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Exploring Personal Identity for the Public Good
The New York Times recently ran a story on the declining popularity of the late J. D. Salinger's beloved and bemoaned antihero, Holden Caulfield (Schuessler 2009). According to the article, many of today's youth find Salinger's protagonist "grating" and self-absorbed--characteristics to which they don't relate and can't condone. This criticism may be well deserved. But the article suggests a telling possibility: that students' discontent arises from a contemporary "impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden [arguably] represents." One has to wonder at the implications of such a shift in zeitgeist.
"Identity and meaning" are not disposable incidentals on the path toward more tangible outcomes: grades, credentials, financial success. Rather, they are key questions at the heart of liberal learning. In teaching content, educators must also teach students to question how content is used: whether to the credit or detriment of humankind, whether or not to public benefit. In making these connections, educators will inevitably raise questions about students' place in their future professions and, by extension, their current place in the world at large. Educators should encourage students to pursue these questions, in part through self-reflection that carries with it the sense of "being-in-relation" that Elizabeth Minnich describes in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.
This issue explores the many ways in which higher education can encourage its students to reflect on their own "being-in-relation" to diverse others. It examines how students' intersecting identities (race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, disability, and many others) are lenses through which they see the world, sometimes without even knowing that their views are filtered by their positions and perspectives. Our authors suggest the benefits of drawing students' attention to their backgrounds and how they influence their views of the world around them. Authors in this issue point to the complex connections between self and others that, in subtle and salient ways, inflect our experiences within a diverse democracy--the very experiences that American higher education and liberal education in particular are supposed to enhance.
In contrast to Holden's world, where a liberal education was a privilege available primarily to the young white male elite, our current globally interconnected society requires that such opportunities be available to all. Holden Caulfield may have sought the space to define himself outside his prep school's walls, but today's students can and should find these opportunities within their classrooms, campuses, and communities. Higher education must assist its students in "the lifelong quest for identity and meaning," whoever they are and wherever they enroll.