William Egginton

The Splintering of the American Mind

Air Date: November 9, 2018

William Egginton, philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, discusses his new book “The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today’s College Campuses.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. “The Splintering of the American Mind” is the subject of today’s broadcast and the title of my guest’s new Bloomsbury book “The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses.” William Egginton is the Decker Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Sloan Foundation President and Williams College President Emeritus Adam Falk praised Edmonton’s book as “an incisive and nuanced diagnosis of the ruptures in our society that so challenge higher education today. His call for a universal experience of the liberal arts as essential to democracy is as compelling as any I have seen.” I likewise applaud Egginton central thesis and illumination of the crisis. As my past guest, William Deresiewicz testified to here on The Open Mind, Egginton rightly concerns himself and us with the expensive, exclusive, elite clubs that lack commitment to community that will better our country. Bill, pleasure to have you here today.

EGGINTON: Thank you Alexander. It’s a pleasure to be here.

HEFFNER: Your thesis suggests that there is a focus on ultimately collective betterment, that the experience of college should thrust graduates into a community and that that community serves a purpose which is a collective good, but that collective idea is under some question today by those very ruptures of red and blue and conservative and liberal. So how do you assess that tension?

EGGINTON: Yeah, I think today we’re living in a time of extreme divisiveness as many people have noted. One of the fundamental problems is not just that we disagree. Disagreement is good. It’s the essence of democracy. It’s that we seem to be incapable of actually having any kind of constructive debate about our disagreements. Right down to the point of not even being able to agree upon a basic set of facts, which we need to begin. So as historians had been pointing out, as of late, look, let’s not get carried away. There’s been divisiveness in the past and a lot of it; in fact, the debates in Congress came to fisticuffs and worse in the past. Doesn’t happen today for the most part. But what is, I think, strikingly new is that in particular in our current media landscape, we’ve come to a point where a notion of a common ground from which one argues has started to disappear completely. And so that you have an entire sector of the United States population which is getting it’s own facts from one set of sources and another which is getting its facts from another set of sources.

And it leaves us no space with which to have a rational debate, much less come to any kind of agreement. So I think that’s one of the fundamental problems that are at stake. Part of my analysis has been to point out that a liberal arts education in many ways was thought of as the sine qua non of a citizenry that could precisely have those kinds of debates. But that instead of helping prepare our students to do that, A, we’re not really teaching them about a civil conflict at all. We’re giving them tools for analysis, but only to some students and not really teaching them that it’s a virtue to a stand up and have a civil debate about topics that are dear to your heart and that are important, but also we’re really focusing our efforts on educating a smaller and smaller and more elite, sliver of the American population, which means, and I’m talking about universities of course, which means that even those who are getting the benefits, the rational benefits of a liberal arts education are becoming, it’s becoming kind of the icing on the cake of a whole industry of self promotion and self marketing as opposed to something that actually creates a society that can function well.

HEFFNER: You write here, “Colleges aren’t the cause of our current crisis in civility, but they sure aren’t helping either at a time when, as a recent Pew survey established, Americans are more divided politically than they’ve ever been before. The last thing our colleges should be promoting is a blind culture where professors jealously guard the borders of their ever shrinking fields of expertise.” So you’re pointing to the fact that public universities are not serving the common good and the students of their states, University of Michigan is one that you point to that I get.


HEFFNER: Describe that example and if or how it’s emblematic of a trend.

EGGINTON: Well, so as, as your public, I’m sure is aware, a state university like the University of Michigan is extremely attractive for students for high quality students with, and wealthy students not only around the country but around the world. This is a marked departure from the idea of the mission of not just the University of Michigan, but state universities in the past. One of the quips that I make and the joke is that state universities used to be state funded than they were state supported and now they’re located in a state. So what, what is a state university for? Originally the idea was to educate the citizens of that state. Nowadays, obviously Michigan still on paper is educating some of the citizens of Michigan, but it’s also educating a great number of highly elite students from outside of Michigan.

