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The commonplace campus radical and the tragic tale of decline and fall

There’s another rhetorical crutch at work in the conservative critiques of academia that I’ve been going over—the golden age. KC Johnson’s commentary (see the last post—this one is a close offshoot of that one) refers to “the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism,” and—here’s a coincidence—the site that ran it, Minding the Campus is “a project devoted to a revival of intellectual pluralism and the best traditions of liberal education.” It’s up to the reader to piece together what those “best traditions” are and what era of intellectual pluralism is being revived.

A natural place to look for guidance is “Liberal Education, Then and Now,” by Peter Berkowitz, the featured essay on the site’s “Must Reads” list. It’s a solid and constructive piece, but the lecture that it’s based on had a more accurate title—“John Stuart Mill’s Idea of a University, and Our Own.” The “Then” that Berkowitz contrasts with our degenerate “Now” isn’t a real place and time, it’s an ideal. It may well be that universities used to embody Mill’s ideal much better than they do now, but Berkowitz has nothing to say about that.

Another professor and public intellectual, D. G. Myers, appreciates Johnson’s vote of confidence for the conservative side in the battle of ideas but he’s not optimistic about those “intriguing possibilities” offered by Obama. The issues enumerated in Johnson’s essay are, for Myers, symptoms of a deeper problem—“the loss of the university principle altogether.”

The current principle animating university life in America is the social principle. The contemporary university is a little society, a self-contained and self-governing body of people living together, where one behaves oneself in accord with common rules so as not to disturb or offend any other residents of the community.

Hence collegiality, an irrelevant value in scholarship, becomes a minimum standard for participation in academic society. […]

Since university professors are social beings just like everyone else (ok, maybe not just like everyone else), it’s hard to imagine that this “social principle” wasn’t a factor until the last generation or so. The “principle animating university life” undoubtedly shifts over time, but in the picture Myers paints few things are a matter of degree.

Where the social principle animates the university, collegiality and the concern for other people’s feelings will be minimum standards. The highest standard, then, will be sophistication. […]

Sophistication is a social attainment. It is a class marker. You know the correct names, you use the correct pronunciation, you quote the correct books. You are not guileless and direct, but subtle and (if possible) ironic. Sophistication is the sworn enemy of truth, because truth can be rude and boisterous and may speak with an accent.

It seems to me that he’s eliding two kinds of sophistication. One is the kind that makes for a sophisticate—a person who’s fashionable and in the know. The other is the kind that, in my opinion but apparently not in his, is a hallmark of a lot of outstanding scholarship and criticism—the opposite of rudimentary and simplistic, not the opposite of “rude and boisterous.” I guess Myers is pointing out a recent twist in the long history of people valuing style over substance, a complacent habit that academics, of all people, should be able to resist. But in that department, the failures come from all over the political spectrum.

Before the current crop of social-thinking sophisticates, there was, according to Myers, the “old idea of the university as a common pursuit of truth.” The university has changed quite a bit over the past few generations, for sure. It seems to me that it’s no easy thing to get a fix on its true character and ethos at any given time, but I doubt it was ever much less “self-contained” and “self-governing,” and I doubt that professors in the olden days were a lot more disturbing and offensive (in my experience, plenty of them still have that effect on each other).

Alan Kors gives an evocative account of the “academic world [in the early 1960s] that won the heart of a kid from Jersey City’s hardscrabble Dickinson High School,” but he puts it in perspective with a forthright look at its dark side.

It was virtually impossible for the most qualified black applicants to gain admission to Princeton; there were exceptions, but they were few indeed. There was widespread, crude racial bigotry among students; there was contempt for the women imported into Princeton on weekends, with a sharp division made between those gentlewomen one might marry and those coeds to whom anything might be promised for favors (“Sweet Briar to wed; Trenton to bed” was one of the politer formulations); there was a vulgar, sadistically cruel, and, indeed, violent hatred of homosexuals there, with exceptions occasionally made for reasons of social class. There was an anti-intellectualism in the student body that astonished me, a lack of interest in all but the most famous speakers or performers, and—the terms truly were used—a contempt by those pleased by “gentlemen’s Cs” for those “grinds” who studied long hours or with enthusiasm. There was a social snobbery more reminiscent now of the 1920s than of anything more recent, and an emphasis on “seeming” over “being” that would have confirmed Rousseau for his later admirers. My freshman year was Princeton’s final year of mandatory chapel (of one’s choice, at least)—a requirement I found deeply intrusive, although they’d advertised it fairly enough—but if exposure to spirituality were meant in any way to replace coarseness with kindness and decency, mandatory chapel was without value. That Princeton also was a place of undergraduate political intolerance. In my junior year, the rooms of two quite thoughtful, warm, bright, and intellectual Marxist seniors were broken into, their “Little Lenin Library” ripped to shreds, and the sole copies of their applications to graduate schools ruined by bottles of ink. The perpetrators turned out to be some of the “biggest men” on campus, and they all were let off with barely a slap on the wrist. That was no golden age, and honest souls across the political spectrum never will talk realistically about the tragedy of higher education today without acknowledging that moral and historical reality.

That’s mostly a description of the students of the day, presented in contrast to the more cerebral faculty. But on the whole the two groups shared the same social values and prejudices, and the student body acted as a kind of buffer zone between the faculty and society at large. A “common pursuit of truth” was a lot easier when the academic world was smaller and more homogeneous. Factoring that in is the way to “acknowledg[e] that moral and historical reality” if you want to compare higher education then and now and keep it real. Otherwise the declensionist narrative is a way of tacitly pining for homogeneity, and for the rigid, irrational hierarchies that produced it.

[Myers responded to this post about a month after it went up, or at least he referred to it as an accusation that he was “pushing aside history and yearning for a Golden Age that never existed.” I guess my post was useful as a way for him to document the weight of misunderstanding that he suffers as he bucks the ill winds of change. He doesn’t bother to respond to the substance of my criticism, which is a shame—that might have been interesting. Instead he repeats the story line about a university that’s “transforming itself” from one thing to another (which means that he’s not just talking about “the idea of the university,” as he claims), and complains bitterly but impotently about how it’s become the wrong thing (and though he writes about transformation at one point, when he gets down to it there seems to be no middle ground).]