Groupthink on Campus

My “diversity statement.”

​In 2012 I published a book entitled The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. In it, I deplored the increasing fixation on group identity in the humanities and social sciences departments of American universities. That fixation, I noted, was coupled with “a preoccupation with the historical grievances of certain groups” as well as “a virulent hostility to America, which is consistently cast as the prime villain in the histories of these groups.” I devoted the book’s first chapter to tracing the theoretical origins of this lamentable phenomenon, then spent a chapter apiece outlining four of the group-oriented “studies” that had become established parts of today’s academic curricula – Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies. In an additional chapter, I presented a round-up of other “studies,” some of which were, at the time, relatively new and on the rise: Cultural Studies, Disability Studies, Fat Studies, Men’s Studies, Whiteness Studies. 

My overall point was simple: none of this nonsense had anything to do with actual education. It was all about encouraging students to identify not as individuals who were at college to prepare themselves for a successful life but as members of one or more oppressed groups (the more, by the way, the better) and to see themselves, on that account, as victims of deep-seated prejudice on the part of a system that was determined to keep them down and prevent their success. And if you weren’t a member of any of those groups - if, in other words, you were a healthy heterosexual white male - the goal of all these pseudo-studies was to teach you that you were in possession of an undeserved privilege for which you were obliged to spend your life apologizing and making amends. Never mind if you’d grown up dirt-poor and had worked your toches off to get into college. 

When The Victims’ Revolution came out, the New York Times Book Review assigned it to Andrew Delbanco, a humanities professor at Columbia University and one of the Times’s top go-to guys on education. The thrust of Delbanco’s review was that my picture of the academy today was (a) “mostly a caricature” and (b) “out of date,” because “this kind of thing is a shrinking sector of academic life.” 

As to (a), well, given that my book was principally a work of reportage, all I could say in my defense was that if it read like a caricature, it was because the academy had, in fact, become a caricature. As to (b), just look around you. It’s now old news that, as a “sector of academic life,” identity studies haven’t shrunk – they’ve ballooned. The stunted mentality disseminated in these courses has spread beyond the humanities and social studies departments and taken over the campuses as a whole (not to mention the Democratic Party, the mainstream media, and whole swaths of the popular culture). On American campuses, to a staggering extent, group identity has supplanted traditional morality and critical thinking. 

Your skin color, your sex, your sexual orientation: at many a university, these attributes now matter at least as much as anything intrinsic about you as an individual. We’ve seen the news stories. A boy and a girl, both more or less equally inebriated, have consensual sex, and in the morning (or several days or weeks or months later) the girl decides she was raped, and the college administrators line up behind her, affirm her victim status, and set about destroying the boy’s life. A black girl goes berserk because a white boy is wearing his hair in a way she considers “cultural appropriation,” and the authorities, instead of telling her to knock it off and get a life, handle her as delicately as an unexploded landmine and treat him like a thug. 

The recent college lecture tour by former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos provided multiple examples of this kind of lunacy: at some of his scheduled venues, student accusations of racism and sexism got his gigs canceled by pusillanimous administrators; at DePaul University, security officers stood by gutlessly while a black student walked onstage during Yiannopoulos’s talk and threatened to punch him; at Berkeley, his appearance was abruptly called off after rabid student vandals made baseless accusations of white supremacism and anti-Semitism – and caused $100,000 in damage. More recently, sociologist Charles Murray, while promoting his latest book at Middlebury College, was shouted down, forced to leave the stage, and physically assaulted by students who had been told that his 1994 book The Bell Curve is racist. 

How bad have things gotten? So bad that even the New York Times has decided to allow the truth about this subject into its sacrosanct pages: in a long, passionately argued November 18 article for that paper, Mark Lilla – who, like Delbanco, is a humanities professor at Columbia, a Times stalwart, an admitted fan of Black Lives Matter, and a proud Trump-hater – actually argued that a pathological preoccupation with group identity has impaired higher education, the media, the Democratic Party, and liberalism generally. You’d almost think he’d read my book. 

But it’ll take more than one article in the Times to reverse the tide. The identity obsession on campus continues to intensify, and here’s the latest proof: the advent of the so-called “diversity statement.” As George Leef reported the other day, “more than twenty major universities and systems across the nation” – among them the University of California – are now requiring persons applying for faculty positions or promotions to submit essays in which they assert their “commitment to ‘diversity’” and provide examples of what they’ve done to promote it. Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, quoted by Leef, observes that the manifest purpose of this creepy new move is to ensure that nobody gets a job or tenure who hasn’t paid proper obeisance to “group identity,” “group victimization,” and “group based entitlements.” Of course, a faculty filed with folks who’ve sincerely supplied such “diversity statements” will be entirely lacking in intellectual diversity – and thus free of any danger of serious dissension and debate.

