One of the wonders of modern academia is that the ideal of workplace democracy should be so prevalent among people who regularly endure faculty meetings. It’s not hard to see how lived experience might lead academics to a Churchillian argument for workplace democracy as the least bad option, a way of preventing administrative tyranny and legitimating decisions, but how anyone can take seriously the Arendtian vision of speechifying as some higher form of life I really don’t know.
Swarthmore College, where I have taught for the last four years, is run pretty democratically as a result of its Quaker heritage, to the point where any erosion of faculty governance is still noticed and lamented even if the most important decisions seem to be out of our hands. Much of the work is trivial but slow. A student can only graduate if the faculty collectively votes to approve a list with their name on it, and until a couple of years ago this required everyone present to sit through a full roll call of around four hundred names, with pauses for each and every objection. Is it possible to make an exception for a student who has taken three writing courses but not one in each division? What about someone who wants to study abroad in their final semester? Whether professors’ time is best devoted to such Solomonic inquiries is a question I have not yet seen raised—this is what faculty governance looks like, apparently, and in any case nobody forces you to show up.
The problem with not showing up, of course, is that sometimes important things do get debated, and every so often they even get decided. During the first wave of COVID, we discussed whether to allow students to mask their grades for the semester or to simply do away with grades altogether. As the second wave peaked the question was how to respond to students boycotting their classes—which they called a “strike”—in the wake of a police shooting in Philadelphia. As the third and gentlest wave of disease rolled our way we were at our most turbulent, utterly divided over the Swarthmore president’s decision to sign us up to a scheme (“the Chamberlain Project”) designed to bring retired military officers to liberal arts colleges as visiting professors. By the end of the spring of 2021 it felt like we were all veterans of some kind of war.
Something about the setting encourages melodrama and grandstanding, not to mention a tendency toward digression that can make concentration, especially via Zoom, seem like a mark of sainthood. A lot has to do with the internal logic of this kind of gathering; everyone has a right to speak, but it’s first-come-first-served and some were born with their hands up. But if people jump up to speak (as I sometimes do) or if they feel compelled to enter a comment in the chat, it’s generally because they care deeply, not only about the issue at hand but also about the underlying question of what Swarthmore stands for. It is this question, unresolved and for the most part unposed, that is the ultimate source of conflict.
Everything hinges on a tension that is constitutive to the college itself, given its history and self-conception. The official mission statement reads as follows:
Swarthmore College provides learners of diverse backgrounds a transformative liberal arts education grounded in rigorous intellectual inquiry and empowers all who share in our community to flourish and contribute to a better world.
What is the meaning of the first “and” in that sentence? How exactly is the goal of providing a rigorous education supposed to relate to that of building a better world? Are they simply parallel, or is one supposed to be subordinate to the other? This isn’t about uncovering the founders’ original intent, since this particular sequence of words was only recently introduced. It’s more that the statement captures an uncertainty that runs deep at Swarthmore—and, I surmise, at similar institutions, however democratically governed they are. What is our role in the world? To what extent is our institution a vehicle for political progress as opposed to academic excellence?
Rational decision-making is impossible if these questions are left hanging, but at the same time it’s not hard to see why nobody tries to resolve them. Cass Sunstein has extolled the benefits of “incompletely theorized agreements” in political life: the more fine-grained we get, the more we disagree. But even if vagueness can successfully keep the peace among the faculty as a whole, which seemed doubtful this last year, individual academics still have to form their own answer to the question of what the institution is for. After all, in reflecting on which courses to offer, which readings to include, which assignments to set, how to grade, how to interact with students—how to teach, in short—we are necessarily presuming a certain conception of how our individual work dovetails with that of our colleagues as part of some larger project. To think seriously about one’s own role is therefore necessarily to think seriously about what the college is, or should be, aiming at.
