On June 9, Erik Torenberg and I had a long and stimulating conversation for his podcast. As of this writing, I am not sure what he will keep and what he will edit out.
One of the questions he asked was about the origins of the Social Justice movement. How, he wondered, did it all come about? I was unprepared for this question, but I gave an answer off the top of my head that I will attempt to spell out below.
I think that life on campus has been challenged to adjust to a rapid increase in enrollment by women and minorities. I want to emphasize that I strongly favor equal access to higher education, and I am in no way complaining about the presence of large numbers of women and minorities in college.
What I am saying is that the process of adjustment turned out to be chaotic. My basic claim is that a rapid influx of women and minorities, starting in the late 1960s, left women and minorities wondering whether they fit in. This motivated people on campus to focus on issues of race and gender. Attitudes have been in flux ever since. At the moment, they seem far from the equilibrium that I would hope to see reached.
In 1971, I read Women at Yale, which was written about two years after women were first admitted to that university. As I recall, the book made the adjustment process seem absolutely terrible, with the first (tiny) cohort of women experiencing considerable adversity and trauma. Many (most?) Yale men did not know how to deal with females as equals in the classroom, and a typical approach was to scornfully regard them as mere sex objects.
Meanwhile, in 1971 I enrolled as a freshman at Swarthmore College, which had been coeducational since its founding in 1864. Given this long history, the level of comfort that women could feel at Swarthmore was much higher than it was at Yale.
In fact, I remember spending my first few weeks at Swarthmore filled with doubts about whether I fit in. Coming from the Midwest and having attended public schools, I was intimidated by the many Eastern prep-school graduates. Even the way I said the name of the college set me apart — I pronounced the first “r” and they didn’t.
The question of whether or not you fit in looms large, particularly in your teenage years. The issue becomes especially acute when you go off to college. There, you are thrown into an environment with a lot of people you have never met, and you have not yet established that your intellectual and social skills are up to par.
The 1970s shock wave
Back in the early 1970s, most elite colleges and universities were more like Yale than Swarthmore. These institutions were opening up admissions to women after a long history of little or no coeducation.
Minority enrollment, too, had been at most a trickle at these schools. On this issue, Swarthmore showed itself no better than other institutions. In 1969, black students staged an extended protest, in which among other things they demanded more than mere token enrollment of black students going forward.
If the rapid increase in enrollments of women and minorities was going to go smoothly, colleges would want to prepare and coach all students about how to handle the transition. They would want to assure women and minority students that they did, in fact, fit in. But colleges did not foresee the need for these measures.
In short, I would say that
In the 1970s, on most elite college campuses, women and minorities were arriving in large numbers for the first time. But college administrators gave little or no thought to what they might have to do to ensure that women and minorities felt accepted. Under circumstances where people are especially worried about whether they fit in, women and minorities were left in doubt.
This generation of women and minorities faced acute uncertainty about whether they could feel accepted on campus. Many did not feel accepted, whether this was due to reasons of identity or more idiosyncratic factors. It is not surprising that campus culture then saw race and gender issues as highly salient. It is natural that students would be motivated to delve into the history of discrimination and cultural perceptions about gender and skin color.
Even several decades later, issues of race and gender on campus remain unsettled. To me, the Social Justice movement looks like the latest iteration in unsatisfactory attempts to deal with those issues, on campus and elsewhere.
Since the 1970s, attitudes about sex on campus have gone through a number of contortions. First, the sexual revolution promised to overcome repression of female sexuality. Then hookup culture promised to overcome the need for persistent relationships. Recently, standards of consent became a major concern. The definition of gender is now a matter of dispute.
Collegiate culture also has struggled to find a posture on issues of race. From affirmative action to the adversity score, colleges have not found a way to sustain high rates of minority admissions while steering clear of controversy. Once on campus, minority students continue to struggle for acceptance, as evidenced by the fact that terms like diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality are prominent.
The administrative support staff dedicated to helping women and minorities feel accepted on campus, which was lacking when it was first needed in the 1970s, is very much in place today. Whether or not these campus bureaucracies represent a solution, their very presence to me testifies to the tenaciousness of the problem.
I am speculating that the Social Justice movement is the latest in a series of responses to the anguish experienced by many female and minority students during the rapid rise in enrollments in the 1970s. They were left to doubt whether they fit in on campus, and this made them acutely aware of the burden of being female and/or minority in what had been predominantly white male environments.
By now, one might have hoped that college campuses would have gotten over the shock, and that students five decades later would be less conscious of race and gender. But that is not the path that campus culture took.
I am afraid that, like all of the reactions that preceded it, the Social Justice movement will fail to arrive at a livable cultural equilibrium. As I see it, the only livable equilibrium is for people to accept one another as individuals, ignoring their race and gender. But if that is the ultimate outcome, it seems to be a long way from where we are today.