Habits of Liberty: Part V

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The conventional wisdom on the political right is that university is now little more than leftist catachesis reliably producing leftist graduates. That left-leaning faculty dominate the American university cannot be doubted—a 2020 study finds that among college professors, Democratic Party donors outnumber Republican by a ratio of 95:1–and yet I fear that this pat conclusion could distract from more searching criticism of the schools and of our culture.

In a 1903 article, William James deplores as a “grotesque tendency” and a “Mandarin disease” the “state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate.” Demand for credentials created a “Ph.D. Octopus” which “interfere[s] with the free development of talent” and “divert[s] the attention of aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations.”

James believed that many exceptional students, “of native power,” would refuse the octopus’ embrace, which could only impede “the free following out of [their] more immediate intellectual aims,” but that the glamor and utility of a credential–“a bread-winning degree”–would attract droves of the less qualified. In this way education would become a “bauble”  instrumental to career. 

The instrumental view of education quickly gained hold. Of the two decades following James’ writing Christopher Lasch says: 

“Protests against genteel culture, overemphasis on academic subjects, ‘gentleman’s education,’ and the ‘cultured ease in the classroom, of drawing room quiet and refinement,’ frequently coincided with an insistence that higher education and ‘culture’ should not in any case be ‘desired by the mob.’ The progressive period thus saw the full flowering of the school as a major agency of industrial recruitment, selection, and certification.”

There could be no clearer repudiation of James’ view of the purpose of education: 

“[T]o stimulate study, and to increase…the class of highly educated men in our country, is the only positive good, and consequently the sole direct end at which our graduate schools…should aim.”

When education is a means to a job, then everything that James considered a distraction from “direct dealings with truth”—endurance of drudgery, people pleasing, class attendance and participation, and exam passing—becomes essential as proof of eligibility for employment. Under such conditions, a different sort of student will be attracted to, and will excel in, the schools. 

Changing patterns of socialization conspired to produce students adapted to this new academic regimen. These patterns, Lasch writes, encourage

“the development of personality traits more compatible with totalitarian regimes than with democracy: a strong attachment to the peer group; a marked fear of being alone; more or less complete alienation from the past (since as Bruno Bettelheim notes… ‘there is no permanence in human relations except with the peer group’); a strong concern with personal ‘authenticity’ in relations with others, unmediated by conventional forms of politeness or even by respect for the other person’s individuality; and a lack of introspection and of a highly developed inner life.”

This remarkable thesis, from Haven in a Heartless World, requires some explanation. Lasch posits that if a child is to make his own, to “internalize,” values, then he must identify with some adult authority, and identification, in turn, requires that he be instructed by that authority with affection and discipline. Because parents are uniquely capable of providing both love and discipline, this identification is rarely possible when work and instruction are removed from the home. A child without internalized values necessarily looks to his peers for validation and direction; he is “other-directed,” and is thus susceptible in a new way to “the influence of the media, the school, and his peers.”

Rationality, I have suggested, is the “consummation” of a way of life, and ideas are most compelling when consistent with our habits. If Lasch is correct, then several generations now of “other-directed” rule followers—who find no challenge to their preferences in higher education, and whose personality traits are more compatible with the collectivist and equalitarian priorities of the political left—would find left-wing ideology natural, consonant with their experience, and persuasive. Like ducks to water, without need to suppose the tutelage of some Alinsky-besotted Marxist cabal.

Also in this series:

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV

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