Public Spheres for the Trump Age

BERKELEY – In many societies, universities are the main bastions of ideological and intellectual independence. We count on them to transmit our values to the young, and to support short- and long-run inquiries into the human condition. In Donald Trump’s America, they are more important than ever.

Unlike universities, for-profit media enterprises have never been up to the task of nurturing a robust “public sphere.” Inevitably, their coverage reflects enormous pressure to please the base – their advertisers or investors – or at least to avoid giving offense. That is why the American writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann – no stranger to journalism – ultimately put his trust in public intellectuals working in universities, think tanks, or other niches.

For most of the post-war era, the for-profit media’s structural deformities were relatively harmless. The far right, having unleashed Nazism and fascism on the world was in political exile. And the far left had its own albatross: “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc was murderous and unproductive.

This left only the North Atlantic triptych of political democracy, free markets, and social insurance. Technocratic debates about how to achieve the greatest good for the most people could proceed without the baggage of deranged ideologies. The West was living through the “end of ideology”; or, even more optimistically, the “end of history.”

But now we are confronting what Lawrence Summers calls “the challenges of the Trump era,” and the stakes could not be higher. In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Summers laments that universities, in particular, have failed to rise to today’s challenges.

For starters, Summers rightly calls for universities to do more to “recruit, admit, and educate economically disadvantaged students.” When universities accept only the well prepared, they are not just being lazy. They are also failing their students, faculty, and the communities they serve. Underprivileged students who are less prepared than their peers should not be blamed for the circumstances into which they were born.

In economic terms, it is a university’s job to maximize its educational “value added,” which means that it should seek out the students who stand to benefit the most from its services. And, once admitted, these students should be afforded what they need to complete their studies.

Summers is also right to find it “terrifying that the US now has its first post-rational president who denies science, proposes arithmetically unsound budgets, and embraces alternative facts.” Universities, Summers points out, should “be bulwarks for honest, open debate as a route towards greater truth.” Indeed, universities are venues for not just expressing but evaluating ideas. We should cultivate intellectual diversity; but we also must reject failed, unsound, or fraudulent ideas.

For this reason, university faculty and students may proffer any argument or idea that they deem worthy of further investigation. And they should be free to invite speakers who share their perspective. Summers is right that a university is no place for “giving a heckler’s veto to those who want to carry the day with the strength of their feeling rather than the force of their argument.”

And yet there is some conflict between rejecting failed ideas and maintaining intellectual diversity. One rule of thumb, offered 70 years ago by the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, is that those who advance an idea have an obligation to “their conscience and their God” to be sincere about it.

Consider the example Summers cites: Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, which resulted in large student demonstrations. I saw Murray discuss his notorious book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, back in the mid-1990s, and I was not impressed. And since then, Murray’s ideas – especially his claims about IQ and race – have not been well received.

So, to my mind, if Murray was invited, he should be allowed to speak. But the Middlebury students who invited him also owe it to their consciences, their God, and the rest of us to explain in good faith why they think his ideas are still worthy of consideration.

One area where I disagree with Summers concerns his defense of meritocracy. Suggesting that meritocracy is an unalloyed good ignores the provenance of the term, which the sociologist Michael Young coined in his 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Summers laments that college faculty are now being “trained that it is wrong and even racist to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’ or that ‘meritocracy is a good thing.’” But whether such statements are objectionable depends on the context in which they are uttered. It is fine to encourage promising young people to work hard. But the meritocracy we have is an untrustworthy arbiter of individual worth, given how much it discriminates against those who, through no fault of their own, are not prepared to fulfill its criteria for success.

At this point in discussions about today’s universities, the term “safe space” often crops up. To be sure, universities should be safe spaces for exchanging and judging ideas, and for changing one’s mind in the face of new arguments and evidence. Summers, for his part, is right that “a liberal education that does not cause moments of acute discomfort is a failure.” But he errs in not acknowledging that some students experience acute discomfort by being made to feel as though they do not belong.

As communities of speech and debate, universities are vulnerable to disruption, which is why civility, as Summers rightly emphasizes, must be upheld. Moreover, campus turmoil is often perceived as a sign of societal disorder. Summers cites the historian Rick Perlstein to remind us that Ronald Reagan’s political rise in the 1960s partly reflected his “railing against” the student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time. Summers suspects that campus radicalism is on the rise again, and that “the political effects will be about the same now as they were then.” Donald Trump, one suspects, is counting on it.