Dispensation of the case of Ward Churchill prompted us to think once again about the melancholy subject of higher education. We’re not alone in finding that the very phrase has a dampening effect, as if it came bundled with a sigh of resignation. “Higher education”: How the spirits droop when it is pronounced. Confining ourselves to the humanities, there’s really not too much that’s “higher” about it these days. And various studies showing that many students emerge after four expensive years knowing rather less about certain subjects than they did upon matriculation make us question whether even the term “education” is appropriate. There is very little “leading out” of the confines of the self at most colleges these days. On the contrary, much more typical is a sort of inducation, a process of burrowing down, coddling flattery of every clichéd item on the menu of liberal self-congratulation.
It’s the same with the phrase “liberal arts.” What’s left about the typical college experience that’s genuinely “liberal”? The commentator Glenn Reynolds has written extensively about “the higher education bubble,” showing that intellectually as well as fiscally the institution of college is a bloated, straining, gaseous, incontinent bladder of latitudinarian self-indulgent cross-purposes. “Diversity” is the mantra of the moment on campus, but the reality is slavish and intolerant devotion to the politically correct agenda of “progressive” multiculturalism. Reynolds quotes the economist Herbert Stein: What can’t go on forever, won’t. The dizzying rise of college fees—at some institutions, the total sum now begins with a 6, as in $60,000—is only one aspect of the enterprise that is destined to collapse. There is also what we might call the ambient culture of college that is slouching towards failure.
We’ve had frequent occasion in this space and elsewhere in The New Criterion to describe the depressing freak show that much of higher education has become. Politicization—by which is always meant allegiance to the prescriptions of what the critic Frederick Crews called “Left Eclecticism”—is part of the story. The hermetic, reader-proof inanities of “deconstruction” and kindred ideologies are old hat by now, but they haven’t been so much superseded as they have been absorbed into the body politic of the academy, joined by the humorless squadrons of feminists, multiculturalists, and other partisans of the grievance industry that has helped transform large swathes of the curriculum into a sustained assault on the civilizing tenets of Western culture.
But it’s not just the curriculum that has gone rancid. The texture of social life as a whole betrays a curious blend of intolerance, cynicism, and lubriciousness. Bludgeoning speech codes, sexual harassment protocols, and mandatory diversity training coexist with a histrionic parade of exotic sexualized exhibitionism. Once upon a time—it wasn’t that long ago—college aimed to turn out ladies and gentlemen: how quaint, how politically incorrect those words seem to our ears! “A cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life”—what Cardinal Newman enumerated as the proper ends of a university education still resonated on American campuses and could have been endorsed by any college president.
And today? A college president just might get away with using the word “gentleman,” but just catch him saying that he (or, of course, she) aimed to graduate “ladies” and they’d be gone quicker than you can say “Larry Summers.” It’s a curious and depressing spectacle with which academia presents us. On the one hand, it is a bastion of privilege and preening self-regard, the likes of which the world has never seen. On the other, it is a seething cauldron of contempt and brutish disregard for what Burke called “the decent drapery of life.”
“Manners,” Burke wrote, in “Letters on a Regicide Peace,” “are of more importance than law. . . . The law touches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform and insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.” Again, the very vocabulary of this observation strikes the modern reader as antique: “corrupt or purify,” “exalt or debase,” “barbarize or refine.” You have to have some notion of purity as a virtue, of what would count as exaltation or debasement, of the contrast between the civilized and the barbaric even to understand that sentence.
What sparked these thoughts was our encounter with a student parody newspaper from Bowdoin College, the moderately trendy, B-level college in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin—current tuition, room, and board $56,128—was the college of Longfellow and Hawthorne. They’ve come a long way, baby, from those decorous, intellectually fastidious souls. Not that Bowdoin is to be distinguished from the general run of overpriced, formerly liberal-arts institutions. It’s not. Scratch any of those institutions and you’ll find the same congeries of left-liberal clichés, the same “sex and gender” agenda in the Women’s Studies fiefdom, the same “commitment to diversity” fueling intolerance for anything recognizably conservative.
You also find repellent student enterprises like The Bowdoin Occident, the annual parody issue of the student newspaper The Bowdoin Orient (“dedicated to providing news and information relevant to the College community,” “following professional journalistic standards in writing and reporting”). The issue spuriously dated December 12, 2012, is remarkable for its vulgarity, profanity, and utter lack of decorum. Four-letter words are sprinkled like confetti throughout the issue. One of the milder stories begins: “Turns out whipped cream is not just for licking off nipples anymore”; another purports to reveal that the college president, Barry Mills, was engaged in a ménage à trois with his wife and a prominent New York philanthropist. You might be tempted to dismiss The Occident as a sophomoric joke, lamentable, in poor taste, but essentially harmless. It is too edgy, too scatological and crudely pornographic to qualify as sophomoric, exactly. Not, we hasten to add, that The Occident is worse than many publications emanating from other campuses. It’s just one more depressing reminder of what has become of so-called higher education in America. We’d think parents, pondering literary bijoux like The Occident, would think twice before writing out their tuition checks. But it’s part of the higher education bubble that parents, too, have been cowed into believing that any price, and any indignity, is worth suffering for the bit of parchment with junior’s name on it. For now anyway, they’re still willing stooges. For now.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 2, on page 2
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