Is American meritocracy responsible for unrest on campus?

UPDATE: Kronman has a new piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The downside of diversity,” which explains his ideas a bit more. It’s paywalled, but judicious inquiry might yield you a copy.

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There are many diagnoses for the rise of the Offense Culture on college campuses: helicopter parenting, a surfeit of Left-wing administrators, a lot of students with an activist bent but nothing to protest locally (well, there is Trump), and so on. I myself don’t know the reasons behind it, though Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have discussed the issue in their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

In a new op-ed below, conservative columnist Bret Stephens for the New York Times has another diagnosis: pushback against elitism. Click on the screenshot to read.

There may be something to Stephens’s thesis, but I’m not sure about his diagnosis, for the whole column seems not only glib, but disjointed. Take this:

Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.

Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullieddenounceddemotedthreatenedsued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.

But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.

Well, yes and no.  Student activists do indeed want more freedom to act, speak, and think. They are constantly trying to change college rules to enable them to do what they want, including deplatforming speakers, committing civil disobedience without punishment, and so on. The issue is not that they want less freedom for themselves, but for those whose ideas they oppose. In other words, the problem is one of ideological conformity and the punishment of those who don’t conform. Granted, the “shaming” aspect of this culture is more pervasive now than in the Sixties, but what’s new is the total and irrevocable demonization of your peers if they step out of line.

We had a tad of demonization in the Sixties. The Young Americans for Freedom, a Republican group at my college, was regarded as a bunch of kooks (these were the days of Nixon and Vietnam), but they weren’t demonized the way Republicans are now. And now students are protesting things in a different way: not so much concerned with national issues, I think, as with local issues: food in the cafeteria, “structural racism” of their university (often imagined), calls for segregated housing and ethnic-centered “safe spaces,” and so on. And this difference needs an explanation.

Stephens offers a thesis proffered in what he calls “Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane, and brave new book, The Assault on American Excellence.” (The book won’t be out until August 20, but since Stephens’s column appeared the book has shot up to #203 on Amazon.) Kronman is a chaired professor of law at Yale, and was Dean of the Law School from 1994 to 2004.  According to Stephens, Kronman’s thesis is that student malaise and dissatisfaction stem from their rejection of American meritocracy and the concomitant existence of a national “aristocracy”—an aristocracy said to have promoted American achievement.

Stephens:

Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”

It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.

(I think Kronman and Stephens are wrong here. The elimination of the word “master”, even if misguided, surely comes from the advent of language policing, which indeed sees “master” as a word connected with slavery. It also suggested “men in charge”, which is changing as women assume ever more power.)

What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.

“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.

“They stress the need to respect and honor the feelings of others, especially those belonging to traditionally disadvantaged groups, as an essential means to this end. In this way they give credence to the idea that feelings are trumps with a decisive authority of their own. That in turn emboldens their students to argue that their feelings are reason enough to keep certain speakers away. But this dissolves the community of conversation that the grown-ups on campus are charged to protect.”

I can see how disadvantaged groups, or those whose lives haven’t been as successful as they hoped, could want to level the playing field by pulling up those on the bottom and pushing down those on top. I’ve seen it myself with white friends, possessed of a lot of privilege, suddenly becoming woke because they weren’t as successful as they hoped. Not achieving what they wanted, they start blaming the system instead of themselves.  And one could explain the rise of socialistic Leftism, like the proposals of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as a revolt against aristocracy. Colleges are now doing away with standardized tests like the SAT and GRE as admissions requirements, and that is meant to allow those whose scores are lower to nevertheless gain admission.

In other words, one way to help the disadvantaged is to take from the advantaged.

But one could also say that about the rise of Donald Trump and of Trumpism. For that, too, is a form of populism that rails against “the elite”.  If there is an elite media to them, it’s the New York Times and The Washington Post. Who disses them constantly? Trump et al.!

