.”  Without it, universities fail to help students to become “real persons.”

Brooks’s lament is limited to “elite institutions,” perhaps because the erosion of a moral center to liberal education is most threatening at those places where leadership is, he imagines, best nurtured. Or maybe, perhaps, because he reads everything through his own college experiences at the University of Chicago in the heady Age of Reagan.  There is more than a little Alan Bloom in this piece.

He needn’t worry, though. Top to bottom, universities everywhere are asking their students to grapple with complex moral questions.

We do it, primarily, through the language of “diversity” or “multiculturalism,” or “inclusion,” or through debates over sexual harassment policy and campus climate issues, and in departments with dangerous-sounding names like Women’s and Gender Studies, or African American Studies, or American Indian Studies, or Ethnic Studies, or Queer Studies, or American Studies. We do it imperfectly and with more than a little chaotic overlap, but we do it all of the time.

Faculty who organize civil rights history tours of the deep South, or who take students to abandoned labor mills, or who study the maquiladoras, or who interview sex workers, or who challenge the prison industrial complex all do so from a moral standpoint. Writing a book about slavery, or about prisons, or about the Middle East, these days, is a moral act. Ask Ed Baptist.  Ask anyone who writes, from any position, on Gaza.  Or on voter registration.  Or neoliberalism. At great personal and professional cost and with astonishing courage, the faculty and students who dig deep in these areas confront difficult issues and face challenges from parents, big donors, some administrators, and more than a few op-ed columnists.

Indeed, right now, even as David Brooks worries about the loss of moral fiber, campuses are in turmoil over the question of student debt, over the militarization of the police, over the life chances of young men and women of color, over foreign policy and foreign aid.  Teach-ins are being staged.  Very Big Questions are being asked.  All while Brooks worries.

Brooks chooses to see all of this turmoil, of course, as something other than a moral conversation. The messy business of race and class, sex and gender is not his bag, and he sees it, invariably, as a secular, partisan issue. But that, in the end, is because he wants us to return to his moral landscape, to return to his idea of what a great education should be.  It is exactly this sort of laser-beam focus on silver-spooned, autobiographical experience that turns off readers of the Times.

Because however one feels about all of this intervention and interrogation – all the conversation about micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations, about economic structures, carceral states, and the military industrial complex  – one can’t reasonably see it as anything other than a continuation of the age-old quest to produce “real people,” to demand that students imagine themselves as part of some extraordinary global experiment, a democracy awkwardly staged on dramatically uneven ground.  A middle class world with terrible consequences, to paraphrase Richard Hofstadter.  And, these days, a shrinking middle class world, too.

Two summers ago, I met with a group of students at a “First Readings” event.  Incoming freshmen had been assigned a common text, and a few days before the start of classes, they sat down in small groups with faculty to discuss it. We’d read a book on slavery and the city of Providence, a book that indelicately linked up the history of our university with the profit in chattel bondage. “Now you can’t say you never knew,” I said to them in closing. “Now you’re complicit in everything that comes next.”  They looked a little unnerved. “So what are you going to do about it?,” I asked them.

Maybe Brooks would prefer it if I gave them the answer.  Or maybe he’d like me to ask a different question.  Maybe he hopes for the work of St. Augustine to be assigned in some future “First Readings” event.  But he is dead wrong to think there wasn’t a moral purpose in my mind – and the mind of my colleagues – from even before the first day of classes.