Those of us who work in higher education are accustomed to conservative thinkers painting us as the spoiled brats of the culture wars. At the other end of the political spectrum, radical students in elite institutions have sought to shout down even progressive academics when their demands are not being met. One comfort this brings is that when you are being challenged from both ends for different reasons, well, you must be doing something right. But William Egginton provides another and more solid comfort in his new book. Egginton, director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University, has impeccable credentials as a liberal professor but writes here with deliberate intent to stake out a centrist position. Higher education, he argues, has benefited enormously from identity politics because it has made the voices of previously silent or silenced groups much more audible. We are the better for the critiques of the establishment that have come from feminists and people of color, and also for the subdivisions within each of these groups. Sure, some of the more extreme voices have sometimes led us to faintly ridiculous extremes, the kinds of things that conservative journals like First Things and the New Criterion rejoice in excoriating. But on the whole the benefits that have accrued from the multiplicity of different voices have led to a saner and healthier academic and, indeed, national culture.
The problem for higher education today is not that identity politics is a part of academic culture, but that the healthy recognition of difference (to which we are indebted) has come at the price of inattention to the opposite good: the strengthening of the bonds of community that education in general, and the liberal arts in particular, have always existed to foster. The principal reason for this imbalance between the legitimacy of concern for the individual and attention to the common good, thinks Egginton, is the excessive individualism that has come to bedevil American public life. And this itself is a product of the neoliberalism of the market economy, which has affected those institutions that should stand at a critical distance from all ideologies. “Our universities,” he writes, “have become like department stores.” The pursuit of truth has been abandoned in favor of “branding, competition, and marketing themselves to a well-researched brew of the wealthiest and most academically stellar students.” Egginton may have to change his tune just a little in light of Michael Bloomberg’s recent gift of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins solely to support student aid: but until many other institutions are similarly graced, higher education in general will continue to reinforce the huge gap between the rich and the poor.
Egginton’s plea is only the latest in a long line of texts bemoaning the condition of American education. Many are from the right, like Heather Mac Donald’s The Diversity Delusion or Michael Rectenwald’s Springtime for Snowflakes. On the left there is Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein’s Our Higher Calling or Robert Putnam’s more sociological analysis Our Kids. Though he is largely focused on universities, Egginton echoes Putnam’s distinctively liberal argument: that all this malaise begins at the earliest stages of education, where the dramatic differences of quality and opportunity between geographic areas or racial groups simply mean, in Egginton’s phrase, that inequality “is baked into the system.”