In other words, while I can see symptoms of a revolt against meritocracy, I think that the causes lie deeper, and I don’t know what those causes are. The meritocracy (which, after all, isn’t fully meritocratic, as it depends largely on privileged people inheriting wealth, power, and opportunity) stands in the way of people disadvantaged by their own cultural and historical inheritance. Much of what students are doing can be seen as a way to overcome the vagaries of history and bigotry. I often object to their tactics, but at bottom their aims are often admirable. It’s just that they often throw out the baby with the bathwater, and their actions seem excessive and often ridiculous.

The question that Stephens—and presumably Kronman, though I haven’t read his book—don’t answer is this: Why did this revolt against the aristocracy happen now? What is different?

And I don’t know the answer. Could it be the fact that the vast majority of college administrators are on the Left? But historically those people, who are of my generation, were in favor of free speech, though against an oligarchy. Weigh in below if you have an opinion.

The weakness of Stephens’s column, then, lies not only in his failure to explain why this change on campus is happening now, but also in how it connects to the drive for “diversity and inclusion”. Perhaps he sees a meritocracy as inimical to that goal, but that doesn’t explain things like the following:

This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.

Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.

All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.

It’s true that there is successive capitulation by universities to the wishes of their students (see, for instance, Evergreen State and Middlebury College), but why doesn’t this satisfy the students? Why the never-ending set of ever-increasing “demands”? Why the call for safety and inoffensiveness? And why identity politics?

Perhaps these questions are answered in Kronman’s book, which I’ve ordered. Granted, Stephens has limited space in which to write. But in that space he should lay out a coherent argument, and that is where he fails.

52 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t know the answers to these societal changes but what strikes me again and again is two things 1) the privilege students’ lack of self awareness of their own privilege as the elite members of elite schools that even the most smart poor person would find difficult to attend (even on scholarship) 2) the way in which economics is ignored. Economic privilege is a big privilege and it effects people across gender, culture, and ethnicity.

    • EdwardM
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Good points. Re #2 – I would go further and say that economic privilege is far and away the primary form of privilege. In terms of its effect size, although there are other forms of privilege, by comparison wealth is the principle of all forms of privilege – same as it ever was.

      Given the anger and hatred of the woke, you’d think these magnitudes were reversed. The wealthy and their worms (politicians) have worked hard to keep our attention focused elsewhere.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Identity politics has become the new opium of the masses though it is hardly the masses because the true masses are too busy working several jobs to make ends meet and rolling their eyes at rich students whose tuition isn’t even what the working poor make in a year.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          I say we go back to the days when opium was the religion of the meritocratic — like when William Burroughs was a habitué of the dens in Tangier. 🙂

      • BJ
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        You are absolutely right about economic privilege. In every study, your economic status is shown to be correlated far more than anything else (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) with life outcomes and general living conditions. And yet it’s the one they ignore because it would completely fuck up their entire ideology and fields of study.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Do the students really ignore economic disparity? A lot of the animus against Republicans seems to be directed against rich people making decisions which harm others while lining their own pockets. Just because the students themselves may be financially privileged doesn’t mean that fact doesn’t prick their consciences and motivate their actions. Could mean the opposite.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        From what I’ve seen when it comes to identity politics, emphasis is rarely put on economics. It just doesn’t figure. You’re privileged above all others if you’re a white cis male and I’ve never once heard where you sit on the economic ladder as figuring into that type of disparity. Especially, when I see protesting students who really have no clue where they sit themselves economically when it comes to the things they protest (like the naming of food in the cafeteria).

        • Posted August 4, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          I’ve seen authoritarian leftists decry economic privilege, but for some reason they usually do so in isolation, rather than as part of a complex, the way they frequently do with race-, gender-, or sexual orientation-based privilege.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Yes it’s not part of the identity gestalt, at least not directly.

        • dd
          Posted August 4, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

          Diana, it absolutely figures.

          Wokeness is the beard covering economic privilege.

          This is one of the many effects of the financial crisis as it percolates, still, throughout society.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 4, 2019 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

            That may be but it isn’t part of the gestalt. I don’t hear anything about economic privilege explicitly. It’s all race and gender.

