College

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– 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.

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