The Comfort College?

I’m not a fan of certain narrow interpretations of the claim that human beings are the rational animal. In at least one form that I find objectionable, the claim builds too closely upon a scholastic account of God’s perfection that takes it to lie primarily in his activity. Insofar as our own rationality is intended to be a reflection (albeit finite and imperfect) of this aspect of God’s infinite goodness, it seems to me to highlight too much the idea that our activity makes us who we are. This is at best an incomplete account. Furthermore, if taken in its intended sense, it leads too easily to the idea that our proper aim is actively to manage and control the world. Both Heidegger and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno, for all their differences, agree that this is a dangerous aspect of our Enlightenment heritage.

That said, it is one thing to criticize the rational animal account of human beings, and another thing entirely to criticize the practice of rational discourse itself.

A number of commentators, beginning most forcefully with William Deresiewicz a few years ago, have argued that the culture of elite American college campuses has turned to precisely this kind of attack on reasoned discourse. Deresiewicz describes this new campus culture as a kind of religion, and he means this in one strict sense of the term: it builds itself upon unquestioned and unquestionable dogmatic assumptions. In particular, the new religion of college campuses – which is said to orbit around themes of “political correctness,” “identity politics,” and sometimes even such apparently unobjectionable notions as “diversity” and “inclusion” – involves (in Deresiewicz’s words) “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.”

A friend of mine sent me the latest entry in this literature just today. It is a pair of opinion pieces in Bloomberg by Williams College philosopher Stephen Gerrard. Gerrard argues that there is a new model for college campuses. In the 19th century we had the Christian college, in the early to mid-twentieth century we had the gentleman’s college, and in the mid to late 20th century we had the consumer college. The first took a college education to be devoted to the magnification and perfection of one’s faith, the second of one’s self-confidence, and the third aimed to form alumni devotion and achievement. By contrast with these, the “comfort college” model, according to Gerrard, is both different and troubling. Although it started out with the laudable goal of developing a language of inclusion, he claims, this language itself has devolved into a “harsh and confrontational tribal marker.”

Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.

Moreover, according to Gerrard, this tribal language is a symptom of a deeper and much more troubling disease: “the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge.”

Students are now absolutists. Students, administrators and some faculty know what is right (and who is wrong). Any challenge to their views cannot be in pursuit of knowledge or even clarification. It can only come from the desire to crush and oppress.

Gerrard’s discussion is interesting. He gives a range of troubling and evocative examples from his own experience at Williams, and he analyses the phenomenon in the context of the history of political philosophy from Plato’s Thrasymachus down to John Stuart Mill and beyond. You should definitely take a look. As I read the essays, though, I feel two sorts of uneasiness. I mention them here merely to spark discussion. I have in no way thought them through, and I would love your input.

The first concern is the background assumption, sometimes made explicit, that the goal of a college education is the “pursuit of knowledge.” The strongest form of this, which Gerrard may be hinting at, is that knowledge is the goal of human life itself. Now, knowledge is clearly a fine thing; I’m certainly not against it. Pursuing knowledge even seems to me to be a good. But let’s not get obsessed. When the pursuit of knowledge becomes the sole aim of an entire life, and when college becomes the preparation for life solely in virtue of having this aim, it feels to me too much like we have entered Plato’s idealistic world. One reason this world feels uncomfortable to me is that its obsessive vision seems to get something wrong about us: it is tied up too tightly with a worrisome version of the rational animal account of human being. So I feel myself begin to chafe against the position at least a bit. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean, of course, that we should go entirely in the other direction. I don’t think, for instance, that a human life should be entirely about the pursuit of faith or gentlemanly virtue either, never mind that it should be about achievement and devotion to one’s alma mater. Still, somehow the epistemological model of human life seems to miss the importance of ontology. Surely our lives, and the education that prepares us to live them well, should aim at our being someone, not just at our knowing something.

The second concern is more empirical. It’s not that I don’t recognize the culture that Gerrard and Deresiewicz describe – it is certainly one of the features of the college culture I am familiar with. But it doesn’t seem to me the major, or even the most interesting, one. Indeed, I almost never see this dynamic in my own classrooms, for instance, and only rarely in the House that Cheryl and I oversee. Rather, it seems to dominate the journalistic discussion about campus life. To the extent that it appears in the objectionable form that its critics deride, that seems to me mostly to be the result of political theater, provocation, and the journalistic impulse to give these outsized coverage. Now, I confess I don’t have much sympathy for the journalistic impulse to exaggerate spectacle for the sake of selling copy. Among other things, it seems to me to cover up more than it reveals. But I’m not entirely sure that we should be so dismissive of the theatrical provocation of political acts. They are certainly not forms of rational discourse; but perhaps, after all, they have their place? In any case, figures from Thoreau to Martin Luther King to Gandhi have thought so.

I don’t take these concerns to be definitive or even particularly articulate. I am jotting them down between walking the puppy and taking the 15-year-old to the dentist, so they’re not exactly the result of extended rumination. Furthermore, I don’t mention them here either to defend what Gerrard and Deresiewicz are attacking, nor to say that it does not exist at all. Still, I do wonder whether somehow the discussion in its current form is not completely capturing the phenomenon at hand.

