In this week’s New Yorker, Nathan Heller explores the culture wars tearing apart liberal arts colleges across the country. Though he focuses specifically on Oberlin, the terms he uses to describe their challenges, once abstract philosophical mumblings, have now entered the political lexicon on many such campuses. Far from being a tempest in a teacup, the millennial obsession with “allyship” and “intersectionality” — both terms, by the way, that are not yet free from the “oppressive” red squiggly line brought to us by the evil capitalist, hegemonic and colonialist enterprise that is Microsoft word — have very real, very tangible repercussions.

Take, for example, the case of Barnard College. This month at their commencement, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and CEO of New America, addressed the graduates. But unlike the prototypical commencement address, Slaughter did not begin her remarks with advice for the newly graduated. Instead, she spoke about the movement within Barnard that sought to rescind her invitation to speak. The protests, as she mentioned, centered in part on Slaughter allegedly being a representative of “white corporate feminism,” the kind that includes only “upper middle class white heterosexual women.” She asked — rhetorically — “does my identity mean that I cannot speak for women who do not look or live like me?” Either oblivious to or uninterested in the clearly rhetorical tone of Slaughter’s question, a handful of students rudely interjected “yes.”

But such indecorous behavior is only the mildest ramification of the left’s new breed of college activism. In January, James Kirchick wrote in Tablet about the decision of the National LGBTQ Task Force to cancel a reception with A Wider Bridge — a San-Francisco based nonprofit that facilitates relationships between LGBTQ people in Israel and North America — because it would have been “intensely divisive, rather than community-building.” Though the task force ultimately reversed its decision to cancel the event, this new — and sadly pervasive — tendency to wield intersectionality as a means of barring Jewish or pro-Israel individuals from participating in a plethora of progressive platforms is as nonsensical as it is nefarious.

At Columbia University, this exclusionary principle has unfortunately come to dominate conversations regarding sexual assault prevention, as No Red Tape, a group whose alleged mission is to support survivors and help reform the university’s policies, has explicitly espoused an anti-Zionist stance. Writing in the Columbia Spectator, Julia Crain (a former member of NRT) explained “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably the most divisive issue on this campus; by picking a side, No Red Tape effectively politicized anti-sexual violence work on this campus. Doing so is detrimental to the cause and unfair to pro-Israel survivors.”

Prejudice and exclusion, in other words, are only two of the negative byproducts of intersectionality. Consider the overwhelmingly liberal student who is ostracized by his/her peers for holding a single conservative view, for daring to think for themselves and believing (laudably) that they can independently adjudicate the merits of distinct social and political issues rather than meld anonymously and irresponsibly into an inescapable groupthink mob. In conflating unrelated causes, proponents of intersectionality erode the foundations of the very causes they ostensibly seek to uphold. Believing in gay rights or seeking to institute policies that may help prevent sexual assault is no longer a sufficient qualification for getting involved in campus activism. There are now barriers to entry, barriers that require any activist to hold an entire set of pre-approved political positions. But as more and more students retreat behind a semi-permeable membrane, through which only one mega-belief is allowed to pass, our universities lose their luster.

The lesson of campuses like Oberlin, Barnard, and Columbia is that Thomas Jefferson’s “follow the truth wherever it may lead” is no longer the model for education.

higher education
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