Earlier this year, the novelist Teju Cole wrote an essay for The New Yorker called “A Reader’s War”. A lot of people in my various social media feeds, on both the right and left, found its premise naive and its analysis wanting in its details and structure. I defended it then and I’ll still defend it now. I think the essay is speaking to a question that’s bigger and more difficult than it seems to be, and was rejected by many readers because it doesn’t offer easy confirmation of their own preferences or beliefs about action.
Cole’s basic question, asked with a lot of honest anguish, is why a rich experience of culture and literature doesn’t produce greater understanding of global humanity and far greater awareness of the human consequences of violence and power. He aims that question most sharply at President Obama and his leadership in the “global war on terror”, but it hangs out there as a thought about everything around us in the world, about how we are all drifting “into cruelties that persist in the psychic atmosphere like ritual pollution”.
It’s not a new problem, and Cole knows it. A moral philosopher is not necessarily or even often a more moral person. A novelist with searing insight into the emotional pain we inflict on each other is not necessarily less likely to inflict that pain. A scientist who discovers that primates need love as much as they need food can still be an unloving person.
When you feel that in your own life, expressive culture and humanistic knowledge have freed you as a person, made you fully human, given you understanding you couldn’t otherwise have, it’s often hard to imagine how it’s possible that this isn’t so for everyone. And thus, like Cole, when you realize that it isn’t so most of the time, that literature and culture don’t invariably humanize, often don’t create morality, you have to ask: what are they for? Why should we give time and money and space in our institutions to culture?
In a place like Swarthmore, you could expand the question to all knowledge. The students who have cried out to the college in this past week are asking in part, “How can it be that someone, anyone, is still pissing on the door of the Intercultural Center, how can it be that anyone is openly and deliberately hurtful to others, that anyone still commits sexual assault? How can that be in the midst of so much knowledge, so much learning, so many resources?”
I don’t know. I fear we can’t know, not really or fully or finally. There’s a surplus of answers, and none of them seem to contain the magic variable. Colleges that don’t have fraternities still have hurtful incidents. Colleges that have an Ethnic Studies department still have hurtful incidents. Colleges that have a required course in diversity still have hurtful incidents. Colleges that don’t have male students still have hurtful incidents. Historically black colleges and universities still have hurtful incidents.
There is an answer to the question that avoids any need to know about the interior character or consciousness of bad actors, a carceral or authoritarian answer. That a wider variety of wrong actions should be defined more explicitly by quasi-legal codes and sanctioned more aggressively. And that those sanctions enforced by more pervasive institutional monitoring and power. One obvious proposition that’s already been floated is that there should be a camera on the Intercultural Center’s door. The students are right to have rejected that idea, because for one it couldn’t stop there. We’d need cameras everywhere. And for another, cameras everywhere and pervasive, aggressive enforcement of a quasi-parental authority do nothing to produce a sense of inner peace or safety, which what the students want and deserve. That’s Cole’s psychic pollution in action: we countenance drone strikes and Guantanamo because we are surrounded now by a profusion of cameras and guards, told constantly to fear and watch.
Some of the students have a different idea in mind. That if, as Cole describes it, simply being in the presence of information and culture and resources that should enlighten and transform people isn’t enough, we have to do more. That we somehow change the inner selves of the somebody, anybody, by more pervasive and properly designed education. That the answer must be that those bad actors haven’t taken the right class, listened to the right workshop, had the right amount of education, been trained and tested to the right standards and that with enough of all that, we will not have bad selves and bad actors.
Some of the activists are quite aware of where that logic goes and don’t shy away from the slippery slope. One has said in a social media conversation that I’ve been involved in that this doesn’t end until Swarthmore is a properly revolutionary institution, whatever that takes and whatever it costs. If there are still bad actors and bad action on the first pass, the first wave of workshops and courses, then we’ll do more, do it better and more often. Until the job is done.
But it won’t happen even then. That burns down the village in order to save it. In many ways I feel the intensity and totality of the resistance of the contemporary American far right to every progressive achievement and legacy of the 1960s was perversely intensified by an earlier generation of attempts to remake consciousness through education and the reconfiguration of civic institutions, in a somewhat predictably dialectic way. The idea that a core curriculum whose content is tightly enforced with an instrumental end in mind will produce the appropriate kind of personhood is as much a favored theme among educational conservatives as it is among the student critics of Swarthmore. There’s a huge difference in content and goals, but the proposition about how education works is roughly the same, that it is the royal road into control over selfhood and morality. There’s plenty of evidence that the worst flaw of this proposition is that it simply doesn’t work, that as it tries to do more and more in the face of the persistence of immorality or discrimination it produces more and more of what it is trying to eradicate, it accelerates a slippage out of the institution’s structures and rules.
Whatever that outcome is if you go a good way down that road, even if it achieves some success at its stated objectives, it’s not a liberal arts education. Yes, sure, it’s possible to stop well short of the slippery slope. Would a diversity requirement that was a like a Physical Education class be so bad? Not at all. It’s pretty reasonable to complain that when we hold discussion sessions or meetings or workshops, no one shows up but the usual suspects, no one learns but the people who already have experienced what the workshop addresses. It’s reasonable.
Until we have that requirement and we have another incident, we have more microaggressions. Which, I think, we will. Then what? Did we have the wrong classes or the wrong pedagogy? The wrong teachers of the classes? Not enough of a requirement? Or the wrong people? The reason we can’t just leave those questions for another day is precisely that what we’ve been asked, what we’ve been told, is that the actions we now take have to eliminate bad action. It’s a very different discussion if we’re working with a proposition like, “Let’s try something to see if we can’t make this kind of event less common, less pervasive, less dire.” It’s a lot easier to tinker if we start where Cole ends: understanding with heavy hearts and dread that all the beauty and knowledge in the world, all the best intentions, still can’t seem to make much headway against the devil in our systems and our hearts.