In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure how I’d expected the conversation to go. I’d perhaps anticipated hearing stories about brilliant-but-poor children who were unable to attend the universities of their choice, or being told that America was falling behind in the world because student debt was crippling its finest minds. But those taking part seemed captivated by a single, quite extraordinary question, best distilled as, “Is the fact that people possess differing levels of knowledge an unacceptable form of inequality?”
This was not, as I’d initially assumed, a means of arguing that the uneducated are effectively disenfranchised, but instead the overture to a truly asinine debate about whether the very act of one person’s imparting knowledge to another is inherently hierarchical — and, thus, undesirable. One attendee even described the “traditional” means of conveying information to another as “intellectual violence.” (In doing so, he took the old “all sex is rape” canard and dressed it in a gown and mortarboard.) The consensus, it seemed, was that education would work better if we just all shared our experiences with one another and valued each person’s contribution equally. A self-described “radical teacher” added that each person should be free to absorb the facts that best fit his or her “narrative,” without outside interference from anything like the truth. This approach would put us on the path not only to the establishment of 2+2=5 as a verity, but to the labeling of anyone as a bigot who had the temerity to disagree.
To her credit, one girl — a student in her early twenties — kept pushing back. “I want to go to college to learn things,” she said. “I want to be taught by people who know more than me. That’s the point!” But she was alone, at least among the vocal. “Who are you to decide who knows more than someone else? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?” came the replies. “I’m a physics major,” she answered. “My teacher does know more than me.”
But the others weren’t interested in this fact — or any facts, really. To them, the truth was just a construct of the ruling class, to be kept or dispensed with by virtue of its utility. They would undoubtedly profit from this girl’s embrace of external reality; instead they rhetorically crucified her for her apostasy and changed the subject. This attitude was all the more strange, given that it was utterly at odds with the assured rhetoric at the climate-change roundtable — at which 15 or so students were convinced enough that they were in possession of the absolute “scientific truth” to advocate remaking the country according to their own design.
But perhaps such inconsistencies should not be surprising, because the Occupiers were on May Day what they have fundamentally always been: a diffuse, inchoate, and rag-tag bunch of progressives standing around in a park, each wondering out loud what America might look like if everyone else agreed with them.