A good friend of my son, who grew up, went, studied music with him, played soccer with him; was an excellent science student. Sure enough, he’s now a sophomore at the University of Michigan and getting an excellent education. And I’m not saying that state universities shouldn’t also be open to people from the outside, but essentially what’s happening is that state universities have become more and more like slightly discounted elite private schools, the best state universities. And that slight discount is largely only for the people in their own state. And that’s the only difference, you get maybe half off on your tuition if you’re in the, in, in state. Where are the institutions that are in fact intended doing what state education is intending to do, namely educated a high level the citizens of those states? Largely this has devolved from the top institutions in those states to a lower levels along the along the hierarchy and down to community colleges, which are in fact of the maybe a third of the population that eventually gets some kind of a college degree, almost half of them are doing their work at community colleges.

HEFFNER: When did liberal democracy and liberal education become just liberal? Can it be correlated to this trend that you’re describing, which is a focus not inwardly on community, but more external, outward.

EGGINTON: The interesting thing is that this equation has taken place over time, since the middle of the 20th century with intensifying during the 1960s or 70s. And the standard narrative is that this, the standard narrative back to books written in the 1980s and afterwards about the radical rack of radicalization of education faculty is moving to the left. These stories essentially say, universities started allowing in women and minorities; these groups arrive to campus with a whole bunch of issues of their own. They developed new academic programs to support those women’s studies, gender studies, African American studies or black studies, and that this led wholesale to a move of the university culture to one focused on minority identities.

And that this is somehow explains the liberalization of the of the faculty. What I acknowledge is that indeed cannons were disrupted, in particular in the liberal arts in English and literature. New programs were invented and developed, but that these have, by and large done extraordinary good. They’ve done not only good to academia, which has become less, shall we say, focused on only a particular set of people in the experience of those people. It’s enriched intellectual life. And it’s done a boundless good for women and minorities and people who had in fact lived oppressed histories. The problem, I believe, has been when that focus on identities becomes part of a process in which students are taught from an early age on that their self is something that they essentially have to market and better, and that universities and education in general or a way of simply investing in one’s self and that part of that self that you’re investing in, part of what makes you special, part of what makes you attractive to a school is the fact that you come from a particular identity and kind of the more different and the more marginalized, the better.

Yes. It’s important that universities diversify and, and that they continue to do so. Diversity is a good thing. When it becomes something that is simply replaces any kind of an idea of and why are we diversifying and in order to make a more perfect union, universities have sort of forgotten that side of the equation. And in part it’s because this is what I argue in the book, universities are and colleges are essentially attending to the bottom line. They are needing to grow. They’re needing to compete. They’re being treated like a business, and, and in order to do so, they are looking for markets and their market right now are very affluent families who are lured by the promise of what an education can do to the pedigree of their children.

We’ve completely put aside what education can do and must do for society as a whole.

HEFFNER: So how can education attend to and fix those ruptures? You’ve spelled out what the splintering consists of now, how about prescriptions for that splintering?

EGGINTON: The first thing we need to remember is that colleges are part of the problem, but not the entire problem. Education itself as part of the problem, but not the entire problem, but I think education and our education system as a whole, as an enormous part of the problem and can do a great deal to fix the problem. However you have to think about it globally. Education doesn’t begin when kids are 18. In fact, the sifting that leads to who’s going to get into what college and who’s even an option for those colleges begins decades before. It begins with the wealth and possibilities of the family. It begins with what zip code you were born in and grow up in. So we need brand, we need new experiments of the kind that many cities are, are engaging in, in rethinking entirely how do you educate the citizenry of your, of your city, of your community? How do you make sure, most importantly, that what neighborhood you grow up with does not determine what your educational possibilities and ultimately your life possibilities are going to be.

HEFFNER: There are folks in the university or students of elite parents who would dispute that idea that we ought to be resolving the splintering or the closed mindedness by giving folks opportunity who haven’t had opportunity according to their zip code. And so to me, the splintering resembles a, more of a clear divisibility, a clear dividing line of what see what the common good means.

EGGINTON: I think you’re probably right that there are those who might say it’s not our job, that this is, this is what an education is for, that it’s a meritocracy and I’ve earned my way to this position. But I don’t think the majority; even of those in that particular class the benefits most from these educations would in fact say that. I think Richard Reeves an economist who wrote an excellent book that I’m sure you know well about, about opportunity hoarding has pointed out, is that the vast majority of us who are benefiting from this system, in fact, have very good intents and we don’t believe that we’re part of the problem. We’re just failing to see that by living in certain zip codes, that by supporting certain economic policies by engaging in the system and by wholeheartedly buying into a system whereby all of our income or a huge portion of our discretionary income of a certain class is going to educating our kids.