      • rickflick
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        I think I agree. Economic privilege has stratified the US in a really ugly way. Almost any liberal cause is put on hold by Mich McConnell who is directly accountable to the Koch brothers and the rest of the 0.1 percent. If you are for action on global warming, as a student, you have to work against Exon Mobile stuffing envelopes of money under the doors of congress. If you expand this privilege few you can include the white male middle class conservative base of the status quo. The relatively successful. Students don’t want to identify with those movers and shakers, they want their own society of the “woke” to win back control. They identify with everyone below a certain “powerless” social status.

  2. Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I’d also say that Stephens’ thesis doesn’t recognize that America’s aristocracy, such as it is, does not map particularly well onto the group of people who really have achieved things of merit

    • Lee Roseberry
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Right now it’s not possible for me to take seriously anyone who would speak of a national meritocracy. These are the days of the Trump administration, which we are told is staffed by only the best people and represents the draining of the swamp. I wonder how proud the prestigious Wharton School is of their presidential effluent?

      • Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. There may be small pockets that look meritocratic if you squint, but as a general rule? No way.

        Of course, it also depends on how one defines “merit”. Is coming up with the idea for online streaming of movies and tv shows meritorious? Not particularly, imo, but I’m sure a lot of business guys and entrepreneur dudes would say absolutely yes.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think much of Stephens, he seems a sort of apologist for the old guard or something. I read past him to see what the book author has to say about the subject.

  3. Historian
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    It is much easier to explain the surge of white identity politics in recent years: demographic change and the perceived threat to cultural and economic hegemony than the increase of minority identity politics on college campuses. So, I stress the following is speculative on my part. One possibility is that minority students have witnessed the increase in white identity politics and fearful of oppression they have turned within themselves to protect themselves. It is the most natural thing in the world for members of groups fearing oppression to unite in order to be better able to fend off attacks. Related to this is the economic anxiety experienced by young people about a most uncertain future. Most of them rightfully fear the possibility that they may have a lower standard of living than their parents. The El Paso shooter stated in his manifesto that automation is taking away jobs and those that remain should go to native whites, not immigrants. Minority students feel powerless to affect the economy of the larger society and worry that they may remain on the bottom of the economic ladder as is the case with many of their parents. However, they feel they can affect what happens on their campuses, which, in reality, will do little to enhance their lives once they leave the ivory tower. But their actions do alleviate to an extent their feeling of powerlessness.

    On a side note, Stephens seems to have opposed the changing of the name of John C. Calhoun at Yale. I have always found it hard to understand why people, regardless of their views on political correctness, could have opposed this. The great historian Richard Hofstadter characterized Calhoun as the “Marx of the Master Class” because there was no person in the antebellum South who more forcefully argued for the rightfulness of slavery. For minority students living in Calhoun College it is the equivalent of Jewish students attending a college that was named after Joseph Goebbels in the 1930s.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Are the movements on campus spearheaded by minority students though? I see a lot of the efforts put forth by white students. Also, the students should fear that the standard of living will be less but will it be for students privileged enough to attend Ivy League schools? I don’t see these grads driving transport trucks or working in steel mills. But, you could be absolutely right in your analysis and the reality doesn’t matter as these students are often very much lacking in self awareness of their own privledge.

  4. Robert Bray
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    There is much to think about in this post, both the original column and PCCE’s commentary. I do not have an analysis to satisfy myself, let alone others. But I will simply make a few points, then come back to see what others are posting.

    I cannot help but compare leftist campus politics now with what I experienced fifty years ago. As I’ve written before on this site, my cohort turned out to have been complicit in what is surely a transformation in university education in the U. S. We wanted, and sometimes even struck for, a greater role in both curriculum and academic governance. We got it: fields of study (I’m speaking of the humanities here) expanded, with the literary/artistic/musical canons quickly ballooning to enfold writers, etc., who hitherto had not been read or seen or heard, especially women and people of color.