Leef cites an Inside Higher Ed article entitled “The Effective Diversity Statement,” in which Tanya Golash-Boza of the University of California explains how to write one of these ridiculous things. Sample advice: “Concentrate on issues such as race, gender, social class and sexual orientation. Don’t try to tone down your statement by writing about how it is hard to be a Kansan in Missouri, for example. Instead, write about racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or some other commonly recognized form of oppression.” Key words: “commonly recognized.” Translation: “academically acknowledged.” In other words, if you’ve experienced or witnessed a kind of oppression that isn’t officially identified as such by the academic Star Chamber, keep it to yourself. Are you from the Middle East or South Asia, where your whole family was slaughtered by Muslims for being Christians or Jews or Hindus? Shut up about it. It doesn’t count. 

At the University of California at Davis, participants in a “diversity statement” workshop were provided several presumably admirable examples of the genre. Here’s an excerpt from one: 

I have a long work history of demonstrating how I have promoted a positive inclusionary environment….The attributes that I have demonstrated towards being sensitive and promoting an inclusionary environment in the agency I work for is reflected in the success of the agency….I have learned working with a diverse population that it is important personally and professionally to be sensitive, aware, and to promote diversity. My commitment in promoting diversity is essential in my understanding of others….

The idea here, obviously, is to mindlessly repeat the expected empty slogans, as in a speech paying tribute to Kim Jong-un. Then there’s the approach employed by an apparently male math instructor who’s decided that the way to get his dream job is to bow down to the “feminist mathematics” model, to wit: “Math should not be taught as a class where students simply take notes, solve repetitive problems, and memorize material for an exam. Rather, math should be a discussion, a dialogue about concepts and ideas. I prefer to use the term ‘solution,’ as the thought process and logical progression of steps is as, if not more, important than the ‘answer.‘” Why not just go all the way and say that all “solutions” are equally valid and that every math student shouldn’t try to figure out the “right answer” but instead seek his or her (or hir or eir) “own truth”? After all, math is all about feelings!  

Then there’s Carnegie Mellon University, which suggests that job candidates, before writing their diversity statements, ask themselves such questions as: “How do I embody an under-represented group in my field? How do my experiences in the classroom, research environment, or field reflect that I’m diverse?” And: “How have I incorporated what I’ve experienced as a member of an under-represented group into my teaching or research?” Plus: “Do I have experience working with other under-represented groups in my field? What groups have I worked with, and in what context have I worked with them?” And so on. Meanwhile, the University of Chicago advises job-seeking Ph.D.s to avoid assertions such as “I am from an underrepresented group so I understand the need for diversity.” Instead, they should churn out drivel like this: “My experience as a member of an underrepresented group has helped me build a toolkit for mentoring students who face similar challenges based on their identity.”

The University of Chicago, for heaven’s sake! That’s the place where Robert Maynard Hutchins introduced the teaching of the Great Books and defended academic freedom. It’s the home of R.S. Crane and the Chicago school of literary criticism, the home of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. It’s where the likes of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Friedrich Hayek taught legendary seminars under the auspices of the Committee for Social Thought. It’s one of the world’s truly great academic centers. Or was. Of all institutions, the University of Chicago should be mocking and vilifying the idea of “diversity statements” instead of instructing its students in how to play this phony, repulsive game. 

But let’s not single out Chicago for censure. Fewer and fewer colleges today are exempt from this folly. And the ones that are supposedly the best tend to be the ones leading the way down this road to madness. The whole point of a university used to be to develop students’ ability to think critically – to subject ideas, all ideas, to objective analysis and rigorous evaluation. Today, the vapid dogmas of group identity and “diversity” are considered to be above such criticism. We’ve certainly come a long way, baby, from Martin Luther King’s line about the content of one’s character. And how old-fashioned that whole “colorblind” business now seems. And forget about those quaint concepts “the life of the mind” and “the cultivation of the intellect.” What sane, self-respecting individual with a shred of personal integrity would willingly submit to the increasingly totalitarian strictures of the contemporary university, with its profoundly illiberal, anti-intellectual creed? How can a system that has given itself over to such obscenities as the “diversity statement” end up producing anything but mealymouthed mediocrities? 

In a time when American politics – with its deeply ingrained culture of corruption, cynicism, and alienation from the public it’s meant to serve – is deservedly being shaken to its roots, it’s long past time to do the same to American education. But, hey, anybody with a few billion dollars and a cast-iron will can run for president; credentialism makes the ivory towers of academe far harder to scale. Who, then, can rid us of the meddlesome priests of the “identity” and “diversity” orthodoxy that’s warped our colleges and endangered our future?