Tyler Austin Harper is a writer and an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tyler Austin Harper discuss how universities can reclaim their status as sites for the free exchange of ideas; why enrollment in the humanities has declined; and the ways in which the new progressive ideas concerning identity remain influential on campus and in our society.
The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Claudine Gay resigned very recently as the President of Harvard, so that feels like a natural starting point. For those of my listeners who perhaps aren't in the United States, or in academia, or haven't been following this story over the holidays, what should we make of what just happened?
Tyler Austin Harper: Claudine Gay, President of Harvard nominally resigned—“forced out” would be a more accurate description—in the wake of a series of plagiarism accusations that began on December 10. I believe the first came from the conservative activist Chris Rufo. And to my mind, and I think to a lot of people's mind, the first accusation seemed sort of weak. They were sloppy, but they did not seem egregious.
Over the last couple of weeks, the accusations have continued to pile up, including some, I think, much more serious allegations that include full paragraphs repeated more or less verbatim without attribution. And it seemed to reach a critical point on Monday, when six new allegations were released by the Free Beacon, and that seemed to be the final straw. And she tendered her resignation.
Mounk: I think part of a wider context here is that Claudine Gay was one of the three university presidents who appeared in front of Congress a month ago and, when asked whether or not it would be a violation of Harvard student conduct rules to call for genocide of Jews, she said, as did the other two university presidents present, that it would depend on the context.
I'm torn about this, because I am a free speech absolutist. I think that we need to defend a very broad conception of free speech on campus. So I was willing to put up with her response. But I had two problems with it. One is that she wasn't able to actually set out the case for that academic freedom, to explain why it is that it shouldn't be against the rules and why we don't want university presidents to pick and choose between the kind of speech that students are able to engage in. Second, of course, is that it was hypocritical, because Harvard on FIRE’s ranking of American universities is dead last. It's not, in fact, a place that has respected free speech in recent years.
In a broader sense, what does this moment tell us about the state of American higher education and sort of a failure of universities to be places for genuine intellectual inquiry and debate in the kinds of ways that we would want them to be?
Harper: My reaction to the hearing, I think, was probably pretty similar to yours. I don't think any of the presidents gave a particularly compelling response on a human level or even an intellectually compelling response. They were shot through with plenty of legalese from their PR and legal team, but there was not an attempt to explain, as you put it, why exactly free speech is important and why we need to tolerate speech even if we find it abhorrent. And so I thought the performance was really lackluster. But of course, it got immediately co-opted by a sort of broader set of conservative attacks on higher education that stem from frustrations with diversity and a host of what are seen as sort of progressive policies and cultural norms at these institutions.
I think the situation with Gay is particularly interesting in that I thought her testimony was the best of the three. It wasn't great. She didn't knock it out of the park. But she was asked a similar question. She's a black woman, she was asked how she would respond to calls for black genocide, and she began repeating the exact same thing she had said about the genocide of Jews. And, of course, the Republican congressman didn't want that answer, and cut it off immediately. I think she made an attempt to articulate a kind of principled position, but that certainly didn't save her from the conservative backlash.
What's telling about the plagiarism example is that it's very obvious, I think, to everyone that it's largely a pretext. The first plagiarism accusations came out, I think, five days exactly after her testimony. The context is ugly. It clearly was part and parcel initially of an effort to oust a president that conservatives didn't like. But on the other hand, there's real plagiarism. The incidents are minor, but they're plagiarism. I think calling them anything other than plagiarism is intellectually nihilistic and insane. Plenty of people are calling it “duplicative language” and “technical mis-attribution errors” and all these kinds of Orwellian euphemisms. But when you copy a whole paragraph of someone's language verbatim, it's plagiarism. But in terms of what it exposes about higher education, the culture wars made everything partisan across the board. The attacks were partisan. But I've been shocked by how many academics have responded to the plagiarism accusations not by saying, “Yes, this is plagiarism. They're minor, I don't think she should be forced to resign. And we should understand this as a broader conservative and donor pressure campaign.” They've responded, instead, by saying, “Well, it's not really plagiarism, or if it's plagiarism, it's a technicality,” or “everyone plagiarizes,” which is something that a lot of academics have been saying on Twitter, which I find preposterous.
