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Blame It on Higher Ed

Elite scribes find the source of America’s weakness

In a crisis, it’s only natural for us to recur to the familiar totems of our folk beliefs. So, shortly after the de facto elevation of omni-bigot Donald Trump to the 2016 GOP presidential ticket, the estimable big thinkers at the New York Times op-ed shop rolled up their sleeves to set about determining just what’s amiss in the gleaming sanctums of the American meritocracy.

First up was crusading lady-savior Nick Kristof, who weighed in this past Sunday with an anguished thumbsucker on the alleged plague of “liberal intolerance” in the American university. Kristof here joins the great trolling chorus of liberal critics of alleged PC trespasses against the spirit of free inquiry. And like those heroes of responsible discourse, he adduces virtually no evidence that any grim show-trial system of intellectual conformity has seized control of the U.S. academy. Yes, he talks with conservative professors who complain of a broad culture of sinister left-leaning groupthink—and yes, they compare themselves to oppressed minorities and other marginalized population. “I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950” confesses one conservative faculty member in a study cited by Kristof—the sort of thing you hear from someone who actually has no idea what it meant to be gay in Mississippi in the 1950s.

And when he veers from anecdotal tales of woe, Kristof botches his argument in a far more damaging way. As University of Washington communications professor Gina Neff noted in a thorough takedown of Kristof’s column, one of the central surveys of faculty political opinions that Kristof cites in his column offers no support whatsoever for the idea that conservative academics exist in a state of panicked samizdat exile on American campuses. Roughly half of the professors surveyed by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons characterized themselves as “moderate,” while 19 percent were self-described conservatives. When it comes to religious beliefs—another sphere in which Kristof alleges American eggheads are practicing vicious and rudderless discrimination (so much so that he’s moved to ask his straw-man audience of anti-evangelical intellectuals, sententiously, “are you really saying you would have discriminated against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”?)—well, the allegedly atheistic faculty lounges of our republic turn out to be awash in God love. Seventy-five percent said they believed in a deity or higher power, while 19 percent said they were “traditionalists” in their religious persuasion—a category including evangelicals. Following the harum-scarum logic of Kristof’s column, that would make about 1 in 5 midcentury Mississippeans gay (and a good deal of Tig Notaro’s career a lie). As Gross explained in a later book based on his research, “seven years of intensive social scientific research . . . have led me to believe that the most common explanations for ‘professorial liberalism’ and the conservative uproar about it are either wrong or incomplete.”

When our influential social critics veer this far off the empirical grid—badly misreading research, moreover, that they themselves are citing to ritually summon the specter of a PC-mad academy—it’s fair to ask if they’re using their prestigious perches to broadcast echoing cries for help across the maddening chasms of cultural understanding. In Kristof’s case, one imagines the cry in question going something like this: How can it be that the serene operation of our trusted institutional status quo has coughed forth the hideous political spectacle of the 2016 election cycle, with polite conservative opinion congealing into all-pervading paranoid bigotry? Surely the elite universities that nourished my own spirit of inquiry are somehow to blame!

The present vacuous vogue for grit is largely a smoke-and-mirrors contraption.

This keening need for elite assurance is, indeed, an unmistakable leitmotif in the Times op-ed shop. Just two days after Kristof’s soliloquy, his colleague David Brooks—the redoubtable elite chronicler of all things meritocratic—stepped forth with his own jeremiad about misguided academic priorities. Seizing upon the pop-psychological buzzword du jour, Brooks confidently prescribes a new academic regimen of individual “grit,” to offset the cold, bloodless tyranny of scholastic achievement as measured by the GPA. In Brooks’s dystopian fancy, the lords of our higher learning aren’t purblind ideologues so much as lab-coated numbers-crunchers—and their myopic focus on metrics such as GPA has shortchanged the cultivation of hardier, harder-to-measure virtues. “The modern economy rewards those who think in ways computers can’t,” our correspondent (who’s evidently never heard of the eerily on-point Thomas Friedman column generator) nonsensically intones. “But the G.P.A. rewards people who can grind away at mental tasks they find boring. People are happiest when motivated intrinsically, but the G.P.A. is the mother of all extrinsic motivations.”

Grit, on the other hand—boy, is that ever intrinsic! “Gritty people are resilient and hard working, sure,” Brooks airily declaims. “But they also . . . know in a very, very deep way what it is they want. . . . Grit is . . . downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.” Citing the researches of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, whose book on the miraculous powers of grit is, with admirably plucky can-do determination, landing atop of best-seller lists, Brooks charges the complacent administrators of American higher ed with “designing a school to elevate and intensify longings.”

However, just as was the case with Parson Kristof, Professor Brooks’s all-too-palpable longings here obscure a central, inconvenient truth: the present vacuous vogue for grit is largely a smoke-and-mirrors contraption. As Daniel Engber shows in a masterful Slate dissection of the grit craze, by focusing chiefly on academic performance at elite universities (and on more narrow performances at their folksy nerdfest cousins, national spelling bees), Duckworth has chosen research groups that already abound with all sorts of high-performing personality traits. As a result, it’s hard for her to make any sort of persuasive case that grit is the magical ingredient pushing truly driven strivers beyond the markers laid down by merely accomplished ones; maybe these superior performers are just luckier, better connected, or richer—or (in what amounts to combination of all three), blessed with the platform of a viral TED talk. What’s more, the particular defining features of grit are—the longing-filled Brooks litany notwithstanding—devilishly hard to separate from drearier, functionalist categories of personality in the research literature, such as conscientiousness or industriousness. So much, in other words, for elevated and intensified longings.

Kristof’s denunciation of the liberal university smart set is in step with Brooks’s embrace of the grit gospel. Just as the Trump ascendancy has made bitter mockery of Kristof’s progressive intellectual allegiances, so has it fundamentally deranged David Brooks’s vision of America’s placidly uptending social order. By exposing Brooks’s beloved conservative movement as a congeries of nativist rancor and scorn for traditional models of American success, the Trump insurgency has, by Brooks’s own account, rattled him out of his natural comfort zone in the “bourgeois strata.” Yet of course, like Kristof, Brooks can’t imagine any social reform that occurs outside the charmed circles of elite achievement culture—so his puzzled readers find themselves stranded alongside him on the most bourgeois stratum of all: the quest for the untamed, mystical predictors of true personal success within the carefully calibrated makeup of the higher self, as duly administered in our howlingly unequal institutions of higher learning. It’s a dream wholly of a piece with Brooks’s vision of a fulsomely redeemed “post-Trump America,” where in lieu of equitable financial reform, tax overhauls, or worker-friendly trade or industrial policies, the republic will teem with plucky civic self-help schemes, charter schools and (of course) “a communitarianism” expressed in national-service programs and the like. In other words: Let them eat grit.