Diverse Thoughts on Diversity

by Peter Augustine Lawler
On the emptiness of higher education

Peter Minowitz (in, of course, Perspectives on Political Science) has written the authoritative account of how the pursuit of diversity has played out in misguided and despotic ways on (mostly) our elite campuses. One way among many that his account is singularly fair and balanced is that he’s a liberal, voted twice for Obama, and shares many of the concerns of the protesters about the ways in which we still fall short of racial justice.

Peter is also liberal in another way. His concern is to protect “viewpoint diversity” on campus from both misguided enthusiasm and administrative indifference (or worse).

And Peter, by reminding us of the persistent and somewhat pernicious confusion of our Supreme Court, highlights the fact that one big problem is that when we say diversity, we often really mean justice. Our Court keeps from having a real national dialogue about the justice and the effectiveness of affirmative action. For now, when we say someone is insensitive to diversity, we really mean the person is unjust, even if said persons’s insensitive complaint is simply about the administrative misuse of the term “diversity” to suppress legitimate controversy over what justice requires. The Supreme Court would have been more forthright had it said either that justice under the Constitution requires or allows the use of racial preferences to balance enrollments or that under our colorblind Constitution all use of race to trump individual merit is unconstitutional.

I for one do not think that taking race into account in admissions decisions is always unconstitutional, as long as each applicant is treated as an individual. Explicit and de facto quotas are surely unconstitutional. You remember, of course, that I tend to be for judicial restraint. That allows the people to decide what justice requires under the Constitution – as their representatives very correctly did, for example, in the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  And when institutions justify their policies, they should have to keep justice — and not some questionable educational goal — in mind. Don’t get me started on Title 9 as it has morphed through administrative abuse over the years. It’s no longer a law in any reasonable sense.

I’m told that when administrators get together these days, they talk a lot about the prospect of campus protests this fall. It is something to worry about. Trump, with his brutal and random hostility to all forms of political correctness, may be the best stimulus package political correctness ever received. Nobody, it seems to me, is going to extend legitimate viewpoint diversity on campus to actually supporting Trump (at least most places). I pity the students who admit to the hate crime of voting Trump (although studies show there aren’t that many of them).

That reminds me that, at Berry College and elsewhere, the only candidate who has inspired student enthusiasm is Bernie Sanders. Those students are, in fact, animated by justice, a.k.a. “social justice.” Now, I admit that the phrase “social justice,” in higher education, has taken on a hugely dogmatic tone. It creates the impression that it’s easy to know what justice is and that those who dissent from the reigning view are evil and stupid. That’s why classically liberal economists hate the phase; they think they know that Bernie doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that his thuggish, counterproductive policies would make the lives of most people worse. They think Bernie is evil and stupid. Well, God knows he’s not evil, but I have to say he’s “reactionary” in the precise sense. The message he’s been pushing for more than 40 years hasn’t adjusted to changing realities. Bernie isn’t any stupider than any of the candidates, but I wish he had eyes to see.

Getting back to “social justice,” we can’t forget that there’s a Catholic tradition of social justice. Now profound scholars, such as Ernest Fortin, have explained why Catholics shouldn’t be using that phrase. For one thing, justice is an intrinsically social virtue, describing our duties to others (as opposed, as Aristotle says, to magnanimity). Every time you see the phrase “social justice,” you should probably strike out the word “social” as redundant. Still, you might respond, “social justice” in the tradition of solidarity and subsidiarity reminds us that justice is about more than the rights of the unencumbered individual.

So that leads to me to think a bit more about political correctness on campus. For many administrators, following the corporate lead, it’s diversity as pretty much about being sensitive to the needs of customers and not putting your personal moral views above being compliant. From that view, political correctness is simply being nice in an intrusively scripted way.

That compliant niceness — or sensitivity to this new “student evaluation” in the service of recruitment and retention — accounts in some large measure for the passivity of our administrators in the face of student demands. The students, of course, often aggressively demand not only acceptance — “not that there’s anything wrong with that” — but the positive affirmation that flies under the banner of inclusivity. The protesters are often being rudely menacing and even self-righteously ridiculous in their demands, but the nice administrators often just cave. The customer is always right, it too often seems. And the response is not even the edgy “no problem” but the masochistic “my pleasure” now required at so many chain restaurants.

For the enthusiastic students, political correctness is about not diversity but social justice (even when the word “diversity” is incorrectly used). It remains, even in the most misguided and despotic forms, about the search for the moral significance of all our prosperity. It’s about the fact that the admin-speak form of diversity is no substitute for “man’s search for meaning.” It is about the longing that the campus community be about a lot more than competency and diversity.

So the first campus protesters of the early Sixties criticized our technocratic institutions for sacrificing controversy to public relations. It’s a failure of liberal education that students, then and now, themselves are suckered into suppressing controversy. One reason, it seems to me, that the demands of protesters sometimes accelerate from the somewhat plausible to the inane and pointlessly destructive is that they yearn for real controversy — real dialogue, real resistance, the affirmation of dignity that is fighting back. But there’s no way diversity is going to generate that!

When Bernie Sanders thinks of a free higher education for everyone, I assume he’s thinking of his experiences at the City College of New York and at the University of Chicago, where mostly leftish professors were animated by exposing students to the human drama displayed by the greatest of the books. Those were the socialists who didn’t think that Plato or Shakespeare were irrelevant to the struggles of our time, and they added that one of the points of our struggles should be to make Plato and Shakespeare accessible to everyone.

On this issue, I admire Bernie’s spirit, although I believe the actual effect of his policy would be to accelerate the government/corporate/administrative clampdown on real moral and intellectual diversity that’s the saving grace of our system of higher education.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.