A lot of progressives are using these euphemisms to defend conduct that, coming from any other quarter, they wouldn't defend. So what I think it reveals about higher education is really that the culture war has pretty thoroughly boiled it, and it doesn't seem like anyone on either side of the aisle is capable or at least willing to defend what were previously normal academic standards.
Mounk: I watched the first two hours or so of the hearing. And I did, like you, think that actually Gay was the least bad, that she came closest of the three to sounding like a human being and setting out the reasoning as to how she was thinking about that moment. But I also have been shocked by the full display of what Emily Yoffe has termed “180ism,” this sort of idea that you just have to take the opposite stance of your partisan enemies. And so many faculty members are claiming that something isn't plagiarism when it clearly is and so on, just to make sure that the bad people don't win.
How, as a young professor of the humanities, do you see what universities are doing right and what we're doing wrong at the moment? To what extent are some of the most elite universities in the country still genuine places of intellectual inquiry that are able to make their students curious and to teach them critical thinking concepts, and to what extent are they failing to do that?
Harper: I think they're failing in a number of ways. The most acute way they're failing is that they seem to be really not facilitating circumstances in which students and faculty can engage in good faith debate about difficult questions. Professors aren't really modeling it either. I mean, a lot of the most recent sort of installment of the academic culture wars got kicked off on October 7. Many academics, mostly at elite universities, had a particularly egregious response, calling it a “counter offensive” rather than a terrorist attack, and so on. In response to that, there's been a lot of campus protests, there's also been a lot of crackdown on speech in various ways. I think it's important to note that a lot of the speech that's been cracked down on is sort of pro-Palestinian speech and that this predated October 7. There was a writers’ festival at the University of Pennsylvania, which is actually what got Liz Magill in hot water to begin with: a lot of donors wanted that canceled, and it wasn’t. So I think there's been a sort of free speech crisis that is part of a longer-simmering free speech crisis, which you and other people have talked about, on college campuses. But that was made particularly visible, I think, after October 7.
What I find frustrating is that universities aren't hosting, as far as I can tell, dialogue in or outside of the classroom that is bringing in facts and various sides of the Israel-Palestine debate and trying to model for students that you can have reasoned intellectual discourse where people disagree and that there are ways to talk about really fraught and emotionally distressing geopolitical issues that don't boil down to just screaming. In a whole host of ways, I really don't think a lot of elite universities have lived up to their mission of open inquiry and free speech.
Mounk: Whose fault do you think that is? My tendency is always to blame the administration; I think a lot of what's worse about the contemporary American university is the huge bloat of administrators who are not academics, as well as sort of feckless university leaders, as we've seen in this crisis. I happen to know in this particular case, from a few university presidents, that they thought after October 7 that the way we deal with this as an academic community is to have debate and perhaps to offer some kind of spontaneous course that's put together relatively quickly, where scholars who have different kinds of points of view can sort of provide information and give people context. And they've had huge trouble pulling that together, because faculty members, somewhat understandably, had their plans for what they're going to teach. They don't want to take on all of the work of suddenly organizing a course, and they probably don't want to get in the crosshairs of campus activists or all the aggravation that will probably bring.
All of that's understandable. But there is also a failure of mission here from those particular professors who aren't willing to do what it takes to create that campus culture. So what does the difficulty of pulling together that kind of cause tell us about what has become of not just the administration but also of our self-understanding as professors?
Harper: I think people on both the left and right, really, get the nature of cancel culture wrong. These high-profile examples of faculty members who are forced out or journalists who lose their jobs are actually pretty few and far between. It usually doesn't take the form of big events, but, rather, it's kind of a background radiation. I think it's really characterized by everyone assuming that somebody is out to get them or yell at them.
I've talked to a lot of faculty members at various places who will say things like, “You say a lot of things I think. I wish I could say that.” Well, you have tenure. Why don't you say that? And they say, “Well, I would get canceled.” I think you think you would get canceled. But what I think it often boils down to is that people don't want to be uncomfortable and that they don't want someone at their institution to think poorly of them. They don't want to have a talking-to from a dean. And so even though there might not be actual material consequences of saying what they think, there is a kind of psychological consequence. And I think that psychological consequence often gets confused for “My job would actually be threatened if I did XYZ.”
