With time away from Bates, it has become clearer that part of Bates’ function in a political economy is to position itself outside of political economy. For one, many students who graduate Bates remain unclear on how relations to nearby institutions. As a private institution much of Bates’ funding comes from tax write offs (and, at times unsavory, investments). Tax write offs are money that would otherwise go to public resources like any number of public colleges in Maine.
Beyond a model of ‘classism’ that presumes the issue with wealth and inequality is that rich people are unkind to poor folks when they order their lattes, economic inequality produces extreme societal ills and social antagonisms without instances of flagrant unkindness. Emphasis on displays of personal shame about possession of systemic advantage is not a rupture from that system, especially when deployed in a way that artificially mystifies rather than clarifies.
For example, Bates’ purported institutional progressiveness or ‘radicalness,’ a word treated as innately valuable, often serves as an institutional selling point. Then there are references to abolitionist roots.
A perceptive student of history might note here that Baptist abolitionists were not necessarily an innately moral force separate analyzing self interest in the 19th century political economy. Their advertisement of moral indignation about the existence of slavery happened in relationship to their relative lack of direct dependence on goods made by enslaved humans. Similarly, their beliefs innately worked in tension with those of the political anti-slavery movement. In this is some such lesson about who has access to and capacity for sentimental (read Uncle Tom’s cabin) regurgitations of disgust and the simultaneous need for those groups of people to work in creative tension with those who don’t.
As ironic and as overplayed as the reference to “abolitionist roots” might be, the sheltered sanctimonious energy persists in spirit at Bates. Many valorize countersolidaritsic messages with rights-based argumentation while in the same breath skipping their readings and applying to work. This type of miseducation and worldly outlook not only teaches intellectual and political immaturity, but also an impulsiveness not well suited for the “transformative of our differences.”
Here ‘difference,’ a word that easily slips into ‘diversity,’ has become instrumentalized as productive for producing romantic imagery of professional class people being ethical, or something. How can students approach learning about difference when they don’t have clear working sense of how their university exists in political economy?
To be honest, it is hard to have the social literacy to treat others with respect, without the political literacy to understand how and why institutions like Bates exist in contemporary and historic regimes. Without this knowledge its hard to have the flexibility needed for self awareness. Likewise, without this focus it becomes incredibly challenging to evaluate political legitimacy beyond the bias of noting a politician talks ones own language.
Elizabeth Warren talks like a textbook nominally progressive private college campus (with zero workers unions). She defends charters, pushes a watered down version of something that isn’t medicare for all, and primarily navigates foreign policy with a view on the United States not as empire, but benevolent rent-a cop. Though the views offered by Bernie Sander’s on foreign policy are not all too critical of empire, his reticence to talk like professional class people who went to an elite liberal arts institution should not at all discount his candidacy. (If anything it should encourage it).