Not all colleges are elite colleges, but mine certainly have been—for better and for worse. As an undergraduate at Oxford I used to sit in front of the Clarendon Building on Saturday nights watching tuxedoed toffs trickle by in blithe stupor just so I could wallow in my alienation and despair. I had imagined Oxford as a bookish Valhalla, a magnificent palace where those who had conquered the anti-intellectualism of their high schools would finally feast together on conversation and argument; what I found was a period drama in which it was considered gauche to discuss academic work at the dinner table.
Once I went to a debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that “the future is blue”—by which they meant Tory. This was the height of the Blair years, probably 2002 or 2003, and I remember looking around and wondering how death could have undone so many. It’s hard to describe the horror of the Union to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s a private club that you have to pay to join, but most people I knew didn’t want to miss out: this was the place where future politicians from across the world, people like Benazir Bhutto and Ted Heath, had first locked horns in debate. By the time I got there, the Union was dominated by a strange species that you might call politicians without purpose. Strutting around in black tie and ball gowns, they advertised themselves for election to offices within the Union. Since these offices carried no real power beyond the right to organize parties and hobnob with famous speakers, they served mostly as a record of one’s capacity to get elected independently of a meaningful platform, but to say that they were desperately sought would be an understatement: every election seemed to end with a tribunal for malpractice, often covered in the national press. (It might not surprise you to learn that Boris Johnson cut his political teeth in this environment, aided and abetted by Michael Gove and Frank Luntz.) The day of that debate, filled with disgust, I fantasized about standing up and asking the house to open its eyes. If the future was Tory, and these egomaniacs were the future of the Tories, then surely we were all damned. How could the future not be red?
How wrong I was. Not only has Britain been blue since 2010, but my generation of Union hacks didn’t even go into politics. In hindsight this was Thatcherism working itself out over the generations. As Boris Johnson has discovered, a life in politics involves financial sacrifice; it remains a form of public service, no matter how egoistic you are. The smart play for the modern Union president is to skip all of that and instead leverage your arts of persuasion, not to mention your contacts, in the service of founding your own start-up or venture-capital firm. Another thing I now realize, though, is that feeling alienated by a social world is just another way of belonging to it. What could be more Oxford than the self-righteous anger of my disappointed idealism? What could be more Oxford, moreover, than the career paths of my own college friends, into law, consultancy, journalism, think tanks, academia? There were different types of people at Oxford, no doubt, but what they had in common was that they were all part of a nascent elite. Elite colleges produce elites. Sociologically speaking, that is their function.
This makes it hard to imagine how a college like Swarthmore could ever be a powerful vehicle for social justice. A study conducted in 2013 found that 41 percent of its students came from families sitting in the top 5 percent of the U.S. income distribution, and despite recent efforts to broaden access it remains the case that, financially speaking, the student population is nowhere near representative of American society.1 Even if that were to change, however, a deeper point would remain, namely that Swarthmore educates around 1,600 students per year at a cost of something like $110,000 per student. (I find it hard to believe it could be so expensive, but the figures are what they are and apparently the explanation is just that the facilities and support services are first-class, the faculty are well paid and the student-faculty ratio is extremely low.2) By comparison, the annual per-student spending of Southern Connecticut State University is about $13,000. Surely there is no credible theory of social justice, or at least no view that would attract Swarthmore professors, according to which it could count as just to spend so much more on educating our students than on the rest of their cohort. In a just world, a college like Swarthmore simply wouldn’t exist. The mere possibility would be regarded as obscene.
This makes faculty radicalism at elite colleges largely phantasmagoric. Professors campaigning for something like divestment from fossil fuels typically take themselves to be fighting the man in the form of an inscrutable board of managers—or should that be board of donors?—whom they picture as bourgeois reactionaries. But if a college like Swarthmore is necessarily and essentially complicit in injustice, its faculty are necessarily and essentially complicit as well, and campaigns to invest our billions more responsibly are mostly window-dressing. (They may not be completely pointless, but then nor are Nike’s anti-racism messages.) Something similar goes for the common demand—made once again during the student strike at Swarthmore last fall—that colleges respond to injustices visited upon a given population within American society by “lifting up” those who belong to that group on campus, for example by creating special facilities or scholarships accessible only to them or by generating academic offerings more responsive to their supposed interests. Such initiatives can be worthwhile for making those students from underrepresented backgrounds feel more welcome on campus, but the notion that they will automatically make the wider world any more just fails to take into account the divide that inevitably opens up between those students and the communities they’ve left behind in order to receive the massive privilege of a Swarthmore education.
