Our friends over at American Affairs have published the most un-American explanation of what the university is and does. The piece comes from the pen of Justin Stover, a fellow at the most old-world college there is, All Souls, Oxford. This is a place without students, where the happy few enjoy, at someone else’s expense, the apolitical life of the Garden of the philosopher of peace and reflection, Epicurus. There’s a Gershwin song about that—”Nice work if you can get it.”
To summarize the argument, all societies produce irrational privileges that do not bear examination and are therefore in need of beautiful concealments of their injustice. This, then, is what universities offer: a certain distinction to emerging upper classes, a certain cohesion of the prejudices that separate those within from those without. This is a public good: it makes the ruling classes feel deserving and the ruled obedient, thus avoiding revolution. You see why I called this a distinctly un-American view.
Further, the university allows people to indulge mindless obsessions with the past, away from an unfeeling world that might soon change flattering words like scholar for something more along the lines of wastrel, idler, and eventually bum. People who want to examine man and his world, like Socrates did, but dislike Socratic poverty, have to put on a show and beclown themselves to the wealthy. They have none of the sense of dignity those wealthy people have, so why not? Hence, universities. And by the way, old books get saved this way, so we can still read about Socrates while not understanding at all why we should read about Socrates.
That’s it, folks, but the writer is a gentleman’s gentleman, so instead of crass explanations, he uses words like courtoisie—the manners of the court. This is a very well-written essay that does the Old World proud and I recommend it to anyone who wants to read about the university. It polishes cynicism to a level Twitter can only impotently envy.
But it is also a catastrophe. Such thinking is useless to America for reasons both urgent and important that I will detail below. Our urgent problem is to understand that America is now experiencing the collapse of its university system. In this task, such cynical essays are helpful, because we have to face cynicism in its most serious guise if we’re going to have real universities, but also because it helps to compare our situation to the past. Rejecting cynicism would be easy if higher education in America were doing its job. It is, unfortunately, in crisis.
Students as Government and Corporate Barbarians
First, the practical stuff. This requires some history, so we must compare America’s universities today with the originals of medieval origins. A thousand years back, universities flattered the hierarchies of barbarian kingdoms; nowadays, they flatter the wealthy and ambitious, who do not seem barbaric, at least not because they are, mostly, incapable of violence.
The real difference, however, is that a thousand years back, the barbarians were technologically innocent, whereas now you don’t need the university to get all the math and tech you want, as well as multitudes of willing customers. In the past, the university really did offer, with its knowledge, rational and political instruments of rule to serve the barbarian masters, ranging from science to law. None of that is needed now. What would stop big corporations from becoming their own kingdoms, schooling and hiring people from youth?
This leads us to our first statement of the common sense. At some level, we all know that the destruction of the university is not about burning and pillaging, but about removing the distinctiveness of the university. Our new barbarism is a matter of taking over, not tearing down. Whatever might flatter the pride of academics is unimportant to our discussion. What’s important is to see how young people are deluded and then broken; for nowadays we make our own barbarians.
It is a problem of administrators and students primarily, not of faculty, because the faculty, whether or not they’re ideological, are committed to a naïve view of the Enlightenment that’s supposed to keep them safe from the world around them. They believe, falsely and foolishly, that armed with their ideas they could go out into the world to change it, but nothing could follow them back into the university to change it in turn.
Well, the change can happen and has happened. America is now a country where most higher education teaching is done by adjuncts on short-term contracts, with no security nor much future. Tenure is now obsolete, the sinecure of the men and women who consented to the destruction of their institution. Tenure is, in a collapsing system, not a show of pride in freedom, but the evidence that very talkative, very educated people are natural slaves.
The reality is there for those who want to see, however conveniently concealed from the public, in the lives of the adjunct teachers whose idealism about Enlightenment traps them in an undignified, insecure, minimum-wage life. They got there believing the pious public lies about the importance of a higher education and they cannot change. They were told they’d be part of the future, but they’re learning, there is no future. Whatever their ideology, they’re Americans and they deserve better,
Liberalism as an ideology—as much as leftism is an intellectual frisson—is merely a cover for this state of facts. It’s glamorizing exploitation while trapping people morally in a situation where they’re being exploited. All those people can vote Democrat and bleed liberal, but they will never get anything out of it to benefit their own lives. They live on the fumes of privilege, after it’s burned out. University originally meant community—of scholars—but there is no community anymore.
So the anti-liberal anti-academic anger is similarly a delusion. It’s easy to complain about hysterical people on campus—they make themselves easy targets because they want or need the attention for their careers. But they’re the least of America’s problems.
It’s also important to notice the humiliation implicit in this state of affairs. We’re supposed to be outraged by their stunts while ignoring the social collapse. But we know young people don’t end up insane activists because they’re evil—it’s good all-American intentions, misguided, that lead them there. Their lives are managed by administrators in the direction of higher education from youth and they have no say in it.
Once the anger comes out of young people, as they sense the injustice they’re part of, they’re almost guaranteed to go crazy, because they’re always catching up to a system that was never publicly explained. Indeed, from childhood, they’re taught to believe higher education is paradise. By the time it turns out it’s a slaughterhouse for their dreams and sense of dignity, they fall apart and hardly get a chance to piece themselves together again. But they were set up as children!