Mounk: I go back and forth on this debate about cancel culture, because I sort of affirm both sides of it, which is to say that I'm struck when I'm in Europe by how differently people talk, that they don't feel constrained in the same way. It's not that Europeans are just more courageous than Americans. It's because the incentives they face are quite different. The material factors are different. For instance, it’s much harder to fire someone in Europe.
Now, on the other hand, I also agree that it's important not to overstate the amount of threat that people face. I think there are some cases of truly arbitrary cancellation. But people end up having very significant consequences for things that either they didn't do or that just really weren't egregious. And those then probably lead to an overstated sense of fear, where people prefer to just stay one mile away from the very unclear boundaries of what might get somebody in trouble. So how do we break that? Because I think it needs to involve both individual agency and a structural element.
Harper: I think there's an institutional piece and an administrative piece to it—administrations soliciting open inquiry and making it clear that debate is not only encouraged but acceptable and isn't going to be met with punishment. I think that's really important. The individual piece is important, and I think if there's a sea change at some point, part of it will have to come from more faculty and public intellectuals and journalists testing the water. We need more examples of professors and journalists handling difficult topics with nuance and compassion and without vitriol, instead of these extremely rancorous sort of partisan tugs of war.
I think everything ultimately flows from the top. But, at the same time, I particularly think professors with tenure have a real responsibility to use their tenure. It is extremely rare for faculty members to be stripped of tenure. And I am constantly bowled over by the degree of cowardice I see among tenured faculty who think certain things and won't say certain things because they don't want to ruffle feathers. I do think some of it has to come from individuals setting an example, and those individuals, I think, should be people with tenure, because they do have protections that many other folks don't.
There's something both uniquely cowardly and uniquely perverse when I see faculty at these elite institutions that do have tenure or who are relatively secure and refuse to speak out, and, meanwhile, higher education, particularly public universities, are under assault from the right. That really boils my blood. I think tenure matters, but I really don't think people use it. And definitely part of the reason people don't use it is the cultural forces you point out.
Mounk: I have the immense luck and privilege in life to be able to devote most of my working hours to things that I care about, to thinking about the world, and that is a wonderful gift, but I do think that one responsibility I have is to say things that seem to me to be true and important. And if I think something that's true and important that's going to piss off my friends or my faculty colleagues, I think it's my responsibility to say it anyway, because the society in which nobody does that is going to be a worse society for all kinds of reasons (even if we often get it wrong).
How do you perceive most of the students today? We're talking about sort of whether the ideology—often called “woke,” I prefer to talk about the “identity synthesis”—has passed its zenith. And I have my own impressions of my students, but I wonder how you perceive that in the students that you teach.
Harper: This is something I've said on Twitter. And I say it all the time because I really believe it: my students are great. They are in a number of ways consistently more progressive than I am on certain issues. But I've found this generation of young people, even if they are much more progressive, in certain ways than I am, and even if they hold ideas that we might call “woke,” I think my general sense has been that they're really open to changing their minds in response to new evidence and that they don't have as draconian and inflexible ideology as millennials (people in my generation).
The problems I see are people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Like I said, I have political or ideological differences between myself and many of my students, but I find them pretty willing to have conversations if you're respectful and if you present information calmly, reasonably and from a place of good faith. And so I think many of the issues that we see in elite higher education come from admins, faculty, and social media. And I think there's a way in which students are somewhat victims of the sort of machinations of their elders.
I teach Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which includes instances of the n-word. I teach a novel from the mid-20th century by J. G Ballard called The Drowned World, a really important novel historically but which has racist archetypes and stereotypes. I talk about it with my students and they're willing to discuss it. I've never had someone leave the room in tears. So I do think Gen Z gets somewhat of a bad rap. And they're also young, right? I mean, folks are pointing to kids on college campuses protesting, and so on, and I get some of the frustrations. But kids are dumb and they grow up. And I'm personally much more worried about the 30, 40 and 50-year-old adults who think insane things than I am about a few kids.
Mounk: One thing I've been talking about as I've been going around giving interviews about The Identity Trap is that kids from the school that I went to for part of my education in Germany, decades before I was at the school, in 1968, marched down the main street of Munich shouting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Lenin!” So there's nothing new about young people having some not-so-smart ideas. What was different at the time was that there were institutions that told them “No, in fact, we disagree with you. And we're not going to do that.”
