– from The New Activism of Liberal Arts Colleges by Nathan Heller
Through the late eighties and the early nineties, liberals on college campuses often spoke of “multiculturalism”: a reform of the curriculum to reflect the many traditions of the world. As the doctrine gained adherents, though, it was criticized by the academic left—not least, by many nonwhite scholars—who worried that it made a luxury commodity of otherness.
Marc Blecher, an Oberlin professor of politics, had problems with the program at the time, in part, he said, because thinking in terms of cultural identities often leaves out a critical factor: class. He believes the problem goes back to the early days of boomer politics, which he experienced as an activist at Cornell, in the sixties. “When we opposed the Vietnam War, we didn’t take seriously that all the draft dodging we were doing was screwing black people and poor people and forcing them to go fight,” Blecher said one afternoon, in his office. He had a gray beard and a somewhat stark, feral intensity; as he spoke, he put one leg, but not the other, on his desk.
In time, the sixties gave rise to more identity-bounded movements: Black Power, second-wave feminism, gay liberation. Class was seldom fully in the mix, except, maybe, in a generalized Marxist way. Blecher suggests that this is how we ended up with market-friendly multiculturalism and, in universities, an almost consumerist conception of identity politics.
Identity politics used to be obligate: I am a woman of color, because the world sees me as such. Now there is an elective element: I identify as X and Y and Z right now. That can distract from the overriding class privilege of élite education. “Intersectionality is taken as a kind of gospel around here,” Blecher complained. For this he put a lot of the blame on Comparative American Studies, an influential program among Oberlin activists.
Wendy Kozol, the director of the program, agreed that many students glom on to intersectional ideas too broadly. “But that’s why we teach,” she told me. “When people are learning any theoretical framework, they learn it in stages, with various levels of nuance.” She calls the critiques of intersectionality “very compelling” but difficult. Many of them suggest that casting experience as an intersection of super-abstract social identities, such as “femaleness” and “blackness,” elides historical specificity. One of Kozol’s favorite critics, the Rutgers scholar Jasbir K. Puar, charges that intersectionality posits people whose attributes—race, class, gender, etc.—are “separable analytics,” like Legos that can be snapped apart, when in truth most identities operate more like the night sky: we see meaningful shapes by picking out some stars and ignoring others, and these imagined pictures can change all the time.
Kozol teaches this kind of critique in her upper-level classes. “Sometimes it gets caricatured that students are consumers who just want to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and I suppose those critiques have a certain validity,” she told me. “But my experience is that it’s less about them than about trying to understand peoples and process in a world that’s changing.” Student movements have an odd habit of ending up on the right side of history.
How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.
Kozol tried everything she could think of. She divided the seminar into work groups. She started giving lectures. She asked students to write down one thing they would do to contribute to a more productive dialogue. Only one person responded. So she did what she had never done in two decades of teaching: she dissolved the course mid-semester and let students do independent study for a grade.