How U.S. Colleges Teach Their Students To Be Obsessed With Identity

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1970s, I had an acquaintance who awarded himself more freedom of speech than I'd thought any human needed. No scatology, no deranged opinion, no drugged out story, no wild insult was beyond the pale for him. He thought it, he said it. No taboos. His talk exhilarated and shocked me all the time. But one day in conversation I mentioned his trust fund.

Suddenly, he was as prim as he was angry. How dare I say such a thing? That's pretty funny, coming from you, I answered, and looked around for an Amen from the rest of the table. But that rest of the table was silent.

In that room, it was I who was the pariah. I had denied the centerpiece of our campus ideology. I had said we were not all the same, and that privilege mattered. That was Not Done. The affiliations that were supposed to matter on campus were those invented on campus, not the ones we had arrived with.

Such is the ginned-up tribalism of the American college, whose purpose is to convince students that there is something essential, mystical and important in their membership in the extended family that is their university. College students in this country are bathed in this strange brew, which convinces them against all reason that there is something vitally important in the distinction between Harvard and Princeton, or Georgia and Georgia Tech, or Penn State and Pittsburgh. Why, then, are we surprised that they're obsessed with identity? Or that they invest such insanely-high expectations in their identity as students of this or that particular school?

In my first semester at Yale, we were frequently told that the hardest part—getting in—was behind us. Having been admitted, you were encouraged (in speeches, images, college lore and songs) to think you would now be as free as any of your fellow students to enjoy your "bright college years, with pleasure rife, the shortest gladdest years of life." (That's from one of the songs you learn your first September at Yale, which, oddly enough, is set to the tune these gentlemen are singing before they are drowned out by another song.) In this lovely vision, there was no room for the notion that some could not partake as fully as others.

Of course, there was dissent. Organizations for minorities helped students deal with the disconnect between the university's Utopian pronouncements and the realities of life for many minority students, and related these stresses to American history and politics. But most of my fellow freshmen were more eager to create new identities than to deepen the ones they had arrived with.

So Yale, as I experienced it, was a psychic matryoshka of clans within clans — as a Yale student you looked askance at Harvard and Princeton; as a resident of Jonathan Edwards residential college you snickered at those geeks next door in Branford (another residential college that looked much the same); as a member of one singing group or sports team or publication you felt viscerally your rivalry with the others. By their first October the new arrivals on campus were caught up in interlocking identities that were all the more important to them because, like the amulets of an exotic cult, they meant nothing to most anyone else.

All this was intended, and succeeded, in getting us to think less often about the loyalties we'd come with, and more about the ones we shared with other members of the tribe. But like most converts to a new creed, we were intensely invested precisely because we were recently invested. Having abruptly placed our trust in these new identities, we were vulnerable to feelings of disappointment and betrayal.

My guess is that this deliberate forging of febrile new identities continues today, and that it is part of the reason that protesters at Yale and elsewhere have sounded a bit deranged to older people. Wait, you're mad because you don't feel totally at ease in your dorm? You're screaming because you think other people feel they belong here, and sometimes you don't? What?

Remember, before you start complaining about Kids Today, that these students didn't invent the expectation that college would be a utopia of solidarity, where their status as a student would outweigh centuries of history. That bill of goods was sold to them by the colleges they attend.

How U.S. Colleges Teach Their Students To Be Obsessed With Identity

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