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A University of Chicago professor sees in his students' efforts to reconcile meritocracy and Wokeness a deeper, disturbing message about our leading institutions, and leaders. Quote:

What is new about education’s turn to woke identity politics is not the fact that administrators and faculty are influencing students’ sense of self, but rather the sort of values that the new ideal personality is supposed to uphold. The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.

My students are experts at performing this kind of self, and their stories of overcoming are almost all about “identity”—stereotyped racial dramas. I realized this when I organized a series of lessons on the theories of Michel Foucault. I had asked students to explain how institutions like the university elicit us to speak ’the truth’ about ourselves, and in doing so reshape who we are. They told me about their college admissions essays, narratives about themselves that both reflected a cunning sense of what their audience wanted to hear, and reached, more deeply than I think students know, into their own souls.

Students of color, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, wrote about the psychic suffering that had been inflicted on them by the dominant white culture. They had stories about having to learn to love their curly hair, their “unusual” names—in short, themselves. College applicants—and Americans generally—are increasingly asked to recount how through great difficulty they have succeeded in taking the self as the object of their love, a stage of narcissism that for earlier generations of psychoanalysts appeared not as a challenging achievement too often thwarted by an oppressive culture, but as a falling back into an infantile condition.

Members of less obviously oppressed groups had variant strategies. A number of Asian American students, for example, told me that they had written their admissions essays to demonstrate that they weren’t “like other Asians,” with narratives of how they had to challenge their strict parents and limited cultural horizons to develop passions for, as one wrote, beat-boxing and hip-hop.

These are not students’ own stories. Many students in my class received tremendous amounts of help on their admissions essays from dedicated tutors at their high schools as well as private writing coaches. Their letters are a collective output, a kind of shared fantasy of the ruling class. They should not be read for their insight into what students are really like, but for the purposes they serve their supposed authors and the society that has trained them to speak of themselves in these terms.

...As citizens, we have the right, and the obligation, to determine who our political elites will be—not only by deciding which person will receive our vote, but what kind of person the institutions that train our elites should produce. We must ask ourselves toward what ideal personality, or moral character, we expect the efforts of our educators to aim, and we must confront—and indeed lament—the ideal that we have tacitly accepted in both meritocratic and woke pedagogy.

Elites whose character has been shaped by the apparent conflict, and inner coherence, of meritocracy and wokeness, may not be immoral or incompetent. I can offer no evidence that elites with a different sort of education would be better people or more effective leaders. I can only observe that every system of education aims, whether anyone acknowledges it or not, toward producing and privileging a certain human type, and that every society has an elite. Beyond the noisy conflict between defenders of meritocracy and their woke opponents, our society has chosen, and continues to choose, to educate its children with the apparent aim of making a class of leaders who are disconnected from any real solidarity to others but unable to think for themselves, combining the worst qualities of individualism and conformism. Students’ test scores and racial demographics dominate our public debates, but ultimately matter less than the implicit moral ideal towards our institutions teach them to aspire.

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