I think what's interesting right now is a sort of failure of conviction of many of the people who are in positions of responsibility in our society. And some of the things that may have been productive in the past was the clash between the radical, perhaps well-intentioned but in many cases misguided ideas of young people and institutions that were a bulwark against them. And in the end, some good ideas went through and the bad ideas were blocked. I interviewed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was the leader of the French student revolution in May ‘68, and he said, “Thank God we won on culture and thank God we lost on politics.” That’s a somewhat oversimplified summary of ‘68. But it was the clash between the students and an establishment that I would have often disagreed with (it often was far too conservative or reactionary) that produced some of that productive tension. One thing to worry about at this moment is that institutional leaders tend to think of themselves as actually being on the side of the students.
Harper: I 100% agree with what you just said. I think the way I've often put it is actually through the metaphor of church and state: we're supposed to have a separation. And I think what is really different about our present moment is that unlike the 1960s where there was, as you put it, friction between the more radical, typically the more liberal, students and the administrations, right now, there's a lot of blurring of those boundaries. And the thing that tension allowed in the 1960s and afterwards was that it was possible for administrators to say, “Look, they have free speech. These are not our views, but we're an academic institution, we uphold free speech.” And the public could take that seriously, because the admins weren't primarily seen as political. But now when you have college presidents, administrators, and deans talking about anti-racism and decolonization and portraying their universities as engines of social justice, that firewall, that separation of church and state between the sort of administration and the politics of the student faculty, breaks down. It becomes much harder for the public to trust when the administration says, “We have free speech here. And we just have to let the faculty and the students do what they want.”
I'm a leftist, sort of Marxist-skewing faculty member. And as a leftist, I want the administration to be out of politics. I don't want the administration to be spouting decolonization and progressive talking points because it makes my job harder. And I think it makes the institution more vulnerable to assaults, because the sort of good faith that there's a separation here, that's been totally boiled up.
One of my great frustrations with the sort of DEI, anti-racism (what you're calling the “identity synthesis”) discourse, particularly when it comes out of the mouth of deans and college presidents, is that these are people sitting on multibillion dollar endowments at universities that have been basically reduced to hedge funds, and yet they expect us to believe that they are some kind of engine of political revolution. It's transparently a lie, transparently hypocritical. And so I really, really detest it. I would much prefer that institutions and admins went back to defending principles that they could defend without hypocrisy.
Mounk: What do you see as the failures of that political ideology and language? And what would it mean to be a genuine anti-racist in a way that cares about social change and social progress without just invoking those slogans that got you likes on Twitter two or three years ago but don't actually seem to improve anybody's life?
Harper: I'm a big fan of the black Marxist Adolph Reed. And one of the things that Adolph Reed always says is the use of anti-racism is really just about ensuring representation among the ruling classes, ensuring that 13% of BlackRock is black and that these hedge funds in Wall Street and other elite institutions are sufficiently diverse. It’s not about challenging income inequality or problems with market capitalism or anything like that. Kendi always talks about “racial capitalism,” but it's very clear that what he offers is self-help for guilty, rich white people. It's steeped in hypocrisy. I mean, if Jeff Bezos can slap “Black Lives Matter” on the top of Amazon.com, you can't expect me to believe that anti-racism and Black Lives Matter are revolutionary projects. Because if they were, they wouldn't be coming out of the mouths of the richest and most important people in the world. That's part of my frustration.
I support diversity, I support equity, and I support inclusion. But what DEI offices have really become is a smokescreen that exists to distract from the fact that elite universities, in particular, are increasingly built on mounds and mounds of student debt. And so we can talk about microaggressions and how white supremacy is asking people to show up to Zoom meetings on time. And meanwhile, we are saddling tons of students, including tons of poor and tons of black and brown students, with mounds and mounds of college debt. In terms of what real anti-racism would look like, I think it would be attending to some of the real structural problems that are embedded in academia, like the student debt piece, like the rising tuition rates, like the fact that the minorities that are at elite institutions and elite universities are disproportionately minorities from either wealthy international families or from the upper strata of America. A huge percentage of black and brown folks that are in places like Harvard and so on are from the top 20% of the income bracket.