We are thereby exacerbating, not only a divisiveness in this country but in equality wholesale, and I think that this is a very powerful argument and one that those in the upper quintile socioeconomic quintile in the United States need to pay attention to.

HEFFNER: So continuing with what you were describing, what can the liberal arts do differently than they’re doing today to engender that climate?

EGGINTON: It’s not even so much that the liberal arts; say a liberal arts education at a fine university needs to do something better. The idea that, that, that I would advance is that some of those skills, qualities of education, the very format of what happens in a liberal arts classroom needs to be something that’s not just a gift to the wealthiest members of our society. Danielle Allen has pointed out in a series of lectures that she’s collected in a wonderful volume called “Education and Equality.”

She’s pointed out that the research shows not only something that largely we understand that there’s a correlation between civic engagement and educational levels. There’s also one between civic engagement and wealth. There’s a very high correlation between civic engagement and what kind of education you get. In other words, the more humanities courses you’ve taken in higher education, the more likely you are to be an engaged citizen of your country. This to me is a very important lesson. What it means is that not only should we be encouraging kids to go to college, we should be encouraging them to get a liberal arts education, not just going to college in order to become an engineer or a computer scientist, but rather everyone should be taking a wide spectrum of liberal arts courses and those sorts of skills that we’re teaching in college, we need to be teaching them earlier and we need to be teaching them at a high level throughout our primary and secondary curriculum.

HEFFNER: That’s the dream scenario.

EGGINTON: It is a dream scenario.

EFFNER: Realistically, how do you achieve…

EGGINTON: Realistically, I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot by failing to see that given the amounts that we invest in any number of different branches in the society, what an incredible bang for our buck as it were. We get from quality education. And this is something that Nick Kristof and the Times has been pointing out for years, whether it’s a incarcerating, a unprecedented an incomparable numbers of our population, or the unbelievable amounts of money that goes into our military operations around the world, fractions of this amount would in fact create situations in which we would have fewer needs for either incarceration or for militarism, right? The same kind of thinking that goes into preventative medicine. We know that for every dollar spent on preventative medicine, you’re saving 10, in the long run. And yet we don’t think in those terms. Educational investment always pays back at a societal level.

HEFFNER: To what degree is tribalism and maybe you can define that relative to identity politics, getting in the way of achieving that mission?

EGGINTON: To a great degree. I think right now. One of the consequences in particular of the universities, universities in general catering more and more to a particular class, is that there’s some justification to the suspicion that’s arisen around a large portion of the country that universities are not for them, that they cater to another kind of people. This is other words, that feeds into this, not only growing class divide, but a growing geographic divide between say the so called heartland and the place where the coastal elites…Now I want to point out that a lot of that is in fact… narrative. I mean, we in fact know that inequality does not simply; it’s not simply a detriment to rural white or working class voters in the Midwest. Inequality is something that hits people from, of minorities. That it ravages classes across gender divides. This is not something that is then, is just the home of one particular group. However, the narrative has been there and there is some justification that, to the extent that, for example, white working class voters consider themselves in a world apart because they’ve been excluded from this particular benefit of modernization that they feel, you know, what, the university is not for me, it doesn’t serve me. And hence I’m not going to trust what’s going on. You know, these pointy-headed professors in university towns. They’re not thinking about me and there is some justification because we have grown apart, right? And we pointy-headed professors aren’t thinking about not the entirety of our community. All people …

HEFFNER: So to a large degree it’s about the exploitation of a narrative, a frame that has a basis in reality…

EGGINTON: That has a thread of a truth. Exactly. And that I think we need to first and foremost attack that thread of truth and make sure that our university at art thinking globally at home as well as globally.

HEFFNER: I think it’s, especially in this college conversation where one person’s anecdotal experience, they perceive it as scaled. So if you’re in rural Michigan or rural Wisconsin and you’re thinking about the purpose of the university is disconnected, utterly disconnected from your livelihood, and if you’re extrapolating your experience to the communities around you in rural communities, suburban communities, then that, that’s where we land. But to that point, you know, and tribalism has become more understood pejoratively or at least the demagoguery around tribes and identity politics is really, if you were to ask, most Americans I think have a negative connotation of the fringes of fascism, more anti fascism. What is the difference fundamentally in your mind between tribal identities and identity politics and where do we go from here?

