For many of us college folk separated by thousands of miles from the east coast, the recent protests at Yale and Princeton initially seem both frivolous and ridiculous: here is a bunch of students and faculty at fancy schools getting all worked up over “trigger warnings” and Halloween costumes. First-world problems on steroids! How nice it would be to study, live, or work at such enormously privileged institutions, where these are the biggest problems! The rest of us are working hard to keep class enrollments under fifty, or to qualify for comparatively measly amounts of financial aid, or to scrape together a couple of thousand bucks to send a debate team to nationals.
Since these fancy colleges are so powerful, there issues forth an endless stream of articles trying to explain what has gone wrong with “the American mind,” and how today’s college students are “coddled” and emotionally immature. But it’s seldom recognized that what some professors may be seeing on occasion in some elite institutions doesn’t really carry over to the vast majority of students and faculty at a broad range of less-than-elite schools. Our problems, let us proudly announce, really are problems, and our students could not be accused of being “coddled” in any way. We face problems that no institution with a $24-billion endowment can begin to imagine, and our students are not about to walk into the fleet of Wall Street jobs held open for the graduates of the Ivy Leagues.
Harrumph, harrumph. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep and important philosophical conflict that is at the root of the campus protests, and it is one we all should reflect upon. The conflict emerges as a society built upon the Enlightenment becomes aware of the cost of its privilege.
In a very short summary, the Enlightenment was both good and bad. The good side is that thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and Smith all evidenced a great optimism in the human capacity to know the world through empirical science and govern themselves with justice and political equality. Their vision laid the foundation for the great republican democracies of our age. The bad side is that Enlightenment culture was paid for with a lot of blood. As at least one historian has pointed out, rather than thinking of the great French Encyclopédie as the grand emblem of the Enlightenment, one might instead focus on the slave ship, cleverly designed to carry hundreds of captives without incurring so much death and suffering as to make the venture unprofitable. This ship was the Enlightenment in practice, rather than on paper, and the “enlightened” thinkers were complicit in such commercial inhumanity, whether they knew it or not.
As a result, the institutions we have as a result of the Enlightenment – great universities, in particular – are both good and bad. The good is that these institutions are shrines to the Enlightenment ideals of free inquiry, free speech, the lively exchange of ideas, the building of rational and critical faculties, and the respect for individuals as autonomous thinkers. The bad is that these institutions also reflect, in ways big and small, the tyranny of colonialist cultures and the subjugation of non-European people. One recent article on the campus protests unwittingly makes this point evident when the author writes,
These [protesters] are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?
Indeed, what’s not to love about the manor house when you’ve been called in from slaving away in the cotton fields? Of course these students themselves haven’t been slaving away; but their existence, as well as the existence of the institutions themselves, are grounded in that forced labor.
To their credit, our contemporary universities have no shortage of courses where this good/bad legacy of the Enlightenment is explored at great length along many dimensions. (In fact, these days one is more likely to find greater examination of the bad side than the good.) College students take these classes, and they are forced to reflect on the great stretches of injustice that made their institutions possible – and not just to reflect, of course, but to feel righteous indignation at the hypocrisy of these institutions as they try to paint themselves in the rosiest possible light.
Now, again, these are college students, and, smart as they are, they often have not developed the full set of dispassionate argumentative skills displayed by the great Enlightenment thinkers. They feel rage, and they find some way to express it. So they shout and petition and carry on and spit and tweet and so on. And they feel renewed fury when they are admonished by the guardians of the institution to pipe down and work through the proper channels. Sometimes the complaints raised by some of these students sound just silly – “Help me! I’m being victimized by a Halloween costume!” – and the videos of these students confronting their institutions’ leaders show shameful, grossly indecent behavior. But these sometimes inchoate complaints are growing out of a deeper frustration that there’s a whole lot of past (and present) injustice that is being trivialized. The open letter written by the Yale students features a strong central point: “We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.”
In this way, the conflict being expressed in what seems initially to be frivolous and ridiculous protests in fact strikes at the root of our most cherished institutions. We Americans and Europeans indeed are privileged people; and we have come to enjoy this privilege by subjugating and enslaving others. What do we do with that legacy? Try to forget it? Note it now and again, and then move on with business as usual? Offer reparations? To whom? It’s far from clear what justice requires from us. Like Macbeth, we have hands that just won’t wash clean.