By Patrick J. Deneen
On many of today's contemporary college campuses, there are sponsored programs and organizations that seek to advance "social justice." While contemporary universities constantly invoke "critical thinking" as a central activity of campus life, rarely is the term "social justice" examined. At the dawn of the western tradition, Plato devoted an entire dialogue - the Republic - to the question of "what is justice?", at the end of which the question - if anything - was more unsettled than answered. Yet if the activities on college campuses today indicate anything, it is that we know what justice is.
Still, if today's universities are in many ways officially devoted to advancing "social justice," critical reflection upon the very structural activities of today's universities call that apparent commitment into question. For it could be argued that, in the very act of scouring the world for the best and brightest and putting them on the path to upward mobility, our best universities may be accelerating downward mobility for a great many of our countrymen, and in fact increasing and deepening structural forms of social injustice.
God and Nature, in their wisdom, seem to have dispersed talent and intelligence widely throughout the globe. If one polls an average class of Georgetown students (or any other similarly elite institution) from where they come, you'll usually get a reasonably widespread representation from many of the states in the Union and the globe. One measure of "diversity" that we like to proclaim is geographic: we are no longer merely a parochial East Coast school, but a global institution. We scour the nation and the world for the best students, and each year bring a sizable number from everywhere for a first-class education on the Hilltop.
We do not, as a rule, ask many questions about where our graduates go after graduation. Yet, we all know where a great many of our students end up: if they are ambitious and successful (as most are), they end up in one of about half a dozen cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Seattle and Boston. (I once invoked this "half dozen" observation in a class, to which one student earnestly asked: "What are the other three"?). Along with peer institutions, we are engaged in a large-scale operation of accumulating talent and intelligence from the provinces and siphoning them to several centers composed of similarly enriched people.
The social theorist Richard Florida has celebrated the concentration of this elite educated class in books such as The Rise of the Creative Class and Who's Your City? Florida attributes increasing levels of prosperity and creativity to the accumulation of intelligent and talented people in several urban areas. His is a sort of left-wing version of Ronald Reagan's claim that "a rising tide raises all boats." For Florida, a segregated creative class makes us all better off, even members of the uncreative class.
But is this the case? Another view comes from Bill Bishop, who argues in his book The Big Sort that segregation by intelligence and education is fostering deep social divisions across the nation. Where once the relatively random dispersal of people of differing talents and capacities meant a great deal of intermingling between people differently endowed, today - particularly through the efforts of our elite institutions of higher education - we are creating a new and socially divisive form of segregation. Even as we praise ourselves for our sensitivities to "diversity," it is also the case on many of our campuses that it is widely acceptable to regard with disdain and condescension people who are viewed as backward or recidivist - rednecks, bumpkins, evangelicals, "townies" - and, generally, people who live in "fly-over country" (one need only consider the response of the intelligentsia to Sarah Palin). Jeremy Beer has argued that the meritocratic "Big Sort" has led to the decline of "middle America," thereby stoking the very "bitterness" cited by candidate Obama that he claimed to wish to assuage. Stocking his administration with graduates of Harvard, Princeton and Yale doesn't seem to signal that this was ever a priority.
Further, what this siphoning of talent is arguably accomplishing is an insidious form of social injustice. Every community relies on people of extraordinary talent, energy and achievement to become its leaders - politically, socially, economically, philanthropically and so on. If one travels to small towns and smaller cities throughout the nation, one always finds evidence in the names of buildings, statues, museums, etc., that all such places have had a fair share of public-spirited contributors who have made those places better as a result of their local efforts. Today, those sorts of people are more apt to apply to colleges in distant places and eventually end up living in or near one of a few major metropolitan areas across the world. To use an image borrowed from the work of the poet, novelist and farmer Wendell Berry, we are effectively engaged in a human strip mining operation - stripping away the "usable" elements of local places and putting them in the stream of international commerce. What's left behind in those local places is of no concern to us.
The response today of the winners of the "meritocratic sweepstakes" is to evince sympathy, even pity for those who have not been so fortunate. Regarding those who have not escaped from their circumstances with a new form of "noblesse oblige," today's elites no less likely than their aristocratic forbears to regard the less fortunate with a degree of condescending solicitousness, but are more likely today to recommend that the government have a role in assuaging their condition rather than stopping to question their own complicity in current arrangements. At least old aristocrats had the virtue of living amid the lower classes; we are today more likely to set up gated communities, even as we insist that somebody should do something to help the less fortunate. Big government has become, in part, the compensation that winners of our current arrangement offer to losers. Big government obscures the consequences of our mobility and liberation from places and personal obligations to the people in them, and in part allows us to live without the bad conscience that we might otherwise find unavoidable.
Can we be so certain that our concern for "social justice" isn't merely a kind of psychic compensation for a guilty conscience of what we're leaving behind? If we were really committed to the idea of social justice, we would have to become much more circumspect and even reluctant about the nature of the inequalities that we are fostering. Resisting the strip mining model, we are more likely to exert our God-given talent in the way that God appears to have intended - in the communities from which we came, and to which we owe more obligation and gratitude than we are typically taught to display in most forms of "higher" education today.
(A version of this posting originally appeared as a column in The Hoya)
Posted by: bruce18 | November 13, 2009 1:23 PM
Report Offensive Comment
Posted by: ccnl1 | November 12, 2009 3:58 PM
Report Offensive Comment
The comments to this entry are closed.