Count on The New York Post to come up with the tabloids’ most incendiary headlines and news article leads. We all recall “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” But what about some other headlines that are much more inflammatory or offensive.
Regarding disgraced governor Andrew Cuomo: “At the End of His Grope” and “Handsy Andy.” Or Alec Baldwin: “Dolt 45.” Or Tiger Woods: “I’m a Cheetah.” Or Eliot Spitzer, another shamed New York governor: “Ho No.” Or a tarnished member of Congress: “Hide the Weiner.” Or about French and German reluctance to support the Iraq war: “Axis of Weasel.” Or an especially objectionable headline using a hateful vulgarity about a purportedly gay Mafia boss: “Fairy Godfather.”
Then there’s this lead in a hot-off-the press Post article entitled “SUNY makes new racial equity class mandatory for graduation at all schools”:
“The 64-campus SUNY college system is turning into the Woke University of New York — ordering incoming freshman at all of its colleges they will have to pass a new ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice’-themed class to earn a diploma.”
Woke University? According to SUNY documents, for a class to meet the new requirement, it must not only “describe the historical and contemporary societal factors that shape the development of individual and group identity involving race, class and gender.” It must also:
- “Analyze the role that complex networks of social structures and systems play in the creation and perpetuation of the dynamics of power, privilege, oppression and opportunity,” and
- “Apply the principles of rights, access, equity and autonomous participation to past, current, or future social justice action.”
The Post then quotes a political science professor, who claims that the requirement portrays “the US as ‘inherently racist’ and tries to undermine the American identity that unifies all citizens by ‘creating groups and pitting them against each other.’”
Of course, most colleges and universities that I’m familiar with have a cultural diversity requirement. What sets SUNY apart is the stress on the networks, systems and structures that create “power, privilege, oppression and opportunity” and the requirement’s emphasis on “social justice action.”
I, perhaps like you, have heard several negative responses to the SUNY requirement:
- That at a time when institutions are having trouble teaching students to write well or achieve a basic level of scientific literacy or master essential math, statistical and data analysis skills and become civics knowledgeable, such a requirement will serve to reinforce conservative fears that universities are prioritizing political indoctrination over basic skills and content knowledge.
- That this requirement is the mirror image of those initiatives that Florida governor Ron DeSantis seeks to push through in his state: dictating course content with a political slant.
We probably shouldn’t worry overmuch. The idea that any college or university, other than a handful of religious institutions, can run itself in a top-down manner, push out a particular point of view (academic or otherwise), achieve coherent learning objectives or force faculty to teach or think in a particular way is almost certainly impossible. As anyone who teaches or administers at a college and university knows firsthand, campuses are far more contentious environments than either the public or politicians imagine.
Still, whatever you may think of the specific SUNY DEISJ requirement, might it not make sense for colleges to offer interdisciplinary courses that deal explicitly and systematically with the nature of power—classes that don’t simply reflect the perspectives of sociology, psychology and political science, but tackle the topic even more broadly and inclusively?
Among the most striking developments within the late 20th and early 21st century academy is the broadening of our understanding of power: what it is, where it lies, how it is exercised and how it functions. In addition to the more traditional understandings of political, military, diplomatic and economic power—the power that resides in authority, coercion and influence—we now speak of soft power, systemic power, police power, informational and ideational power, emotional and affective power, and referent power (that is, the power derived from identification with an authority figure), as well as discursive and epistemic power. Today, we speak much more openly about the power of connections and the power of incentives and rewards than in the past.
We now recognize that power is manifest in a host of ways: through culture, expertise, labels, representations, expectations and language as well as through the more traditional vehicles of law and public policy. Although fewer scholars refer to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ideological hegemony than was the case half a century ago, his basic idea—about how society’s dominant ideas are disseminated and internalized and how relations of domination and exploitation are socialized, naturalized and achieve consent—persists. There is widespread acceptance of the role of nonconscious beliefs, feelings and attitudes in reinforcing power structures and arrangements of authority, wealth and status.
You might well say that power is far too broad a topic to be treated outside of specific disciplinary contexts. After all, isn’t much of human history about struggles over power, resources and dominance? How can one satisfactorily combine, within a single course or even a course cluster, macro-sociological forces, trends and processes, political power, economic power, institutional power, the psychology of power, and the power of discursive and epistemic categories of thought, symbolizations and linguistic conventions?
Or you might argue that a Foucaultesque stress on the manifold manifestations of power is reductionist: that by seeing power everywhere, we blind ourselves to the complexity of ideas and behaviors and other phenomena.
Or you might worry that an undue focus on power, privilege, stratification, inequality and societal and cultural hierarchies is little more than political and ideological indoctrination and a way to induce feelings of guilt, shame and discomfort in the interest of driving certain partisan agendas.
I take these concerns seriously. But power and its multifarious manifestations are topics too important to evade. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that issues of power lie at the very heart of humanities and social science scholarship today and are evident across the arts as well. The key challenge is how to teach about power in ways that are responsible, fair-minded, respectful and unbiased.
So how can we do that? Here’s my advice. Recognize that:
1. A liberal education should not, indeed must not, avoid the tough stuff or controversial questions. Colleges, in my view, need to be the place where the hottest, most contentious political and cultural controversies are subjected to rigorous analysis and contextualization. If not there, where? If we don’t address these topics, then crude, simplistic, unsophisticated points of view will inevitably prevail.
In today’s society, no issues are tougher or more contentious than those involving inequalities, whether rooted in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion or cultural stereotypes. Rather than evade these debates, be willing to academize the controversies. Dodging and ducking may be OK in the hockey rink or on the soccer field, but these stances are unfitting within the academy, where it’s essential to acknowledge differences of opinion even as we subject ideas and perspectives to critical scrutiny.
2. A liberal education must eschew indoctrination and propagandizing no matter how high the stakes may appear. In a pluralistic society and certainly in colleges and universities, all truth claims, explanations and conceptual and theoretical frameworks must be treated as problematic and all instructors must be willing to engage with multiple, conflicting perspectives. Orthodoxies are the enemy of a liberal education, an education that befits a free person.
As Noam Chomsky, the great linguist and political activist, has put it, a higher education should never be about brainwashing, indoctrination or propagandizing. Indoctrination is education’s antonym. “The purpose of education,” he has said, “is to help people learn how to think for themselves.” Its great goal is to teach people “to question.”
As Charles Audino, an editor, has recently written, as access to information through the click of a key or the tap of an app has surged, it should be obvious that a college education ought not be a synonym for the acquisition of knowledge. With information omni-available, a genuine higher education consists in the ability to process, analyze and apply information; rigorously evaluate competing claims and opinions; and make evidence-based decisions and implement solutions grounded in critical thinking.
Perhaps most important of all, a college education should involve what the classical Greek philosophers called askesis—which my prolific and extraordinarily perceptive past colleague Robert Zaretsky (citing the philosopher Pierre Hadot), described as a process of self-transformation that involves defining a sense of purpose and transcending one’s narrow point of view.
A college education that avoids disagreement under the guise of civility or that evades contentious, complex, difficult or taboo issues under a veneer of mutual respect isn’t a liberal education at all. It’s pablum.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.