I went to a college that has a real knack for finding rich black kids from prep schools in places like Greenwich, Connecticut. And what that allows them to do is to have a model of diversity that is financially viable—diversity that is endowment-friendly. So if institutions really want to be “radical,” as they always seem to suggest, they could start prioritizing helping minorities get into college who are not in the top 1% of the income bracket and who do need financial aid.
Mounk: Yet another element of that that’s very interesting is that at some Ivy League universities, at least about 50% of black students are the children of recent African immigrants from countries like Nigeria and Kenya and so on, who are still wonderful students. But there's a kind of strange mismatch between the implied rhetoric of reparations in whatever imperfect way making up for the terrible injustice of America's past, and then actually doing that in a way that doesn't always benefit those Americans whose lives continue to be the most shaped by that history.
The other thought I have about Adolph Reed, who's been on this podcast, is his thinking about the concept of equity as what he calls “anti-disparitarianism,” that really at the heart of the idea of equity is the idea that we should reduce disparities between different races. And you can have a deeply inegalitarian society in which the rich are the rich and the poor are very poor, as long as about 13% of American billionaires are black. And in fact, pushing towards equity, it's much more likely that we're going to end up with those kind of carve-outs within the elite, because they’re easier for the most affluent to allow than to actually reduce the gap between rich and poor, between the upper middle class and the working class in a broader kind of way. I find that to be a convincing way of thinking about the limits of the concept of equity.
To bring it back to universities: if, God forbid, you were to be appointed a university president tomorrow, what would you want to change? I mean, you've alluded to it a little bit, but what do you think it would actually take for American universities to go back to being places of genuine free inquiry but also places that serve the students and serve a society in the kind of ways that we might wish for?
Harper: Minus extreme structural trend change and change in the financial model, I don't know how that's possible. Universities, particularly elite universities, are right now in an arms race to turn their campuses into luxury resort experience centers, where the dorms are always new, and there's huge TVs on the wall, and there's amazing facilities, and so on and so forth. And so these places end up really overleveraged in terms of real estate, they have to rely increasingly on infusions from wealthy billionaires and hikes in tuition. That's not an easy problem to redress. One of the reasons why billionaires have so much leverage at this particular moment is precisely because these institutions now desperately need them in a way that didn't always seem to be true. And it's much harder, when you are as overleveraged as many of these universities are, to tell one of your donors to shove it. And so I think one of the primary threats to free speech is the current financial model of the university, which is constantly expanding, constantly becoming more and more luxurious. And which needs to rely on a lot of very politically motivated characters.
I'm not sure how you really fix the problem. I mean, one thing I would absolutely do as a college president is pull out of U.S. News and World Report, which I think a lot of the general public sees as this kind of neutral and sort of objective arbiter of what are the best colleges—by the way, U.S. News and World Report, in assessing their rankings, centers on stuff like how large your endowment is. That heavily disincentivizes the universities from touching their endowment for anything, because if, for example, they wanted to use their endowment to provide more financial aid to students, the rating would suddenly go down. Similarly, this is one of the reasons why the diversifying that takes place on elite college campuses is usually, as we were just discussing, drawn from the upper economic strata of minority populations in America. This is because diversity helps the U.S. News and World Report rankings. But if you can get diversity without tapping your endowment, that's all the better.
Mounk: Let me ask you about something a little different. You teach in the humanities, and there’s a huge crisis of enrollment in the humanities at American universities. And one of the interesting findings is, at Harvard, for example, that you have roughly as many students coming in intending to major in the humanities as you did 20 or 30 years ago. But by the time that American students have to choose what their major actually is, often in sophomore year, they have dropped out of the humanities and gravitated towards either the social sciences, or often, computer science and other kinds of fields.
Why is that? What do you think is going on where students at 17 and 18 are still quite interested in the humanities, but once they arrive on campus, and presumably take some humanities courses, they have dropped the humanities?
Harper: I think there are two pieces, one that has to do with the humanities itself and another that has to do with sort of structural forces in higher education. It is indeed the case, as everyone knows, that some majors prepare you and can catapult you into a much higher earning bracket, and so it is simply the case that an English major is generally not going to be put immediately on the same financial track as somebody who majors in a STEM major, economics, or attends the business school. And as tuition skyrockets and more and more students are taking on debt, I think a lot of students get to college, they look around, they see that some of their peers have a plan to major in something that's going to send them to Wall Street or into consulting and they make a kind of business decision: the humanities are all well and good but they're not going to put me on a track to repay my loans.
