identity and pedagogy in first-year composition

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about Mark Lilla’s NY Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism.” As I noted then, I did not imagine many of my colleagues would share his views (and neither do I, as I think that post made clear, though perhaps I had different objections than other academics). Chris Newfield offers a particularly worthwhile response to Lilla, and I want to consider it specifically in relation to teaching FYC.

First though I need to pay some direct attention to Lilla and Newfield and start by differentiating goals from methods. That is, should we imagine their differences lie in having different goals, different visions, of the future of America? Or do they share a vision but differ over the means to get there? In my reading of Newfield’s argument, it’s the former. In writing about the emergence of Clintonism, Newfield writes, “The basic stakes were whether whites were going to demand that post-1960s ethnic groups assimilate to a common culture that whites defined, or, on the other hand, move toward a polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules.” He contends that for the Clintons, it was the former, what he goes on to call “cultural unionism,” a position he then attaches to Lilla. Where Eurocentrism insisted other cultural groups assimilate to Western, white culture, cultural unionism offered a softer touch: “The crucial compromise of the latter was that it offered flexible tolerance while still rejecting cultural parity or equality, and insisting instead on unity and shared foundations. The unionists trained their fire on calls for cultural autonomy (like Afrocentrism) that seemed to them to reject their kinder, gentler version of assimilation to an implicitly rather than aggressively white common culture.” As almost goes without saying, the Trump ideology assumes the superiority of Euro-American culture.  Perhaps Lilla is a cultural unionist. He certainly wants to argue that an effective liberal politics moving forward is one that emphasizes common interests among Americans rather than what he perceives (or at least what is perceived by many) as the interests of particular groups.

In any case, I share Newfield’s closing observation, quoting Stephen Steinberg that “where there is social, economic, and political parity among the constituent groups, ethnic conflict, when it occurs, tends to be at a low level and rarely spills over into violence.” I would put it this way: we are in the situation in which we find ourselves now because many “constituent groups” view themselves as having been treated unjustly, that there is a lack of parity.  I will leave it to someone else to judge those claims of injustice, rank grievances, and so on.

Instead I want to turn to higher education’s role, especially the role of FYC. I think Newfield does a good job of briefly describing the role higher education has played in the last 20 years as a mechanism of neoliberal capitalism: developing the individual human capital of STEM-trained professions; creating culturally-tolerant office workers for a global economy; and preparing flexible subjects for a lifetime of retraining, part-time “freelance” work, and geographic relocation. We become always connected contingent workers whose cultural-subjective differences can be tolerated and even celebrated as long as they don’t amount to anything beyond an expression or style. Whatever higher education’s complicity in such goals as an “industry,” in more local terms colleges and faculty have also resisted and critiqued such efforts, developing curricula along those lines. The rise of cultural studies in the composition classroom is one such development, though I think there’s always been some tension over whether such pedagogies manage to create truly resistance critical thinkers or rather only strip away some of the hometown, parochial prejudices of students in preparation for their roles as tolerant global workers. It’s probably not an either/or proposition.

It’s inevitable that higher education has a massive, though variable effect on American culture, so I think generalizations are difficult. Newfield ends with this claim, “The public university can either stand for racial and economic parity as a unified project, or it can continue its decline.” I think this might mean many things. For instance, one could argue that a cultural unionist position seeks racial and economic parity through higher education. It says “come to college and learn to be one of ‘us,’ so you can make a good living.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what Newfield has in mind. So what we have here is a common means–college education–put to presumably different ends. I’m assuming that Newfield’s ends are, roughly speaking, in line with the “polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules” mentioned above.  In that case, I would think the role of FYC would not be to argue for a particular set of “fundamental values” but rather develop rhetorical capacities for citizens to participate in that negotiation irrespective of the position they would bring to the negotiation table.  That’s a different role than the one generally ascribed to the cultural studies composition classroom.