The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1

Brian Leiter quotes approvingly from an opinion piece by Steven Gerrard that decries the rise of the “comfort college” and declares that Williams College as it ought to be is dead. (If you don’t want to read to the end, the upshot is that he’s wrong— or at least, if it is a death, then this is a death it has died before.)

Gerrard argues that the pursuit of diversity and inclusion has led to a devaluation of knowledge. Here’s a bit:

Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death. The lack of cognitive significance in tribal language is a symptom of the deeper disease: the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge.

I don’t know anybody who says “minoritized”, and “social death” is hyperbolic. But what popped out to me here was the claim that “neurodiverse” is just newspeak for “mentally ill.” It isn’t.

Here’s a typical characterization, from John Elder Robinson: “neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation…” Even using older locutions, people would have called ADHD a learning disability but not a mental illness. And the shift to the new locution is not just a matter of tribal allegiance. Instead, it underscores a claim that some neurological conditions don’t need to be cured. Given a suitably supportive social environment, people with those conditions can get by just fine. That claim might be one that Gerrard would reject, but it’s certainly got “cognitive significance.”

At our Fall Faculty Retreat, Todd Zakrajsek recounted a story about his daughter:2 She had been taking class notes on her phone. She’d synch with a network drive and use them to study. This worked for her. Mid-semester, the prof changed the policy to prohibit phones in the classroom. This was a disaster for her, and she ended up doing poorly in the course.

The prof’s decision makes sense, in a way. Research suggests that a typical person has more trouble concentrating if there’s a cell phone in view than if there isn’t. But Zakrajsek’s daughter has attention issues. She isn’t typical. Characterizing this in terms of diversity rather than in terms of illness highlights the fact that she had found a method of relating to the course that worked for her and allowed her to learn.

A lesson I take from this is not to make class requirements penalize students for things which aren’t strictly relevant to class content. Different students will have different cognitive dispositions and predilections, and different than me doesn’t ipso facto mean wrong. Returning to Gerrard— different doesn’t mean ill.

To take a step back, Gerrard’s hawing about the death of the liberal arts college simply lacks a sense of history. Students activism isn’t an unprecedented novelty signifying collegiate endtimes. Here’s William Leue writing about Spring 1970 in his history of the UAlbany Philosophy Department:

Some windows were broken in the Administration Building. Long lists of student demands started to appear. Calls for a day-care center, an end to “racism” on the campus, student participation in every phase of university operation, elimination of “general education” requirements for degrees, and many other changes became daily more numerous and more strident. Then came a rising cry for a student strike.

Somehow, knowledge and the university survived those days. Concern for diversity and inclusion won’t kill Williams College today.

  1. William Leue, writing under a pseudonym.
  2. I distinctly remember him saying that she’d given him permission to retell the story. I’m recounting the story as I recollect it, though, so I may have gotten some details wrong.

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