    This was, I believe, mostly to the good, although the pestilence of ‘Continental philosophy’ that was a fellow-traveller might be said to have cancelled most of the benefits of inclusivity.

    But concomitant with this expansion, and more student authority in curricular design, came the insidious reality that students were customers and the universities businesses where they shopped or resorts where they paid a small ransom for four years of ‘experience.’

    In other words, the capitalist model. College presidents became CEOs (as they must have wanted to be all along) and faculty, rather than called to a vocation, became workers. Adjunct: day-laborers. Tenured: life-sentenced. Full professors: aspiring to mid-management, what Melville might have called ‘sub-sub deans.’ And less and less professing all round.

    And so the decades passed. A college degree, not a college education, became the necessary credential to enter the middle-class world of work. But we see now that that credential is in itself not sufficient. And it’s too late to go back what was, when a genuine meritocracy was just possible.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      And schools compete for those customers in a way they never did before. They take in as many students as they can, constantly expanding their campuses to grow, grow, grow like the economic model of other capitalist markets.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        A good point. And the cancerous ‘grow or die’ reality of capitalism means that, where higher education is concerned, many colleges will die a lingering death as their tuition continues to rise and their endowment dwindles. Small, private liberal arts institutions are likely to be the firs to go. . . indeed, are going now!

    • Sastra
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Another factor which may have contributed to the shift in focus from education to capitalism could have been another positive: feminism.

      For many decades a lot of women went to college assuming that they would probably be bringing in the second income. They often majored then in areas which weren’t known for solid economic returns: literature, art, history, philosophy. The universities thus had strong reasons to provide a broader range of study for what was in essence an elite class of students, a tuition- paying group which didn’t necessarily view education as a capitalist venture.

      Coeds at that time were also unlikely to consider themselves consumers and argue with the administration or class requirements. When this group ‘woke up,’ the overall zeitgeist on campus may have changed. Don’t know. If so, another positive thing carried some negatives.

  5. Roo
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if I see it as a rebellion against elitism so much as a re-definition of elitism, where the newly elite are those who are aware of increasingly esoteric social norms. When you think about it, this was how the actual elite did function at many points in time. Our society today is so egalitarian (when compared to those with truly rigid class systems) that this dynamic is almost foreign to us, but historically the elite often had entirely different language, dress, and codes of conduct than ‘the masses’. This may indeed be an anti-meritocracy attitude, but more in the name of cementing classes based on arbitrary social mores vs. accomplishments.

    • Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Yes, I can see this.

    • BJ
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Wow, I have to say that’s an amazing point that never occurred to me. You’re right that the aristocracy always had new ways different from the masses of dressing, speaking, spending leisure time, etc. As soon as the masses caught on to any new way of doing things, the elite would change to something else; how can one signal their membership in the elite if they’re doing things the way the masses are doing them?

      And you’re right that the woke constantly evolve their social norms, verbiage, definitions, etc. One must keep up to remain in the woke aristocracy or they will be publicly mocked and either forced to publicly and humiliatingly rebuke themselves, or simply be forced out completely.

      I never thought about it this way. Again, excellent point. Thanks for giving me a new view on this.

    • Historian
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Our society may be egalitarian in comparison, let us say, to the regime of Czar Nicholas II, but not so much compared to other western nations. The Business Insider reports that social mobility in the United States is in marked decline for those born between 1957 and 1964 compared to those born between 1942 and 1953. There is little reason to believe that people born after 1964 are doing any better. If you don’t have social mobility, you don’t have egalitarianism.

      https://www.businessinsider.com/social-mobility-is-on-the-decline-and-with-it-american-dream-2017-7

      • Roo
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Income and egalitarianism aren’t necessarily the same thing. In the UK, for example, historically class roles were very delineated, but one could be broke with a long title behind their name and still be part of the upper classes. Think of the old saying “Ideas above one’s station” – it didn’t refer to money so much as societal role. In India, where remnants of the caste system are still in place, brahmins can be quite poor but still brahmins.

