By 2019, more than one-third of Americans over the age of twenty-five had a college degree, the highest proportion in US history.1 The professional-managerial class (PMC) has made the bachelor’s degree a necessary credential for anyone who wants to enter its ranks.
In colleges, especially small liberal arts colleges, students are learning the language of identity protocols and its ancillary politics, and they are able to exercise their sense of entitlement to forms of social interaction that enable them to function in and dominate the liberal professions. In the meantime, liberal leaders find it all the more easy to dismiss the 64 percent of Americans who fail to earn that degree as backward and guilty of the societal ills that the PMC has individualized, psychologized, and managed.
If the majority of Americans do not attend college, the majority of college students in the United States do not attend private liberal arts colleges: public universities do most of the work of educating students, but we rarely hear about their individual attendees. They are the masses, unnamed and faceless, often evoked in images of spring breakers gone wild, or football fans dressed in Buckeyes regalia. In the popular media and in the popular imagination, attendees of small liberal arts colleges appear as individuals who are culturally significant, if sometimes more spoiled than your average twenty-year-old. What happens in private colleges takes on outsize importance, because these institutions are the training grounds for elite members of the PMC.
Liberal contempt for the “masses” and media fetishism of what goes on at elite private universities and colleges have shaped reporting on recent events at Smith College, a women’s school that is nearly 150 years old, roiled by struggles over its management of conflicts shaped by social media, class, and race. In July 2018, a student at Smith leveled accusations of racism against members of staff after being questioned by a campus security officer about her presence in a building that was meant to be closed. On social media, she publicly identified the janitor who allegedly alerted security to her presence and two staff members who had nothing to do with this incident, branding them as racists. Her story about being racially profiled while eating lunch and minding her own business attracted attention from the national media, and Smith College officials promised speedy action to combat racism on campus.
Unexpectedly, an independent investigation commissioned by the college found no evidence of wrongdoing or racial bias on the part of the accused staff. However, the college administration still pressed them to take part in “restorative” processes that implied they were guilty of an offense. Behind the focus on race in the public discourse around the incident lurked another story about class privilege and social and economic disadvantage.