How to Live in the Ruins of the Collapse of the American University

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.

About Titus Techera

Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. He's also a graduate student in political science, a former Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and a contributor to The Federalist, National Review Online, and

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19 responses to “How to Live in the Ruins of the Collapse of the American University”

  1. Would like to comment but where do you start. All state run universities are nothing but liberal slime pits.

    • Liberal slime pits like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business?

      • Wharton was still an education institution, not a slime pit, 40 years ago.

      • Half the students at Wharton are wealthy privileged foreigners. The curriculum is intentionally set up to promote lots and lots and lots of networking. There are some math/quant people but they are the distinct minority. Wharton is mostly a place where the baby international elite can develop the relationships they will use as they grow up into full fledged members of the international elite. Along the way they get a bit of game theory and economics. But it isn’t about the academics at all.

      • Yes. Even at Wharton the reek of SJWs and activists of every stripe rises high above the masses. The children of privilege are by and large liberal……and completely ignorant with respect to how one attains (and maintains) a position of privilege.

  2. “Conservatives abandoned themselves to the market and liberals to an ideology of race, class, and gender.”

    That sums it up quite nicely!

    conservatives abandoned the university as well, or were “nudged out of it” by the Leftist zeitgeist.

    But it is more than this. conservatives decided that Mammon ACTUALLY was the true (or, at least, *truer*) God and proffered to one an all the manifest benefits of Free (but not necessarily “fair) Trade. GDP, and various other indicators of a healthy economy. This was, for them, the defining characteristic of a healthy “political economy”. what was absent was any discussion of a “healthy” polity, a sustainable and thriving CULTURE. Left behind were the very same souls who would undergo their post adolescent penance at University, some of whom, in fairness, may accede to a semblance of wealth and influence, but the overwhelming preponderance of these new acolytes will fail and be saddled with a back breaking debt for the privilege of this failure.

    But more than that, the abandonment of culture by conservatives has left the acolyte adrift in an uncomfortable world, where the only guide posts are the inane “soundbite” cheap philosophies on offer at university and the media.

  3. It must be time for a China like Cultural Revolution. Purge all scientist and educators to achieve purity for the FoxGOPerv’s Trump cult of ignorance.

    • Dorsnthe irony that the cultural revolution was an outgrowth of ideologies promoted by the left not bother you at all?

      It wasn’t the right that threw over things like the concept of a canon of great works for political reasons. This article is about what to do standing in the rubble of the cultural revolution we already had.

      We got rid of the idea of great books, classics in general, even the concept of objective good or beauty or evil or any ideal. The humanities explicitly say these don’t exist and all is power. So the only good is shifting power from one group to another.

      We had our cultural revolution. You seem to be a product of it. You might at least be aware of where your ideas come from and how they got to you.

      The right is debating if and how these institutions can be reformed. They certainly are not arguing that reason and scholarship are bad and useless. They are saying that we don’t get much of these goods for the costs out of universities.

  4. One way to “fix” higher academia is not to be nice. Instead, if you think yourself “educated,” use your education to attack the status quo and the powers that be. Tell the president, top administrators and faculty members of your almas mater what you think. Voice your complaints and propose your solutions, eloquently, but forcefully, and without pulling punches. Instead, land repeated, stinging blows. Inflict incivility in a way that only an alumnus can pull-off, because alums donate. Better yet, stop donating, and tell your almas mater why you have stopped donating. Make their words hurt them where the pain is felt–in the alumni fund. Hit ’em high, hit ’em low, hit ’em in the middle. Make them uncomfortable in their smugness.

    As for solutions, they have been sitting right in front of us. Great books. Great thinkers. Great achievers. Great figures in history. How could one possibly go wrong, learning and following the lessons of history?

    • But academics have come to believe that there are no great books or great men. They threw off the canon of great works. Those are seen as illusions to support racist power structures. One needs a strategy to attack the philosophy that claims this is so. Which means you need to be able to articulate a better counter philosophy. Unfortunately. The places best situated to generate competing philosophies are our colleges. So we basically need to give students a college education to make them able to reform the colleges. You see the difficulty, right?

      Just telling people to fight harder and more ruthlessly won’t help is they have no intellectual weapons. You can’t beat something with nothing no matter how passionately you use it.

      Obviously I agree with you on goals. But somehow we need to have students able to counter post-modern ideology in the classroom before they are even educated. If we can generate people like that outside of higher education we don’t actually need colleges anyway.

  5. “…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.”
    Slavery, Segregation, Boston Brahmins, American elite, Ivy league,..looks to me that America relishes in having a ruling class then spends the rest of the time denying it.

    • Every society is going to have a ruling class. What we have forgotten is that authority is fine and good and necessary if it is earned via competence. We seem to think of power strictly as exploitive now which is a Marxist vision. Honorable power is now defined through demographic identity rather than personal capability. That is the problem. If university can’t teach people to be or at least articulate what is beauty or truth or decent or refined or competent then of course it all goes to heck. We are teaching people that all power is an exploitive snowjob and leaving them without the tools to even understand what power responsibly used might look like. Instead it says power is all bad and now different colored or gendered people should get to exploit. It is cynical in the extreme.

      • The ruling class that got power in America did not do it honorably. Every method they used has been exploitative. The codes of honor, ethics, duty etc are not part of our economics. It is not taught in our Universities as an integral system in our government or our economy. You can rule that out.

  6. Get degree, escape, don’t look back. Instruct children accordingly.

  7. This essay is a pudding. One should be able to identify most ingredients in a pudding but I cannot do so here. The most obvious problem is too many sentences that must be read and re-read in an attempt to pry loose the meaning.

    It would be better if it had it been written by someone with an education — at least the high school education of 1950 or the grade school of 1900. An Education is not, in general, a substitute.

    I don’t think the writer intended to illustrate his point (something about how bad the modern university is, I expect) but he has done so.

    • TY for the warning. The headline almost suckered me into thinking someone had an idea of how to fix American academia.
      AmGreatness pays some people to play with words, as if to prove to the over-credentialed voices of academia, punditocracy, and most think tanks that some of us deplorables are literate.

      • Google is paying 97$ per hour,with weekly payouts.You can also avail this.
        On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $11752 this last four weeks..with-out any doubt it’s the most-comfortable job I have ever done .. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
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  8. A fellow teacher gives online exams where in theory you should get 100%–students get to take it twice, and the first time through the system tells you what questions you missed, and the correct answers to those questions.
    The students STILL don’t get 100% on the test, even on the 2nd go around.