        I believe countries like Britain are somewhat more egalitarian today (I don’t know if they are quite to the level we are with standards like the CEO of a company coming in to work in shorts and joking around with employees; or most politicians being someone you should “want to have a beer with”, but I think relatively speaking they are more egalitarian,) but the point I was making was not “America is super duper egalitarian compared to other countries” – I was saying that, when compared with very class based societies in other times and places, such concepts are probably a bit foreign to us today. If someone wouldn’t speak to you or eat with you based on your position in life today, we would assume they had severe personal problems and condemn them as a society. In other times and places, this would have been quite normal.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes. There is pleasure to be had in thinking oneself to be a member of the vanguard: the forward thinking leading edge of society. Membership has its perks, and it strokes the ego.

    • TJR
      Posted August 5, 2019 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      That’s largely my view as well.

      Wokeness (PC, whatever you want to call it) looks suspiciously like an assertion of class privilege by the upper/middle class.

      They know the appropriate words and (metaphorical) funny handshakes, while working class people are dismissed and/or demonised for speaking normally.

      And as noted by Diana above, drawing attention to gender/ethnic privilege has the enormous bonus of distracting attention away from their own economic/class privilege.

  6. Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I believe that a contributing component of the overall problem is the younger generations’ expectation of immediate gratification. From homes to cars to vacations to most everything, there is an expectation that they can have now what it took us and our parents decades to achieve. My parents both had to quite school in the 10th grade to help with family and farming. They labored many years to achieve a very comfortable life. We were fortunate that they were able to provide us with some financial assistance through the years, but we never expected to receive anything other than what we worked for. We are now in the position to do the same for our children, and they too are appreciative but not expectant of our assistance. However, I already see a shift in the next generation – our oldest grand child just turned 16 and turned down the offer of a very nice 2009 Mercury Milan, presumably because it was not as cool as a Subaru or Toyota or Jeep. I’m not sure when he will realize that he can’t even afford a month’s worth of car insurance let alone a car payment.

    • EdwardM
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Your experiences notwithstanding, I come to quite the opposite conclusion. Young people today face realities that you and I never had to face (judging by your post, I’m guessing we’re ball-park ages – late baby-boomer/boomlet).

      We could afford to work our way through school. We did not have to face a lifetime of debt just to get a college degree. Likewise, home ownership, and the wealth the asset accrues, was never in doubt for our generation but for today’s young people it is increasingly out of reach and anyway will not be the asset it was to our generation.

      Plus we burned every drop of fossil fuel we could rip out of the ground then did nothing about what we could clearly see coming. I think kids today should be angry. Livid, boiling mad as what we did. But instead too many are angry about safe spaces and people who say mean things.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Then how do you explain my generation – Gen X? We faced all those things and I graduated when we were at a 12% unemployment rate yet this stuff didn’t happen on our university watch. Is it because our cohort is too small? I don’t know but we certainly are the first generation after the boomers to have to deal with a large cohort in front of us that we need to deal with economically and a large one behind us that we have to deal with emotionally.

        • EdwardM
          Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Maybe yours is the real “Greatest Generation”? 😉

          Seriously though, I don’t have an explanation for your question. I do not think, however, that these generational names (“Baby Boom”, “Me”, “X”, etc) are real things – they are just convenient groupings. IOW, the thoughts I outlined above – that today’s young people face unprecedented economic and environmental challenges – were created by us, their elders.

          Personally, I think my generation (BB), though responsible for some great things, are the ones who future generations will look back on with horror at what we let happen.

      • Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        When I look at the cost of housing in Denver, educational costs, etc., I agree with your points . I still say that the attitudes I mentioned are contributory in part. I do not see much “we can make do” with living within one’s means.

  7. Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Idealists need something to be idealistic about. Traditionally, this has been standing up for those who are underpriveliged and disadvantaged—blacks, gays, women. The idealists’ sense of worth hinges on the continued oppression of these groups by “the establishment”—straight, white, patriarchal.