In arguing that faculty radicalism is often illusory I do not mean to suggest that it doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it probably matters more than we generally think, just because elites probably matter more than we generally think. One of the dogmas of contemporary academia is that history gets made from below and that any attempt to argue otherwise robs ordinary people of their agency. But it is true by definition, or near enough, that elites have more power than non-elites. It follows that what elites think and do should be of concern to everybody, and hence that a society should care a great deal about the political education its elites receive.
On my first day of teaching at Swarthmore I was asked if I would serve as faculty adviser for the Conservative Society. This came as a surprise. I was just about to publish a book called Plato as Critical Theorist, my job talk had been about the ideal of socialism and I had recently voted for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Did the students know something I didn’t? The answer was yes. They knew that student societies can only exist if they have a faculty adviser, for one thing, but they also knew there was no one else they could ask. The fact that I had written an article called “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” was sufficient to demonstrate my interest in engaging with conservative ideas and, given the political climate at Swarthmore, that was all they felt they could ask for. “You could give us a critical eye on our activities,” the society’s president wrote, “and help us come up with hard questions for our guest speakers and for ourselves.” I worried about my reputation on campus but decided I couldn’t let the students down.
Practically speaking this association has had virtually no effect on my life—the last I heard from the group was in early 2019—but I do think it has affected the way I see life at Swarthmore. I confess to raising an eyebrow when, during our discussions over the Chamberlain Project to employ military veterans as visiting professors, some of my colleagues denied that viewpoint diversity might be a problem at the college. In a funny way, though, I actually agree that conservatism is better represented on campus than is often assumed. Those who argued that the Chamberlain Project was antithetical to the college’s history of peace activism, for example, were clearly offering a conservative reason in the form of an appeal to tradition. And lately I’ve been wondering whether the decision to teach at an elite college doesn’t necessarily commit you to respecting a conservative consideration of a different kind, one emphasized by thinkers as disparate as Michael Oakeshott and G. A. Cohen, namely the thought that we have reason to cherish the value that already exists in the world even if the things that bear that value would not exist in a better world.
To think about what an institution should be for, we have to ask how it would best fit in the wider whole of which it is a part. The appropriate role for the village post office, for instance, depends on which services are to be provided by other establishments. We can think about this more or less idealistically depending on how fixed we consider the wider whole to be. At one end of the spectrum we can assume, in thinking about what the post office is for, that neighboring establishments will continue to act as they currently do; at the other end we can put their own roles into question.
In an ideal society, I have suggested, there would be no elite colleges, or at least not in their current form.3 There might well be highly selective institutions devoted to fostering intellectual excellence, just as there might well be highly selective institutions devoted to fostering musical or sporting excellence. But an ideal society would be a just society, and a just society would manifest equal concern for each of its young adults; and although equal concern would not require an exactly equal distribution of resources, departures from equal distribution would have to be justified. If a college like Swarthmore wanted to bring this about, it could in principle work toward self-abolition, perhaps via intermediary steps like tripling the number of students or founding a sister college in nearby Chester. But America will not be just any time soon; even its public education system devotes vastly greater resources to well-off children than to those from poorer backgrounds. There would therefore be reasonable conservative grounds for Swarthmore’s officers and trustees to refuse to kill off the exquisitely rare fish of its rigorous liberal arts education just in order to sprinkle a little water on America’s arid turf. As an individual faculty member you have no power over such matters in any case: you either play the hand you’re dealt or you quit. If you do stay, then you have to acknowledge that the sociological function of elite colleges in non-ideal America will always be to produce an unfairly privileged elite. The only question is what it means to do this well.