I think that's part of it. Part of it too, is that admin often doesn't necessarily push students toward the humanities. Many universities across the country have dropped Gen Ed requirements and humanities requirements. And so students aren’t always forced to take them, they don't discover that they like them, and that causes problems. I went into college planning to do pre-med and become a doctor. And I took a humanities course, because I had to, and I fell in love with English. And now I'm a literature professor. And so I think some of those structural pieces are part of it.
I do think there is a sort of ideological part of it, too. I think conservatives often say that universities or the humanities are declining because they're too “woke,” and I really don't think that's true. It's not that I dispute that the humanities are “woke” or focused on identity politics in certain ways, I just tend to think those structural forces I mentioned are behind the decline. But I do think there's a way in which the humanities have stopped justifying their stakes to students. And just to give you an example, I teach in an environmental studies program, and I helm our humanities concentration in the environmental studies major—our humanities concentration is absolutely bursting at the seams. We have tons and tons of students every year and it continues to grow. So the crisis isn't distributed evenly across the humanities. I think you'll see some places like English where a certain kind of student looks at our world and asks how an English degree is A) going to help me land a job that can pay back student loans, and B) situate me to understand the society or the civilization in which I live? And then they look at something like the environmental humanities, they understand climate change is a growing problem, and I think the case is made a little more intuitively for them.
I'm really resistant and have written about my resistance to the notion that the humanities need to be “useful” in some way. I'm not saying that the environmental humanities are more “useful” than other kinds of humanities. But rather, what I'm talking about is the sense that the humanities can illuminate something about the world in which we live, and that doesn't mean solving problems. But it does mean giving a sense of the sweep of American literature and Western civilization. These are valuable things we can offer. And it doesn't seem to me that we make a great case for that anymore.
Mounk: It strikes me that in many places people are now going into significant debt facing an uncertain job market, and getting the message (even though it's not always right) that you're likely to have much higher career earnings if you are in the sciences or the social sciences than the humanities. And that helps to explain part of the drop. At some of the elite universities, I think most students understand well enough that the fact that they graduated from US institutions is going to give them a lot of opportunities, and they come in saying that they’re super-interested in taking those humanities courses, and so I do think that there may need to be a little bit more of self-reflection for those of us who are in the humanities about why they start out by coming to our intro classes and then drop off; that maybe, in part, because we're not making the stakes clear in a way that speaks to that desire to understand the world and be good citizens.
I wonder whether part of that is also an attitude of critical distance towards what makes the humanities beautiful. I don't know to what extent that is true, and I'd love to get your read on it, but there certainly is a strain within humanities where, sure, we’re going to hire somebody who teaches Shakespeare but that person better have a really critical attitude towards Shakespeare, because that is what it means to be a serious scholar. And so people who want to go and take a Shakespeare course find, actually, the person teaching that Shakespeare course wants them to understand how terrible and bigoted and racist and sexist Shakespeare is and might say, “Well, I guess I may as well go and learn how to code.”
Is that a component of the humanities’ decline? Or do you think that that is a too simplistic way of diagnosing what's going on?
Harper: No, I don't think so at all. I do think the primary issues are some of those structural pieces. I mean, I don't think it's a coincidence that, as tuition has skyrocketed over the last decade, English majors have also declined. I think that's the crux of it. But at the same time, I do think there's been a real shift to just this deeply critical attitude—and not critical in the sense of critical theory, or critical thinking, but critical in the sense of, as you said, if we're going to teach Shakespeare, we're going to “problematize” Shakespeare. We're going to talk about some of the issues and the racism and misogyny and homophobia.
There was a great piece in The Chronicle recently, and the author argues that humanities professors need to emphasize our passion again, that these are texts that are interesting and vital. And sometimes they're problematic, but they're also beautiful and fascinating. And I think we've definitely lost some of that. I often joke that a lot of humanities courses, and a lot of humanities discourse, seems to act as though the goal of reading is a kind of “find the racism treasure hunt,” where you approach a text and point out all the things that are problematic about it. And that doesn't mean that that's not valuable. And it doesn't mean that there is not a place within humanities scholarship and discourse to talk about the weird racial politics of Shakespeare's Othello or whatever. That's not what it means at all. But it does mean that we seem to have abandoned some of the key mission of defending these texts on the basis of their aesthetic merits.
