I was moved by this piece about Oberlin in The New Yorker, moved in several directions at once. In it, Nathan Heller recalls meeting with student radicals on campus to discuss activism at small liberal arts colleges. He mentions a café on campus I visited before I opted to attend a different college more than twenty years ago. In that very café, I experienced an instrument for the first time that would eventually take over a sizable chunk of my adult life: the double bass. I witnessed a duet between a bass player and a singer that struck me as one of the coolest things I’d ever seen.
The same article angered me as well. It took me back to my first experience socializing with fellow graduates of my own hippie school, Reed. What a soul-crushing experience.
I found myself in an alcove at Shutters on the Beach, surrounded by several corporate types and a number of people who’d somehow veered away from studying Kant and ethics to working for the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon.
Even though students walk away from small liberal arts colleges equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to shake things up, challenge the status quo, and foment meaningful social change, few actually do.
My college career was not a multicultural experience - it was a predominantly white school in a predominantly white city. My vistas were not broadened by exposure to a small handful of students of color, but I learned what I needed to learn: the world is fucked up, the institutions that rule our lives have lost their moral compass, and oppression everywhere surrounds us. I learned that materialism is a losing strategy for happiness, and that politics is purest in the interpersonal milieu.
A few months ago, I engaged in a thrilling conversation with Brenda Shockley, the President of Community Build. We discussed our similar yet totally different experiences at small liberal arts colleges, hers a local one, Occidental. We agreed and commiserated about our shared sense that even though students walk away from such institutions equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to shake things up, challenge the status quo, and foment meaningful social change, few of them actually do so.
Heller's article, in fact, articulates and emphasizes the contradictions inherent in these institutions. Schools such as these encourage an appreciation and understanding of how deep the problems go, how the structures of power and history infect our language, even the very ideas we hold about ourselves. This may breed disillusion with all of one’s future prospects, instilling a sense that though one may become anything, one really can’t make any difference. This, in turn, inculcates a casual cynicism that manifests as the attitude, "I just want to get mine."
David Brooks' take away from all of this goes in the wrong direction, in my opinion. He simplifies the conversation Heller is trying to provoke, reducing it to an argument between those that celebrate the meritocracy such institutions instill vs. the factionalized identity politics to which they inevitably succumb. He associates identity politics with the politics of small group trauma, ignoring the tidal wave of identity politics currently infesting the political arena.
Identity is like Margaret Mead's conception of culture: it is everything.
The New Yorker article mentions a recent sharp rise in college students wanting mental health treatment, something I witnessed firsthand at UCLA. While I worked at the campus mental health center as a therapist, the center's work shifted from outreach to bring in more students to coping with the deluge of students seeking mental health services. Students seeking counseling increased more than fifty percent in four short years.
While the article questions the reasons for such a rise, it doesn't offer any answers, and I confess, I don't have one either. If I were to hazard a guess, it would have something to do with the increasingly rapid pace of identity development in childhood and early adulthood. The world seemed incredibly complex to me when I was a teenager in the late 1980s. I can hardly grasp how much more complicated it must be now.
Best of luck, class of 2016.