The Magazine

Victimology 101 at Yale

While the rest of the university tightens its belt, guess who's exempted from the austerity campaign?

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Many students come to college asking the question: Who am I? At its best, a liberal arts education responds to that question by pushing students outside of their limited selves and into the vast reaches of human imagination and experience. It assumes that students can enter lives radically different from their own-that a Chinese-American girl, say, can find meaning in Odysseus' quest to return home-and that they can start to participate in a centuries-long conversation that contains sorrows and fears that most 18-year-olds can barely imagine. No freshman can understand the battle between Lear and his daughters, but 40 years later, it might return to him with a deep pang of recognition. Thomas Hobbes's warning regarding the ever-present threat of anarchy will likely remain wholly abstract for secure American students until they have seen more of the world. When they have, however, his articulation of the fragility of social order may echo in their minds as terrifyingly true.

Today's solipsistic university, however, allows students to answer the "Who am I?" question exclusively, rather than inclusively. Identity politics defines the self by its difference from as many other people as possible, so as to increase the underdog status of one's chosen identity group. (Women have commandeered an underdog identity even though they are the majority on campuses; that no one objects is a measure of their clout.) And because the robust growth of the student services bureaucracy depends on the proliferation of identity groups, administrations busy themselves with identity-based constituencies that might not even exist.

Yale's Committee on Gender-Neutral Housing, composed of the dean of student affairs, the Council of Masters chair, the associate dean for physical resources and planning, and the special assistant to the deans for LGBTQ affairs, has been meeting since the fall of 2007 to decide whether Yale should allow juniors and seniors to live with roommates of the opposite sex, an accommodation demanded in the name of transgender students. (Yale, along with Princeton, is the only Ivy not to have authorized so-called gender-neutral housing.) There is no suggestion in any of the news coverage that Yale has tried to determine how many transgender students are actually enrolled at Yale.

Indeed, Trumpler opposes requiring students to identify themselves as transgender in order to qualify for mixed-gender housing. This don't-ask-don't-tell policy is doubly convenient-it preserves the mystery around whether the "T" in LGBTQ actually has any local referent, and it allows heterosexual students to shack up. But only someone ensnared by heteronormativity would suppose that this latter group would seek mixed-gender housing for carnal purposes. Junior Emma Sloan told the Yale Daily News that the idea that men and women are necessarily attracted to the opposite sex is "antiquated."

While the drive to define oneself oppositionally is good for student services administrators, it is not so good for education. Can a student who is furiously itemizing the many ways she has been dissed as a female of color or a lesbian, say, lose herself in the opalescent language of A Midsummer Night's Dream or hear the aching melancholy in Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode? She will have been taught to scour books for slights to, or affirmations of, her own self, but neither the play nor the poem is directly about her carefully cultivated identity.

Yale's sprawling student services bureaucracy is drearily typical. It matters not whether a college is private or public, large or small; all are encrusted with layers of expendable adults catering to students' most narcissistic tendencies. The growth in this bureaucracy helps explain exploding annual tuition costs, which at elite private colleges now run over half the median family income.

In the years ahead, expect to see a new constituency pushing for the expansion of identity-based services and courses: graduates of the solipsistic university. Older alumni might have provided a brake on the trivialization of their alma maters; instead they blindly shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into colleges about whose radical transformation they preserved a carefully cultivated ignorance. Now those older alumni are being replaced by younger generations who take for granted that universities should cultivate students' narrowly defined identities. Yale, for example, administers two alumni funds to support undergraduates pursuing LGBT studies; their respective donors come from the classes of '83 and '85. Other identity fiefdoms in colleges across the country have their own recent alumni patrons.

Yale's new Office of LGBTQ Resources is initially funded at $20,000 a year, obviously a minute fraction of the college's $100 million deficit for 2009-10. But the costs of the office exceed its immediate budget. By perpetuating the premise that Yale not only should officially recognize students' balkanized identities but has still not satisfactorily done so, LGBTQ Resources guarantees ongoing student demands and continues distorting the idea of a liberal arts education. Yale could take that $20,000 and purchase every low-income student a complete Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers, and all the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It could fund a Ph.D. candidate to conduct an evening reading group on the Enlightenment philosophers. Surely such endeavors would contribute more to the expansion of students' minds than making another offering to their self-regard.

In his December 2008 letter on Yale's budget problems, President Richard Levin affirmed the university's mission of "educating the most talented and promising students for leadership and service." Teaching students to identify phantom insults to their egos doesn't train them for leadership and service but merely for future whining. The economic crisis is the perfect opportunity for every college to say to its students: "We recognize you as young people forged from a common humanity. We hope to cultivate in you humility regarding the limits of your knowledge, a passion to overcome those limits, and a deep gratitude for the landmarks of human thought that it will be your privilege to study for the next four years. We are dismantling the college's multicultural, identity-based services because you don't need them. Find yourselves by engaging with beauty, intellectual complexity, and each other."

Heather Mac Donald is a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.