Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The New Campus Faith in Authority

I have already outlined what I take to be the broad structural parallels between the contemporary campus left’s attitude toward the university and the more traditional conservative doctrine of in loco parentis. Over the coming weeks, I hope to fill in the contours of what remains a rather crude sketch in identifying the similarities and differences between the two campus phenomena.

This post attempts to begin that process by considering the new faith in authority implicit in both the institutional demands and language employed by today’s campus activists. To be sure, the contemporary left’s defense of authority is in important respects radically different from that traditionally espoused by lower-case c conservatives. Authority traditionally was essentially personal, attached to particular men whose status and title demanded respect and deference. Such personalized authority is captured well by the phrase in loco parentis itself. The university is likened to the person of a parent, and is correspondingly charged with the moral obligations of the parent. Yet today’s campus activists are uninterested in reinvigorating the offices or personages of president, provost, master, and professor with new-found personalized authority. The new authority, it would seem, is essentially institutional. Faceless administrators and amorphous bureaucracies are needed to direct sensitivity training programs, issue guidelines for acceptable conduct, and design mandatory courses in ethnic studies.

Moreover, despite serving quite clearly as authorities over students’ lives, the new institutional authorities are imagined to derive legitimacy from a kind of democratic ethos. The bureaucracies invested with power are not spoken of as an elite few governing the many from above, but as more properly representing the students themselves. This conceptual transformation of the idea of authority is outlined with unparalleled clarity and force in Alexis de Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the peculiar character of “democratic despotism.” The new tutelary state is justified as emanating from the people, when it is in reality merely another master in many respects more vicious than the tyrants of old. The new despotism is “de jure a subordinate agent but de facto a master.” This dialectic plays itself out in the economic sphere as well, as the decline of feudalism and rise of industrial capitalism marks the collapse of traditional personal webs of dependence and authority, and the rise of depersonalized, anonymous forms of institutional control. The same pattern of thought makes sense of the new university administrators, whose legitimacy inheres in the purported representation of all students’ voices, but who govern no differently than did the straightforwardly elitist administrators of the ’50s.

I hope to expand upon the depersonalization of social authorities in further posts, but in the space that remains I turn to briefly defending my more basic claim that today’s campus radicals have abandoned the radical skepticism of the ’60s, and have replaced it with a renewed defense of authority. I point to two central pieces of evidence. The first concerns the institutional reforms explicitly demanded by the contemporary campus left. The second concerns the hidden assumptions underlying and in turn reified by the language employed in campus activism.

1. The Institutional Appeal to Authority

The most obvious way to assess the campus left’s attitude toward authority is to consider its explicit institutional demands. At schools across the country, campus activists’ demands are variations on a basic theme: the university administration must do more to protect students of color and to educate all students on how to appropriately interact with their peers. To this end, demands range from mandatory sensitivity training to a university-wide database to record instances of racial misconduct to a new core curriculum consisting of courses on ethnicity and gender.

The most obvious question all this raises is who will do the educating? Who sets the new core curriculum? Who designs and administers the mandatory sensitivity training? Who supervises and regulates the racial misconduct database? Though inflected with modern meaning, these are not new questions. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or more apt for the university: Who educates the educators?

The aristocratic answer to these questions is very simple: the best should guard the guardians, the best should educate the educators, and the best should set university policy to regulate student conduct. To the radically democratic spirit of the ’60s, however, such answers are anathema. First, those in positions of power cannot possibly be trusted to exercise judgment when so dominated by singular class, racial, and gender interests. But more fundamentally, the critique holds that no elite should have the power to regulate student conduct. No authorities can trusted with the shaping of students’ lives. To do so would be to infringe upon the most basic demands of autonomy and authenticity.

The first of these critiques to some degree survives today, as demands for a more diverse administration are commonplace in student manifestos. But the second has been lost entirely. The very premise of mandatory courses was once rejected on the grounds that no one should have the power to dictate from above what students should learn and what students should value. Likewise, university-wide reporting systems and databases would have horrified an earlier generation of student radicals as the most vicious, panopticonic of social developments. But today, leftist skeptics of an empowered administration are few and far between. What we find instead is a generation of campus activists committed to the expansion of administrators’ bureaucratic oversight, coercion, and control over student life and values.

2. The Linguistic Appeal to Authority

Perhaps even more telling than the campus activists’ explicit institutional demands, is the language they use to advance their agenda. Last fall, a Facebook group, “Overheard at Yale,” emerged as a campus-wide forum for debate during the peak of campus turmoil. The group remains irrefutable evidence of social media’s insidious propensity to promote vile, anti-intellectual, tribalist calumnies and barbarisms, and it may well be an invaluable resource for future cultural historians interested in documenting the events of the past few months.

In a particularly memorable post made at the high-point of campus protests, a female Asian student explained why she was uncomfortable with the label “person of color.” The response was unrelenting abuse. A few respondents provided civil, thoughtful defenses of the utility of the term. But by far the most popular response (as measured by likes, the ultimate measure of truth in Facebook debates) opened by denouncing the original post as “so fucking ignorant” and concluding “On behalf of Asian Americans who are proudly people of color, go learn something.” That response came after an earlier comment explaining that the ignorance implicit in the original post was a “great argument for why we need a larger Asian American studies program at Yale.”

The language of “ignorance” employed in the thread is characteristic of a broader linguistic pattern within campus discourse. Those with whom the protesters disagree are described as ignorant and in need of education. They are encouraged to attend “teach-ins” where they are instructed to listen quietly so as to better understand.

This topos of education casts contemporary campus debate as a conflict between ignorance and enlightenment, between superstition and reason. It correspondingly vitiates the possibility of genuine, reasoned moral disagreement. The suggestion that disagreement is rooted in mere ignorance and can be cured by proper instruction articulates an essentially authoritarian model of learning. Against the seminar, which posits that learning arises from argument and the mutual exchange of reasons, the language of ignorance demands the lecture, in which an intellectual authority graciously shares enlightenment with her students. 

There are of course cases in which relevant non-moral facts are best disseminated in this hierarchical fashion. But moral disagreement since Socrates has been thought to be best pursued through dialogue and debate. Moral understanding was traditionally thought to be attained through argument, not instruction delivered from above. The inversion of that paradigm, and the suggestion that dissenters ought to educate themselves by enrolling in the necessary classes and attending the relevant “teach-ins,” betrays a new faith in the epistemic authority and wisdom of the campus administrators designing the new educational regime.

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