A couple of interesting passages.
Q. You tie some campus developments to a therapeutic turn in American life.Indeed. Knowledge and self-satisfaction are rather distinct sets.
A. It began to unfold back in the ’60s and ’70s, when identity came to the forefront. People felt unfulfilled. They felt they had these true selves that weren’t being recognized. In the absence of a common cultural framework previously set by religion, people were at a loss. Psychology and psychiatry stepped into that breach. In the medical profession, treating mental health has a therapeutic mission, and it became legitimate to say the objective of society ought to be improving people’s sense of self-esteem.
This became part of the mission of universities, which made it difficult to set educational criteria as opposed to therapeutic criteria aimed at making students feel good about themselves. This is what led to many of the conflicts over multiculturalism. This played out in a vivid way at Stanford.
Q. In the book, you quote a leader of Stanford’s Black Student Union in the late ’80s arguing that the university’s Western-civ curriculum "hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized."
“What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what's most useful to their education.”
A. Instead of saying we want to read authors that are outside the canon because they’re important educationally and historically and culturally, the way it’s framed by that student leader is that the exclusion of those authors hurts people’s self-esteem: Because my people are not equally represented, I feel less good about myself. That is part of the motive that drives administrators and professors to expand the curriculum, to fulfill an understandably therapeutic mission. But I think it can get in the way of universities’ fulfilling their educational missions. What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what’s most useful to their education.
Q. You have an unusual background for a political scientist. You majored in classics at Cornell, then did graduate work in comparative literature at Yale, where you studied with Paul de Man. Later you spent time in Paris sitting in on classes with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Any memories from this journey through deconstruction?
A. I decided it was total bullshit. They were espousing a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth, there is no argument that’s superior to any other argument. Yet most of them were committed to a basically Marxist agenda. That seemed completely contradictory. If you really are a moral relativist, there is no reason why you shouldn’t affirm National Socialism or the racial superiority of Europeans, because nothing is more true than anything else. I thought it was a bankrupt way of proceeding and decided to shift gears and go into political science.