    Problem is, if you define yourself as being “against” something, and then succeed in improving the thing your against, you need to keep finding other things to oppose in order to protect your sense of identity. The more successful you are, the more you have to deny your success and strain in your effort to find new things to protest or take offense at.

    Hence, on the issue of race, for example, the ridiculous claim that things are as bad or worse now than they were in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To justify that claim, you have to lower your standards of oppression and offense to the absurd—names of sports teams, a school called after a pioneer family named “Lynch” being labeled “racist,” etc.

    In short, the more things improve, largely through the efforts of idealists and activists, the worse things get for the idealists and activists—who, as Diane noted above, are often not themselves members of any oppressed groups. Worst of all would be a society that was totally just. Aargh! Idealists need something to be idealistic about.

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      According to legend, during the 60s there was one demonstration at the University of Toronto to protest against the absence of anything to protest against. A few years later, when PM Pierre Trudeau put some of the Quebec Liberation Front terrorists on trial, one of them (no doubt a failed sociology grad student from the U of T) demanded that the trial be held in French, though he himself couldn’t speak a word of it.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    And one could explain the rise of socialistic Leftism, like the proposals of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as a revolt against aristocracy.

    One could, I suppose, but then one would be mixing kumquats and pomegranates.

    To the extent Sanders and Warren are fomenting “a revolt against the aristocracy,” it is against entrenched moneyed interests, not against the “meritocracy.” Love ’em or hate ’em, Sanders and Warren want to do something about the precipitous increase in wealth inequality that’s befallen this nation over the last few decades. And to do something about the predation of certain segments of corporate America upon the middle classes and poor, by changing government policies that have encouraged and allowed such predation (such as the gutting of consumer-protection and collective-bargaining, and the recent Republican fat-cat tax-cuts that, for example, have middle-class taxpayers footing the bill for corporate jets).

    I’ve never heard either of them rail against “the elites” — only contend that the super-rich should pay their fair share.

  9. peepuk
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    There used to be some evidence (replication crisis?) that meritocracy was broadly accepted among different cultures; people seem to accept that people who perform better get better pay.

    There is also evidence that competition on merits can be an important motivational force in society.

    Unfortunately competition is almost always unfair and for people who are on de loosing side, not always fun.

    I don’t see an easy way out.

    (Funny enough the US has now a leader who isn’t chosen on his merits.)

  10. yazikus
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    helicopter parenting

    I’m partial to the term ‘lawnmower parenting’ – clearing the way before the kiddo can get to it. It reminds me of a phenomenon I saw when I was working in public accounting. We had a lot of generational clients – the oldest generation were usually the ones that built the family’s wealth. They didn’t want their kids to work as hard as they did, and so sent them to fancy schools to ensure they wouldn’t have to actually work the farm. Generation two (those kids) appreciated what their parents did for them and remembered the idea of hard work. Generation three (the kids of those kids) were often terrible. They were entitled, unappreciative and lazy (generalizing here – to an extent). So rather than an issue with a today’s young folks, maybe we have an issue with the generations that don’t appreciate their position of accumulated wealth and privilege.

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The prevalence of administrators filled with clichés of the Left, picked up as undergrad students of the new grievance studies subjects, is very likely involved—as demonstrated at Evergreen and Oberlin, for example. But I think Stephens is on to something—with one caveat.

    It is not just the old meritocracy that is provoking a backlash, but the meritocracy cubed which Frank and Cook called “winner-take-all markets”. In Frank’s words: “These are markets in which a handful of top performers walk away with the lion’s share of total rewards. This payoff structure has always been common in entertainment and professional sports, but in recent years it has permeated many other fields–law, journalism, consulting, investment banking, corporate management, design, fashion, even the hallowed halls of academe.”

    This economic pattern has been growing for a generation, and a long overdue backlash against it could be fueling campus pop-radicalism. That radicalism typically overshoots in an authoritarian direction, following the Left’s tendency to swoop from egalitarianism to imposed uniformity. That latter tendency is an old, old story, from Cromwell through Marat and Robespierre to Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. etc. and on to today’s offense culture.