Let me know what you think.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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10 Responses to The Comfort College?

  1. Charlie says:

    Thank you for this incredibly interesting post – only heightening my anticipation for your new book. The topic reflects and accelerates the polarization dissolving our culture. I do think you have captured a critical point. The theory of a mutating academic environment is overly dramatic and overblown. Worse still, it’s being appropriated for the culture wars. Nevertheless, IMHO, it represents a troubling, fundamental impulse to diminish or devalue the pursuit of knowledge. I am more partial to the rational animal theory, especially if Spinoza’s divine perfection is the model. At least, I view an epistemological foundation as a prerequisite for a complete human life (more than a component). Most importantly, I wonder if your nuanced view is a luxury we can afford. I think your reservations are wholly appropriate, but perhaps reflecting a degree of refinement that could inhibit rational discourse or the broader appeal of philosophy? In sum, I read those two pieces as a polemic for the discipline. Clearly, they are incomplete…but necessary?

  2. dmf says:

    I think that by and large the arts of close readings are lost to the humanities departments of the American academy (see the ridiculously long reading lists in many classes/seminars) and there is a parallel problem in the social sciences where 95% of the time is spend memorizing the results of other people’s’ research and the tiny left over bits are devoted to learning theories and methods, all to the effect that (and certainly amped up by related tech) what people learn to do is proof-texting and cutting and pasting of author-itative sections of texts, students learn to get socialized to be part of the in-groups of faculty with those who cleave most closely becoming grad students, we train people to gossip (to repeat what “they” say) in approved ways and not to think (to retool a bit of Heidegger) thru the implications (forget about the justifications) of what they are saying.
    In the hard/bench sciences there is a related problem I was at a presentation the other day where informatics consulting was being sold to genetics researchers at the local uni and the presenter was noting that because of the interdisciplinary nature (computer-sci, engineering, stats, etc) of life sciences now there really aren’t disciplines to train grad students in, to which the faculty made some groans of recognition but then left to move onto how he could help them with grants and publishing, all too say where is the Denken when we need it?
    On a note related perhaps to yer last post the market of ideas approach that we just let academics follow their idiosyncratic research interests and hope the market will somehow separate the wheat from the chaff has been a pretty dismal failure as far as I can tell.

  3. Ernst Günter Hof says:

    Dear Sir,
    may I put to your attention two concepts:
    – The concept of Self as developed by C. G. Jung,
    – the idea of the Void as held out by buddhism? Robert M. Pirsig showed in his novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, that this is a basic part of human thinking.

    • don socha says:

      Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!
      You would play upon me. You would seem to know my
      stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You
      would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my
      compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this
      little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? ‘Sblood, do you
      think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
      instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
      cannot play upon me.

  4. dmf says:

    Ed Mooney (philosopher, religion prof, fellow traveller with Kierkegaard & Thoreau, resurrector of Henry Bugbee) sermonizes that “Our highest calling is not to know this or that but to appreciate this or that, regardless of what we know of it” reminds me of the raising up here of Gratitude.

  5. dmf says:

    looks like these questions of what has value (what do we give value to, gain value from, and how), what is worth doing/cultivating, etc, are gaining some traction, are all things shining and who gets to say (whose say matters)?

  6. Alexander Göransson says:

    Since his name is lacking in your thoughts I take it that you have not read The Coddling of the American Mind by Haidt and Lukianoff? It has the most convincing explanation of what is currently going on in American universities that I’ve encountered. Losing a LOT of detail the book argues that this is a consequence of helicopter parenting (no conflict resolution skills) as well as no longer being able to get away from your social connections (iPhones release and the revised Facebook membership policy).

    As for your protest that “How much of this is true and how much is media exaggeration?” as well as your testimony of not seeing this yourself. This comes from the “Grievance Studies” departments (gender, race etc.) so it’s probably a few steps removed from you. And it requires only a few useful idiots in administrative positions or as ideological distributors to maintain this kind of madness.

    As for the movements religious aspect, this seems to be highly pertinent:

    I hope this can help you somehow. I liked your thoughts about what the university is for. I don’t truly understand the problem you seem to outline, but I think we both can agree that it should be something different than what the young woman shouting at Nich Christakis had in mind.

  7. Charlie says:

    Sean, any update on the timing of the new book…looking forward to it

  8. Lucas says:

    I don’t think arguing colleges aren’t just places for purely education refutes Gerrard’s primarily claim that “students, administrators and some faculty” filled with righteous anger would say that those that challenge their viewpoints desire to oppress them. As for being versus knowing, there are a few interpretations which focus on infinitives versus aims: Harvard’s mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society”, emphasis on educate, leaders, and society. For the public, “the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge” and “an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually” (Pew 2011). For students, it’s supposed to be a good investment, time, and place, which seems like it should be satisfied by the Christian, gentlemen’s, consumer, and even comfort college. Either way, I agree that woke culture is a strawman

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