My wife makes fun of me because when I give directions I tend to mix up left and right. I don’t know why I do this. I am a fairly hard “P” (perceiver) in Meyers-Briggs terms so it might just be an extreme example of my preference for intuition over facts and a need to keep options open rather than close them down.
It is not always a useful trait when driving but in other spheres of life it is getting positively useful to confuse left and right. Take politics for instance. Political categories have been upended here and in other countries, with the result that it can make perfect sense to say “turn right!” and then go left. Writing about France in the Weekly Standard Christopher Caldwell describes this situation as a new normal.
Nor is it true, as press accounts often claim, that the political landscape left in this election’s wake is “bizarre” or “surreal.” No! It is classic. It is normal. It pits a party of capital-owners and wealth managers against a party of laborers. The only thing bizarre about it is that the former insist on calling themselves “the left” and the latter “the right.”
This suggests, though, that we are in the midst of a simple reversal. It seems to me a little more complicated than that. Directions are no longer one directional it seems. Like Shrödinger’s Cat, both alive and dead, both right and left can now be both right and left, and vice versa.
One way of looking at this situation is through the lens of culture and politics. These two ways of conceptualizing human behavior in groups are related but not the same thing. Sometimes they are closely linked and at other times that are more loosely linked. When things get very loose, as they now are, things seem fractured but it is likely just a matter of the loose couplings struggling to find a better fit.
Pat Moynihan famously observed:
The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
As I read it, Moynihan was suggesting that the default is the conservative view but that politics “can” (i.e., sometimes) change culture. Most often, per Andrew Brietbart, politics is downstream from culture.
But here’s the thing: political categories of right and left aim to be just that: political categories, and thus in the realm of politics. But what is happening upstream? When upstream currents put pressure on downstream categories things can get pretty funky, with water running up over the banks and with new channels being cut. But the entire enterprise, taken as a system, is explicable, even if the change process appears to challenge our preconceptions about rivers. And after a while things settle down and we see once again a better alignment between upstream and downstream. At least this is how I see some of the current left-right confusion. Broad elemental forces are cutting new channels.
It is a mistake to conceive the nationalist urge in purely political terms. It is not just about technical measures and optimizing our governing structures. It is about values and identity, and surely this is the main reason not only for the strength of the eruption but also the resistance. If Trumpism were only about politics it might have made an alliance with Democrats. But it is not.
Is this situation relevant to higher education? Could be.
Consider admissions and affirmative action. For the past few decades affirmative action tended to have a communal defense in keeping with the older category of “left”. This communal justification had both internal and external aspects.
From an internal perspective, it was held that admissions should not be only about individual merit because learning is a group exercise, and that as a result admissions should not be overly obsessed with selecting the brightest individuals but in fashioning a cohort that will optimize learning and student development. It was argued–never terribly convincingly in my view–that diversity (especially racial and ethnic diversity) helps to optimize the best outcomes.
From an external perspective, it was held that colleges are just not machines for imparting skills and wisdom but must be seen in a broader political and historical context, as important institutions playing a specific role in the larger society. Thus it is fair to judge the outcomes of higher education not only under a standard of optimizing education but with reference to overall social goals, and with an aim to solving problems that go beyond the institution.
Under this view some number of less qualified students ought to be admitted to the most prestigious institutions because some problems cannot be addressed without taking groups into account. If social progress can be efficiently advanced via bringing more minorities into the elite then higher education institutions may play a role in accomplishing that goal. So it may be perfectly appropriate for those conceiving of national higher education policy to work toward outcomes that harmonize group affiliations and outcomes, and not just on “equity” (i.e. fairness) grounds.
To stretch an analogy to make a point, it’s a little like the group selection view of cultural evolution, where some behaviors may be maladaptive at the level of the individual yet adaptive in the larger group.
It is to be noted that the external and internal views are not themselves in total harmony. The former wants to believe that diversity will result in the best educational outcome. The latter may be willing to acknowledge that a suboptimal educational outcome is possible if affirmative action is practiced but that any negative effects are less than the positive outcomes attached to the broader social aims achieved. But in both cases the justifications have a communal base, in keeping with the historic Left.
By contrast, the historic Right valued the individual, private property, choice and the whole old schmear. Under this view selection for college could be about one thing and one thing only: selection of the most meritorious judged on an individual basis. There can be debates over how to measure merit (grades, activities, test scores). But the underlying rationale is based on the individual.
The upstream cultural shifts we are witnessing are very much tied into these questions of individual and group, and of merit versus communal outcome. And as we’ve seen, these upstream pressures are causing the Right to move become comfortable with groups and group outcomes. Some on the Right have been clear in acknowledging the reality of group behaviors and affiliations. The national agenda trumps the liberty agenda.
And the Left? Well, it talks a good game about “the people” but the effects of assortive mating and cultural politics is clear: the Left is now very concerned with preservation of privilege. The justification is one part equity (more women in the boardroom!) and one part efficiency (why shouldn’t the meritorious do better?) but it represents a move away from the historic Left view.
As Caldwell points out the Left’s vanguard is now comprised of “capital-owners and wealth managers”. Is it not likely that our prestige higher education system, driven by an insatiable thirst for reputational advantage, is part of that complex? Come to Harvard. Learn the rules. Behave well. Get your stamp indicating smarts. Meet your future spouse. Move on to the next level.
But how about the Right? If it is under upstream pressure to tamp down Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, are there any implications for higher education?
Charles Murray, that terrible right-wing ogre, is surely not channeling Friedman in his discussion of the gap between Belmont and Fishtown. If that divide is real, and if it is a problem, and if something should be done about it, higher education must come under scrutiny for its part in creating it and for what it might do to fix it.
There is of course an ironic twist as a newer Right view moves to a group focus and becomes more concerned with social and political effects that go beyond institutional educational outcomes. But as Fenster likes to say, all irony disappears under the microscope. Conceive of cultural shifts upstream cutting new political channels downstream and the system becomes more explicable, and ironic twists at the political level begin to disappear. That may be inevitable and, well, right.