  12. Posted August 4, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    All a power struggle. As in our Revolution, we decided to step beyond God’s dictate that a king should decide our political fate, in fact step beyond god, this “new” Left seeks to step beyond what is decreed to them by existing institutions and systems. If that means attacking Truth ™, then so be it. Not always the best course of action and might even fail, but their course.

    As to why now, I believe it may be due to our, especially the younger set’s, means of communication. It’s fast, efficient, and a multiplier of force. Ask any Field Marshall whether she would want twenty more guns or the ability to tell which guns to fire where at a moment’s notice.

  13. Historian
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Kronman’s article offers a lot to discuss and debate. The premise of the article is that there is such a thing as truth, which many of those who preach diversity deny.

    I am old fashioned enough to believe that objective truth exists that is not subject to opinion. As Kronman states, truth is not democratic. Truth may be difficult to attain at times, but that should not discourage its pursuit. A person or a group’s “feelings” should play no role in that pursuit. Unfortunately, academia’s denial of the objectivity of truth is not limited to the United States, as pointed out on this site many times previously. One of the latest denials comes from Australia where, as reported in Quillette, the “University of New South Wales (UNSW) is advising its staff to avoid teaching students about the arrival of Australian Indigenous people onto the Australian continent.” Instead, they are to accede to the belief of some indigenous people that they were always there. This trend is discouraging and truth is the victim.

    https://quillette.com/2019/07/23/why-is-a-top-australian-university-encouraging-staff-to-support-indigenous-creationism/

    As an aside, there is a way that Wall Street Journal articles can be read for free. My local library offers an online database called Factiva that allows the search and retrieval of virtually all Wall Street Journal articles for at least the last five years, perhaps longer.

  14. chris moffatt
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    It is merely the end result of the Gramsci/Duschke “long march through the institutions” (q.v.)

  15. Steve Gerrard
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I think a lot of the frustration of the current PoMo movement is that despite all the improvements, racism and sexism persists. They have now taken the view that a Captain Picard approach is warranted: make it so.

    This entails ignoring all the discrepancies, such as the equality of women versus the need for women’s sports. Just plow over everything, claim total equality in all categories, and then deride anyone who objects. It is a crude brute force approach to social development.

  16. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “”What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few”

    “The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit”

    I’m as tired of campus obnoxiousness as everyone else…but I find these quoted passages rancid, and they represent a specious argument.

    Set aside the ickiness of the writing; the most obvious instantiation of anti-elitism in the west is the ascent of Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In short, right-wing populism.

    If Stephens was genuine in his regard for meritocracies, and for the intellectual/artistic ‘aristocrats'(ugh) who populate the upper reaches of any discipline, then his focus would be on people like Michael Gove, the Brexiteer famous for saying that the public “has had enough of listening to experts”, or on Donald Trump, the arch-moron and anti-elitist who dismisses decades of research and evidence with a flick of his tiny wrists.
    His focus would be on any number of people on the populist-right who have dragged the very idea of expertise through the mud and convinced millions of voters that their basic, unmediated instincts are just as worthwhile as the judgements of professional climate scientists or economic forecasters or experienced politicians.

    I don’t find it in the slightest bit persuasive to unload the charge of anti-elitism on a minority of(admittedly ghastly) students while ignoring entirely the populist movement that has taken control of both the British and American governments.

  17. Charles Sawicki
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    America’s aristocracy holds and improves it economic position mainly through “rent seeking” rather that actual accomplishments that build and improve society. This activity doesn’t create new wealth and contributes to the destruction of democracy by political manipulation of government. Of course, this doesn’t apply to entrepreneurs or scientists who make money by actually create useful things.

  18. Posted August 4, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I remain unconvinced by “Culture War” narratives. The Woke Wars, both online and on Campus, coincide with a couple of recent developments: helicopter parenting, the fourth period of student loans (2012–), spread of Critical Race Theory, globalisation, apparent spread of mental illness, the breakdown of political orientations and a conservative-shift among younger people (without that they become like the older generation of conservatives) and probably most importantly, the mass adoption of internet and especially social media.

