What the Old Don't Get About the Woke

There's a new generation gap, with the middle-aged and college kids scorning each other. Both sides are wrong.

Persuasion associate editor Sahil Handa—a young man who has always gravitated to the older generation—was tired of seeing his peers and his elders misconstrue each other. So he wrote a corrective to each group. In Part One below, he explains the young woke to the old liberal. In Part Two, he explains the old liberal to the young woke. —The Editors

Part One: What the Old Don’t Get About the Woke

By Sahil Handa

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard of the woke mob that has taken over college campuses, and is making its way through other cultural institutions. I also suspect you aren’t particularly sympathetic to that mob. While I’m not writing as a representative of the woke, I do wish to convince you that they are not as you fear. What you’re seeing is less a dedicated mob than a self-interested blob.

I recently finished three years as a Harvard student—a “student of color,” to be precise—and I passed much of that time with the type you might have heard about in the culture wars. These were students who protested against platforming Charles Murray, the sociologist often accused of racist pseudoscience; these were students who stormed the admissions office to demand the reversal of a tenure decision; these were students who got Ronald Sullivan—civil rights lawyer who chose to represent Harvey Weinstein in court—fired as Harvard dean.

You may believe, as many outside observers do, that A) much of the student body is woke; and B) their actions are rooted in the radical scholarship of Marxists (best represented by Herbert Marcuse) and postmodernists (most notably, Michel Foucault). According to this view, professors have indoctrinated us into a zero-sum hierarchy among fixed identity groups, all based on power structures, and we take it as our duty to impose this ideology inside and outside the classroom.

I am not here to litigate Foucault (though, having taken a few social-theory classes, I can say he’s more fun to read than Jacques Derrida). What I do feel confident in stating is that most of my fellow students are no better able to assess his work than I. Nor are most students even involved in campus protest.

There are almost 7,000 undergraduates at Harvard, yet the tenure protest was attended by fewer than 50 students, and a few hundred signed the letters urging the administration to fire Sullivan. Fretful liberals do not pause to think of all the students who didn’t join: those who talked critically of the activists in the privacy of their dorm rooms; those who wrestled with reservations but decided not to voice them; or those who simply decided that none of it was worth their time.

Nor am I convinced that the problem derives from what is taught in humanities courses. For one, the already-woke are those most drawn to classes that push such ideas, so it’s a self-selecting group. And those courses are taken by a smaller and smaller group, as more young people flock to departments that offer better job prospects.

Furthermore, students who take such classes, and who began without woke views, do not all end up transformed into militants. As the critic and academic Louis Menand once put it, “Students enrolled in Introduction to Poetry would learn just as much about poetry from a professor who thought Milton was a sexist as they would from one who didn’t—which is to say, in either case, that they would have had to read and talk for a few hours about a writer of whom they would otherwise remain essentially ignorant.”

The true problem is this: Four years in college, battling for grades, for résumé enhancements and for the personal recommendations needed to enter the upper-middle-class—all of this produces incentives that favor self-censorship.

College campuses are different than in the Sixties, and students attend for different reasons. Young people today have less sex, less voting power and, for the first time, reduced expectations for the future. Back in the Sixties, campus activists were for free speech, and conservatives were skeptical; today, hardly anybody seems to consistently defend free speech. In 1960, 97% of students at Harvard were white, and almost all of them had places waiting in the upper class, regardless of whether they had even attended university. Today, fewer than 50% of Harvard students are white, tuition rates are 500% higher, and four years at an Ivy League college is one of the only ways to guarantee a place at the top of the meritocratic dog pile.

It would be strange if priorities at university had not changed. It would be even stranger if students had not changed as a result.

Elite education is increasingly a consumer product, which means that consumer demands—i.e. student demands—hold sway over administration actions. Yet most of those student demands are less a product of deeply understood theory than they are a product of imitation. Most students want to be well-liked, right-thinking, and spend their four years running on the treadmill that is a liberal education. Indeed, this drive for career success and social acquiescence are exactly the traits that the admissions process selects for. Even if only, say, 5% of students are deplatforming speakers and competing to be woker-than-thou, few among the remaining 95% would want to risk gaining a reputation as a bigot that could ruin their precious few years at college—and dog them on social media during job hunts and long after.

In case you’re tempted to damn them all as cowards, remember that this self-interested conformity is akin to that of many aging liberals when they were young. Once upon a time, weren’t hippie protests—their demands for free love and the rest—a conformist movement among the young of the day, albeit one more palatable to classical liberals now? And can’t the same be said for what happened in the Seventies, when many abandoned their rebellious values for a secure place on the corporate ladder?

It just so happens that today, conformity among the young manifests itself as silence—a silence that old liberals are themselves complicit in. Look at their near-universal terror at giving offense in public conversations, the fear of getting ostracized, of losing status and friends and jobs. Yes, the old may argue that they cannot risk their careers: They have families and kids to support, so can’t step out of line. But college kids might like families and kids and jobs someday, and in today’s world—where social media remembers all—you cannot outrun your reputation.

The battle over wokeism is a civil war among elites, granting an easy way to signal virtue without having to do much. Meantime, the long-term issues confronting society—wage stagnation, social isolation, existential risk, demographic change, the decline of faith—are often overlooked in favor of this theater.

Wokeism does represent a few students’ true ideals. To a far greater number, it is an awkward, formulaic test. Sometimes, what might look to you like wild rebellion on campus might emanate from nothing more militant than old bourgeois values.

Sahil Handa, associate editor at Persuasion, is working on a book about the campus conformity crisis.

See also Part Two: What the Woke Don’t Get About the Old