EGGINTON: I think the issue is that we need to be focusing on history. We need to understand how identity politics always develops out of a particular history. The minute that we get to the point, and I think in large part we have of an unreflective identity politics where you simply say, I am a member of this group and this defines who I am in my essence, as you were just pointing out, well, this is an argumentative strategy that can be adopted by whoever you are for whatever purposes you are. Everyone can have his or her moment in the sun and we can say, well, I’m an identity too, and not only that, I’m an oppressed, my identity. We get to the point where we have ideological minorities. They claim that, that, that, no, no, I’m, I’m also being oppressed on campus because I’m a white male and I happened to vote Republican, for example. This I think is a weakness that’s built into the whole discourse of identity politics at this point. Rather than talking about diversity, many scholars today are saying, you know, let’s talk about a history of racism. Let’s talk about adopting policies that recognize that racism has a history that’s extremely important to where we’ve gotten at this point and that seek actively to promote communities that are aware of this and working to undo it.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time. Bill. The last question is the current administration’s view, which is that we ought to abolish all affirmative action. It’s represented in a case that’s likely on its way to the Supreme Court, which could be an outright reversal of the University of Michigan cases. It’s interesting. We started at Michigan; we’re ending at Michigan.


HEFFNER: Where does the defense of socioeconomic affirmative action come into place?

EGGINTON: I think it’s absolutely essential to everything that we’re doing and there at least there’s a, there’s, there’s a bright point on the horizon. In fact, top universities are, more now than ever before using their endowments to try to diversify socioeconomically as well their populations. Princeton has now for the first time that admitted more than 20 percent of this class as a coming from families that rely on Pell grants that would rely on Pell grants. Harvard and Stanford announced several years ago that essentially if you had need, you weren’t going to have to pay tuition. More and more universities are dedicating their ample resources to doing that. My point, my warning here is that’s a drop in the bucket, right, that a few top universities are letting in people who have socioeconomic need is great. It’s a great thing, but still 60 percent of those students are coming from the very top slice of the…

HEFFNER: And that’s to highlight that Freudian slip or near Freudian slip, which is that they’re not getting Pell grants. They would qualify for all of Pell grants. And then this comes back to the first years of the Obama Administration,

EGGINTON: That’s exactly right…

HEFFNER: Which was the failure to enact sweeping reform and for the Department of Education to offer Pell grants to the vast majority of students across universities.

EGGINTON: That’s right. That’s the sort of proposal that we need to be pursuing.

HEFFNER: And then, and I just come back quickly in our last seconds to the idea that the red represented here. Okay, they’ve opposed that kind of intervention and what they envision as a meritocracy, what they perceive as the free markets at work, both in the way our system of admissions and capitalism, and in fact there’s not just crony capitalism, there’s also crony admissions and has been for decades, so you know, I just come back to this, this question of the fact that in these splinters, the red here, the self defined conservatives of this age, they don’t want to fund the Department of Education.


HEFFNER: They don’t want to fund Pell grants. They don’t want to specifically reach out to underserved communities, whether that’s in South Bend, Indiana or Salt Lake City, Utah, wherever it is, and, and I don’t know how we’re going to get past that impasse of, of a party that is, you know, committed to no public service or public service in education.

EGGINTON: I think we need to get out of the mode of allowing people to think of investments in the common wealth. The Commonwealth, the common wealth supports our country as somehow a giveaways to those. We have to understand and make clear that what we’re talking about is investments that allow for the most fundamental of American ideas, which is equality of opportunity. There’s nothing more American than that and everyone can understand that: equal opportunity. We’re not talking about giveaways that make some people more equal than others. We’re not talking about picking and choosing and saying because you’re of this skin color, you get a free ride, whereas everyone else needs to, no. We’re talking about making the ground equal so that everyone has a chance to come.

HEFFNER: It an American idea and we’re talking about human beings. We’re not talking about corporations.

EGGINTON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And you know there’s nothing more emphatic in the Federalist papers or in the ideas of the founders of this country that we need to be an educated population.

EGGINTON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Thank you for your time, Bill.

EGGINTON: Thanks Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.