When I was in grad school I took this philosophy course with a classicist, and at one point we were reading one of Plato's Dialogues when there was a moment that was sort of sexist, and a student started complaining about the sexism in Plato. The professor, sort of an arch-feminist, stopped that student short and said, “We read texts generously in this classroom.” She's somebody who's devoted her life to feminist philosophy, and said we're going to start with an appreciation, from a place of enjoyment, we're going to try to actually wrangle with the ideas. And then once we've assessed the text on its merits and in its own terms, let's talk about some of those problematic aspects. And so, from my point of view, I don't think it has to be a trade-off. We can strike some balance between the two. And what seems to me to be the change in recent years is that we've lost that balance.
I think the culture war is a war against nuance. Folks on the right want to sort of scrub all identity, politics, all discussions of race, gender, whatever, out of the humanities. And then people on the other side of the equation want to cling to it desperately. And both of those just feel deeply unsatisfying to me. And it feels really nihilistic to turn it into a zero-sum game where we can only have one or the other and where we can have our appreciation of Byron alongside a reckoning with gender or whatever.
Mounk: I want to go back as a last question to what students are like today. I broadly agree with your characterization. Throughout the last ten years, I found most of the students I've taught to be smart, thoughtful people who want to engage with big questions and want to understand their place in the world in a genuine way. I find that many of them are more progressive than I am, or have certain beliefs that I don't share (as it’s perfectly within their rights to have). But I do think there's been a little bit of a change.
I do think that we've rolled back some of the most extreme excesses of this ideology in the last few years. I think the most extreme instances of it no longer obtain. But at the same time, I have a sense that the sort of hold of these ideas, in a softer and a more diffuse way, in the minds of my students and in the operating procedures of many institutions, is still continuing to grow. And that makes me a little bit skeptical about the optimistic assumption that we're really seeing a turning point. I wanted to get your read on that hypothesis.
Harper: The way everyone is putting this is “have we passed peak woke?” And I think that's an institution-by-institution question. I think in journalism, the media, and among public intellectuals, that that's definitely the case. I think we can see a broader spectrum of views being tolerated at this given moment. I think in academia, that's harder, and it's harder for a bunch of reasons. Part of what's happening is that people tend to hold their jobs for a very long time, and it's just a slower-moving culture, so I think there's something to what you're saying.
You said this is the air that a lot of these young people have breathed since they were very young. I think that is correct. And that worries me actually in a different way than I think it worries you. And the way it worries me is that people often tend to rebel strenuously against received wisdom. That's what young people do. And if you look particularly at men under 18, they're way more conservative than Gen Z. They're way more conservative than Millennials actually. And so I think we're seeing a kind of identitarian backlash against what has become the received wisdom, which is what you call the “identity synthesis.”
I think you're right that there are some elite institutions that are just going to hunker down and drill down further into identity discourse. But I think more broadly, and among students, I worry about a backlash to identitarianism that goes too far in the opposite direction. A lot of these ideas are a symptom of real problems, right? There is a real wealth gap in the United States. And that wealth gap is much larger between black and white people. There are real disparities on police violence and police stops, and prison sentences and so on, between black and white people. These are real. But we've entirely lost sight of many of those problems in the pseudo-radical jibber jabber we've consented to using when we talk about things like anti-racism, and so on. I worry that we will have a backlash against identity politics that goes too far in the opposite direction and that tries to return to a kind of radically race-neutral, race-and-class-blind way of thinking, when I think what we need is some measure of balance and an ability to say that things are much better for black Americans than they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, problems still remain, we probably shouldn't think about everything through the prism of race, we should think about some things through the prism of race.
I worry that as the identity synthesis becomes sedimented, and as it does become the air we breathe, I think that increases the likelihood of a real clash, because, like I said, young people love to revolt against the wisdom of their elders. And, at this point, the identity folks are the elders. And I think there's some problems coming down the pipeline.
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