One characteristic of a desirable elite, it seems to me, is that its members be self-aware. Each needs to recognize that they are the recipient of a golden ticket, not so they can engage in pointless rituals of self-denunciation but so they can reckon with the question of which responsibilities follow from the privilege that has been unfairly bestowed upon them. What is needed, as conservatives such as Helen Andrews and Ross Douthat have rightly argued, is something like the old ethos of noblesse oblige, according to which a golden ticket comes with the unavoidable obligation to make what Christopher Lasch called “a direct and personal contribution to the public good.” The difficulty is knowing how to teach with this in mind, given that career decisions are generally considered private.
One thing we can do is to ask students to reflect on the basic facts. In a time when the major sociopolitical divide is between the college-educated and the rest, anyone who walks through the door of a college like Swarthmore has already become a member of the elite. What do they think follows from this? Another thing we can do is to cultivate humility. One of the reasons for the divide just mentioned, aside from the uneven distribution of human capital, is that the less educated resent what they perceive as the moral arrogance of their more fortunate cousins. The cliché used to be of a grammar-school boy “going up to Oxford” and coming back with posh vowel sounds and elaborate table manners; now the upwardly mobile return to their communities convinced that everybody is misusing ordinary terms like “violence.” One of the things that unfairly privileged elites owe to everyone else is surely forbearance: they must avoid giving the impression that nothing ordinary people think or say will ever be quite right. Another, though, is respect: they must take seriously the possibility that both common modes of expression and the moral and political views that underlie them might contain some genuine wisdom.
Since the task of a professor is not to preach but to provoke, there are limits to what we can do to inculcate such humility. What comes most naturally to me, given my training in philosophy, is simply to challenge whatever my students assert or argue, regardless of whether I agree with it. That means I find myself pushing conservative arguments on a regular basis.
My political confessions cannot end there, unfortunately. For the value of the self-examination that I try to teach is obviously supposed to go beyond its possible effects on social harmony. If one function of a college like Swarthmore should be to create a good elite, another should be to give young people a taste for the life of the mind understood as an end in itself. Oxford remains for me an open wound, yet it was through one-on-one tutorials on Wittgenstein and Heidegger with a Socratic professor who never told me exactly what he thought that I came to see who I was and what I cared about. In a better world such opportunities would be distributed more widely, so leftist faculty like myself might be tempted to see today’s elite colleges as prefiguring the emancipation that such a world would bring. The problem, though, is that intellectual activity is like music and sport, in that excellence and enjoyment are at least partly correlated and excellence is fostered by the emulation and competition that arises when talented people are thrown together in close quarters. Because today’s elite colleges attract and concentrate talent from across the globe, spending vast amounts of money to ensure low faculty-student ratios, they are almost certainly better able to provide this service than the large state colleges that would exist if resources were distributed more fairly. They make possible a form of human achievement, in other words, that could probably never be replicated on a universal scale.
The political conscience of egalitarians who teach at elite colleges will therefore always be troubled. For among the biggest losers from the democratization of higher education would be people like me who teach at places like Swarthmore and who would be shorn, in the brave new world, of the privilege of closely tending to the intellectual growth of the extraordinarily talented. In the end, then, the tension between the goal of rigorous education and the goal of political progress that besets Swarthmore and similar colleges—the tension that so frequently permeates faculty meetings, however implicitly—is not simply the product of a fudge designed to keep the peace between professors of different persuasions. It is a tension inscribed in the very heart of contemporary academic life and, more generally, in the circumstances of bourgeois life, which enables forms of individual development that are hard to fully endorse yet quite impossible to regret.
Art credit: Rachael Hulme, Reflective Exercise no. 2, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
This essay is part of our new issue 25 symposium, “What is college for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.