The Black Mark of a Bachelor’s Degree

I have a dream.

It is prompted by this story, out of Portland State, of a professor who is leaving the academy after enduring one vicious and disgusting attack after another: swastikas (and feces) on his office door, lectures disrupted, slanderous attacks on his family life, institutional denial of the most basic rights of the accused—indeed, hatred from the very people who should be rewarding him for his courage. He is no conservative. He seems to have no notion of truth outside of the realm of strict rationalism. He and I would disagree about many things. But he has a mind, and he uses it, and therefore he is dangerous.

Before I say what my dream is, I would like to say a few things about what has become the second greatest swindle in the nation, second only to the swindle that is its big brother and enabler, government at the federal and the state level. Of course I am talking about higher education.

I do not mean to implicate all colleges as participants in the swindle. At some few colleges here and there, students actually learn things. Here at Magdalen College in New Hampshire, for example. I would be proud to place the syllabus for our four-year team-taught Humanities course against the sum total of what most doctoral students in one or another of the humanities have learned—or have even taken a glance at. But we have set our faces like flint against foolishness and irresponsibility and cultural amnesia. And we have a grand time, too, reading and talking about what we have read, contemplating truth and sharing with others some glimpse of what we have seen.

But if you look at colleges generally, what do you get? Outside of those few departments like the applied sciences, where practical results condemn failure to the garbage can, or mathematics, where proof is proof and wishing doesn’t make it so, higher education is not education at all. It is a racket. I mean the word in its strict sense. The colleges have positioned themselves as the owners of the only bridge across an impassable river. If you want a good job, they say, you have to go through us, and we, with government enablers and enforcers, will make you mortgage yourself over the gables for the privilege.

Employers hire college graduates for four reasons, as I see it. Least commonly, it is for something that the new hire will have learned there. The second reason is for intelligence—sort of. For college is a low-level but more or less reliable intelligence exam. If you are a genius (especially if you are male), you may fail the exam; likewise, but with less assurance, if you are a complete dunce. The college rewards a kind of tepid to warm verbal facility, and a self-satisfied inability to discern the difference between a political slogan and a potent enunciation of permanent truth; the colleges graduate people by the millions who think they are thinking, when their “thoughts” are more predictable by far than those of truck drivers stopping at a diner and talking about politics or sports or money or family life. In this sense, the vast majority of students have their degrees not from Ohio State or Georgetown, but from Stepford University (Ohio State campus) and Stepford University (Georgetown campus). And employers like the ball bearings they buy from Stepford.

The third reason is closely related to the second. The colleges function as personality filters. Fancy a Beethoven, a Michelangelo, a Melville, or a Pascal at Stepford University! Well, you need not try to imagine it, because those among us who might have been Beethoven, Michelangelo, Melville, or Pascal have long been stifled by the schools and by the time-wasting and life-draining force of mass media. Such lads don’t usually make it to Stepford in the first place. But if you are at Stepford, you will be rewarded for conformity. 

I imagine an introductory course, Weather-Vane 101, wherein students stand with their arms extended, and are taught to swing with the prevailing political wind (as determined by their betters, naturally). People like that will fit quite nicely in the great folds of managerial fat that we find in both the public and the private sphere. The wonder of it, too, is that the weather vanes will at the same time boast of themselves as leaders: as the rooster who thinks that his crowing makes the sun rise. It is fortunate for us that we have so little sense of the ridiculous. Otherwise our economy might collapse overnight, and our governors might leave their stations, near to cardiac arrest with laughter, sputtering, “Well of course we don’t know what we’re doing! What did you think?”

The fourth reason is that employers cannot afford to hire whomever they please, for whatever reason they please. Big Sis is watching. So they have out-sourced their hiring decisions. They use the colleges as credentialing services, and since the colleges are the creatures of government, who then can blame them?

Now then, my dream. 

I dream that someday soon, people will notice that the colleges have become less than worthless; that by a half-diligent application the graduate leaves the college stupider than nature ever intended any grown person to be, not only failing to see the truth, but upholding absurdities and follies with a fervor to make Torquemada look like Milquetoast; that the colleges train young people in egotism and hedonism; that graduates will be intolerant, vindictive, and eager to seize upon any excuse to condemn you for not swinging the right direction in the wind; that these graces of person and character will not be tempered by any useful knowledge or insights into the human condition; that their writing will be worse after four years than it was when they were freshmen, more clotted with jargon and slogans; that they will be less likely to read with close attention, because their professors will have taught them the habit of easy labeling; that they will be less capable of wonder, slouching in soul as in body.

My dream is that someday employers will say, “Let’s hire anybody but a college graduate. We’ll teach him what he needs to know for our work. Check out the homeschoolers—they are a really sociable lot.” Imagine getting a fresh and intelligent young worker at age 18, rather than a stultified parrot at age 22.

That strange groan you hear, dear readers, is the straining of the dike.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Long distance trucker Bill DeFord somewhere in the midwest. Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images

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