No Truth or Knowledge, Just Broken Youth
Corporations and the government use the university as a training and credentials program much more viciously than the faculty who get a fake bully pulpit and chump-change out of the bargain. What happens to America’s youth there is a consequence of the irresponsibility of these future employers. You could say, cynically, that young people get a crazy ride in college, irresponsibility and some fun, and live the rest of their lives paying the bill.
Maybe the crazy things that happen in college, from parties to activism, have to do with the fact that the young people are barbarians, never civilized while growing up. There’s some truth to that and society bears the blame—each community and family. Maybe these things are also an anticipation of living as adults in a country where no public figure or movement is serious and confident about the future. There’s some truth to that as well and it’s worth noting that even when youthful irresponsibility is not rewarded, it’s set up politically, socially, and economically.
Trapping human beings who are hardly anything more than children in debts they cannot understand or hope reasonably to pay is not civilized. Both the government and the corporations behave not as future employers, but as something far more sinister, stealing students’ freedom in very real ways.
This collapse of the university therefore, a takeover from outside, has shown the impotence of the faculty, and created all the urgent problems ranging from personal irresponsibility to insane debts. Higher education, which was supposed to be the ticket to a good life in post-war America, and therefore America’s willed self-transformation into a Great Society, has turned, in three generations, into a trap neither society nor individuals know how to escape or disarm.
It is imperative to take this seriously and stop being cynical about the university, whether from the Left or the Right. A time of crisis is a time of rethinking why America needs universities and what it needs out of them, what the typical problems of American universities are and how to begin to look for solutions.
Self-knowledge as Purpose of the University
Of course, most young people who go through some form of higher education are not activists or party animals. Those extremes are worth dwelling on only because they reveal natural instincts and because of the way administrations exploit them for money and reputation shows the ugly truth about the institutions. And yet when these extremes of anger and appetite are portrayed in the media or the popular culture, it’s almost never the case that the ugly truth is revealed.
So far as most young people are concerned, the problem is that they too are betrayed. To see how far, contemplate this epitaph: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” America has been committed from its Founding to Enlightenment through the university. That Statute, by the way, begins: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free.”
That is a very noble purpose and it shows what’s distinctive about higher education: it is the place where American students should gain self-knowledge. As things are, however, they may gain a credential or acquire social status—usually as part of a campaign that starts when they’re children—but self-knowledge remains elusive. Whether it’s parents who want the best schools for their own progeny or corporations that want the students who have proved most obedient and successful, what’s missing is any respect for or understanding of what Jefferson had in mind.
This is hard to admit, but let us consider the facts as available to common sense: America is far fuller of higher education than ever; and the education is far more expensive than ever; but Americans are neither happy nor confident that the future is bright. Nor do they experience good government and economic growth in any proportion to the massive increases in higher education, whether we judge the number of students, the percentage of the population enrolled, or the costs involved.
One version of the Enlightenment, dependent on the university, has failed. If anything, the social status the prestigious universities and colleges offer seems to be an attempt to separate them from the majority of Americans, which is also an admission of failure. The liberal attempt to create free higher education is only a consecration of the failure. It does not even pretend to improve anything, only to shift the costs and thus conceal the ways in which students are mortgaging their futures.
To make higher-education work, it is primarily important to understand that the institutions need to offer students a path to self-knowledge. This is not an aspirational statement, but a description of the facts: young Americans find themselves, or fail to do so, in their college years. Further, their lives up to that point are oriented to propelling them in that direction. This is their first age of maturity—their lives no longer run by adults—but they are not yet responsible for themselves in every way.
Maybe the understanding is mutilated because the institutions are failing; and maybe its effects are mutilating to the souls of the students; but no one can remove from higher education its role as a source of self-knowledge. This self-understanding may take on the form of an insane materialism of parties and the occasional sexual promiscuity; and it may conceal the self-loathing implicit in boredom, laziness, and waste; but it cannot disappear. It can be replaced by something better or it will be replaced by something worse.
The only aspirational part, therefore, is the work of getting things right. Higher education implies that what is fit for human beings is to use their minds to learn about the world they live in. But of course the most urgent learning is about human beings themselves. The primary teaching for that is poetry and history. This is how the university stays past-oriented while preparing students for their all-American, future-oriented lives.
Unfortunately, this tradition has been all but abandoned. Conservatives abandoned themselves to the market and liberals to an ideology of race, class, and gender. Conservatives won in that sense—what’s popular has far more influence on young Americans than any ideology or all of them combined. But they lost, because they were not involved in the culture. In fact, the late recognition, as it was phrased, that culture is upstream of politics, was the swan song of conservatism.
From the point of view of the educator, the fact to confront is that young Americans live their lives in front of screens they cannot comprehend, not from a technological, a sociological, or especially from a moral point of view. So the only true university is one that can take deal with that. Unless, of course, one believes the future is or should be the whole of higher education looking like Silicon Valley: tech-empowered barbarians. People who want that can probably rest easy. Everyone else needs to understand what students are desperately looking for on their screens and how to help them find it in a better way. That’s what self-understanding means.