There’s been a great deal of talk about the protest-turned-violent at Middlebury College against Charles Murray this week. Almost all of this discussion has been about what it means for intellectual freedom at the modern college or university, and whether labeling Murray racist (or more histrionically, a “white nationalist“) for writing The Bell Curve is justified or justifies his exclusion from polite society.
Nobody, as far as I know, has discussed whether the students just didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Maybe Middlebury students (average SAT score 1450 out of 1600) don’t want to hear about how the society favors those with more academic ability? Maybe Middlebury students (the 9th richest student body in the country, with 23% of their students from the top 1% of income in the U.S. and a median parental income of $244,300) don’t want to hear about the extent of their advantages as members of a favored class? Swarthmore, a very similar school to Middlebury, erupted recently in outrage when one student observed in the school newspaper some of the basic economics of how the college operates. Spending your young adulthood in a beautiful, elite college like Middlebury isn’t just a handy benefit of our increasing class division, it itself is a central engine of that division. It seems revealing that Saint Louis University students (ranked as one of the nation’s colleges with most economic diversity, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants) did not react aggressively at all to Murray’s visit in December, in contrast to Princeton’s professor-organized protest and Middlebury’s near-riot.
To a very great degree, the society- especially its colleges, have used the promise and duty of racial inclusion as a way to paper over widening class divisions. Race will always be with us, and has its own importance independent of class. For the protesters, no doubt anti-racism has additional appeal as a center of meaning in a post-religious world. But the extent of class division and class animus has made itself felt ever more in ordinary American life, and we are ever more segregated by class even as trends in racial segregation are more ambiguous.
The grand, civilization-defining but corporate-sponsored quest to break down barriers of race and sex has as part of its attractions the unlikeliness that it will succeed; similarly, the contortions of liberal campus action very often fail just at the limits of threatening the economics and privilege of the college itself. For example, take this statement by Middlebury’s administration, explaining why they will not, in spite of much campus activism, divest from fossil fuel companies in their investment portfolio:
“At this time, too many of these questions either raise serious concerns or remain unanswered for the board to support divestment. Given its fiduciary responsibilities, the board cannot look past the lack of proven alternative investment models, the difficulty and material cost of withdrawing from a complex portfolio of investments, and the uncertainties and risks that divestment would create.
Instead, we will focus on the positive differences Middlebury can make through its actions, in the best tradition of our institution.”
Maybe it makes sense for Middlebury to stay invested in fossil fuels. It certainly makes sense for Middlebury students to enjoy the chance to spend four years in a beautiful place reading books and learning things, and not to wallow in fruitless guilt (as a friend of mine remarked in college, “every time I eat some ice cream in the dining hall, I think- look at that stupid white girl and how easy she’s got it.”) But thinking through and talking openly about the terms and structures that lead to our class-and-cognitively stratified society is much better than pulling the fire alarm every time someone tries to point them out.