    Social media introduced attention as the most important currency, and with it came the clickbait, the outrage, and the desire of many to look as best as possible, to their contemporaries, but also to the future looking back. Now a certain type of person envisions themselves to be just like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr, reaping great admiration in the future when current progressive cause will have found widespread acceptance (in their mind).

    The earlier interactive internet brought about the troll, who was adapted to an environment of anonymity or pseudonymity. Real names brought about a new internet creature: the social justice warrior. They’re use the new important currencies, attention and reputation to their advantage, while (in their mind) look great doing their activism.

    There’s a great deal more to explore, some examples: part of the phenomenon is that the Science Wars in the age of Social Media became a kind of “Civil War of Science Enthusiasts”, now that humanities students (or professors, or interested laypeople) can fire tweets at the STEM side and they can respond in kind, fighting over what certain findings mean.

    Another prerogative of interpretation war is between different nerd or geek subcultures that are forced into collision course through what’s called Convergence Culture. To make it simple, imagine the monthly “jets, tanks and sports” magazine, with a buxom centerfold your uncle reads, and the “lifestyle & secret celebrity romance” magazine of your aunt are suddenly merged together. And then your aunt was reading the feminist LGTB variety. Auntie’s affinity to writing and Tumblr made her sudden early adopter of social media technology. She was then hired by traditional media, where her opinions are now suddenly important. Now she can decry the “male gaze” all day. Her complaints and eager awaiting of the age where the “white male” is finally over, causes anxiety on the other side. Also, amplified by Big Interests pouring money over “alternative pundits” for whining endlessly about the “End of the West”.

    None of these things alone are causing this. Different related, but separate phenomena emphasise, and goad each other. Being outraged by some “other side” drives tribes into homogeneity. Money is extracted from students, making them anxious, and then used to bloat admin departments infested with Critical Race Theory mumbo jumbo. The students then expect luxury treatment for their premium money they hand over, which might drive the “safe space” mentality, but also might increase Critical Race Theory in value, since they paid a lot for it.

    And so on.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 4, 2019 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      The internet and social media (funny I just typed “madia”) plays a big part and maybe this is all about timing – the perfect storm. There are also apposing forces – for example the push for Christian Nationalism in the US which has been a heightening of efforts by evangelicals and their allies for years to get legislation and education changed to reflect Christian beliefs, in the US. A steady onslaught into public life. I don’t know how that fits in, but it is a thing.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 4, 2019 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        By opposing I mean opposing the Left.

  19. Maurie Beck
    Posted August 4, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that students now expect safe. I teach ecology and evolution at a California State University campus. Most of the students are premed, and are very driven and focused, and appear to have been that way all through school.

    The lives of many of the top students seem to have been preplanned, especially by their parents, and then perhaps internalized by the students themselves over time.

    Even though these students do very well, they often seem to do everything by wrote. There is little left to chance or imagination, and are consequently not the most adventurous thinkers.

    I’ve read some articles that highlight the conformity required of students. Certainly parents of the meritocracy seem overly protective of their children compared to when I was growing up. But this might just be snobbery on my part.

  20. Posted August 5, 2019 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    It could be fairly straight forward as in, with the rising tide and lifting all boats in the harbour equally these students are desperate for differences, to show they have something to care about. The frustration and emotion equating to violence, shades of.
    Extremist action being a tribal perversion.
    It is how they find themselves amoungst peers, society, status and inclusion within your cohort.
    I always think time will settle a certain amount of angst.
    ”Looks like nothin’s gonna change
    Everything seems to stay the same
    I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
    So I guess I’ll remain the same”

    The Dock of the Bay. Otis Reading

    This is what they fear, remaing the same, their sillyness is born from confusion and that to me, is how much information they have available to be clear and coherent. At the moment, precious little, they need to dive in, feel the presure of its depth, feel its support, eddies and flow, not just sitting on the dock, albeit a nice pastime and make demands.
    That ship may have sailed for some.


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