The great American universities are, on the whole, the best in the world, and any European who comes to teach in them is sure to be impressed by the liveliness and enthusiasm of many American students.  However, there are drawbacks that are bound to be noticed quickly by someone whose academic subject is the literature and religion of Greece and Rome and whose politics, unlike those of most academics in our time, tend to be conservative.

It is not easy to know the Greek and Latin languages, or indeed any foreign languages, well, unless you start early.  I have no direct experience of primary education in this country, but I have the impression that many private as well as many public schools waste the precious years when the memory is at its best.  The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey encouraged educational theorists to despise the memory, on which all human knowledge in the last resort depends, and to exalt the learning of manual skills.  That kind of theory well suits fond parents who wish to save their darlings from having their brains strained unduly by having to work hard.  In many schools, learning takes second place to processes supposed to promote “social adjustment”; I remember the head-mistress in Nabokov’s novel Lolita, who tells Humbert Humbert that the most important subjects in her school are the three D’s—Dancing, Debating, and Dating.  Many schoolteachers seem to cling to the liberal belief that learning can and should be all fun.  In the hands of a gifted teacher, this can be managed for a good deal of the time, though such teachers are comparatively rare.  Serious education, however, especially in mathematics and languages, is not possible without hard work, and most human beings will not work hard without a measure of compulsion.

The spirit of independence and resistance to authority that is characteristic of American democracy has, of course, an admirable side.  It also has a side that is less admirable, which, in the past, was kept in check by the discipline inherited from the early Puritans and their spiritual descendants.  In our own time, tradition has been increasingly rejected, and, with tradition, many people have rejected discipline.

The inadequacy of the schools is reinforced by the general character of social life; television, in particular, has a disastrous influence on the young.  Reading requires some mental activity, but television allows the watcher to remain passive, and little of the material it presents has any educational value; it wastes time that might be spent on reading and encourages superficial thinking.  When they finally get to college, students are likely to be flattered by professors anxious to obtain large enrollments, who are flattered in turn by the evaluations of their courses that the universities have foolishly allowed the students to produce, and who try to convert the students to their own beliefs.  They therefore try to make their lectures easy and entertaining; in the long run, however, most students find that the lectures that are most easy and entertaining are by no means always those that do them the most good.

Our problems in England are not dissimilar.  In Oxford and Cambridge, everything has traditionally centered on undergraduate education; each undergraduate has at least one hour with his tutor every week, alone or with one or two companions.  That system is now under increasing strain, partly because the schools are no longer providing students with the basic general education that enables them to go straight on to advanced work at the university.  This is even truer of the situation in America.  In each of the four great American universities at which I have been a visiting professor, I have felt that undergraduate education is neglected.  Very often, much of it is entrusted to graduate students, who themselves are only beginners.

When people complain of this state of affairs, as they very often do, some people say that professors should do less research.  The demand that professors should “publish or perish” does a great deal of harm; for one thing, it leads to the publication of much boring stuff of the kind the great scholar and considerable poet Housman was thinking when he wrote “Works like this are simply an interruption to our studies.”  But intelligently conducted research, far from harming teaching, can be its greatest boon; the person who is engaged in increasing learning often has the urge to communicate it.  There are some gifted teachers who have no gift for research, and they need to be encouraged, but they are comparatively rare.  As a rule, the university teacher who has no interest in extending knowledge  and in discussing problems with others dries up after a certain age and ceases to communicate effectively with his pupils.

All this became clear to me during my early visits to America, all the more because I could see similar factors at work in my own country.  In recent years, however, the situation has been made infinitely worse by the politicization of the American academy.  For many years, the men of theory who abound in universities drew comfort from the existence of a rival way of life in the Soviet Union and the countries that it used to dominate, whose system was (or was supposed to be) governed by a theory that looked so wonderful on paper.  Belief in that theory was prompted by the best and most innocent of motives; kindhearted liberals wanted the benefits they themselves enjoyed to be available to everyone.  Marx and Freud gradually came to resemble two aged dogs lying in their baskets, cosseted all the more by their devoted owners as the aroma they diffused grew stronger.  Now that the practical application of their theories has collapsed, these people continue the same work by different methods; instead of teaching Marxism and Freudianism directly, they preach a collectivism that takes the form of an extreme preoccupation with the grievances of certain groups, particularly women, blacks, and homosexuals.

It is worthwhile trying to understand the theoretical basis of this new kind of collectivism.  First of all, it rests on relativism; there is no objective goodness and no objective truth; instead, everything depends on the viewpoint of the individual, or rather of the group to which he belongs.  Next, it is preoccupied with power; the existing culture is seen as a means of preserving the power of a particular group.  Third, a work of art is seen not as the creation of its author but as a product of the society to which he belonged; and relativism teaches us that Mickey Mouse is as good as Shakespeare and Norman Rockwell is as good as Michelangelo.  Most great writers and artists of the past are contemptuously referred to as “dead white males”; their work has to be replaced, or at least supplemented, by the productions of women, blacks, and homosexuals.  We are told that women, blacks, and homosexuals will feel uncomfortable unless they are taught by women, blacks, and homosexuals; thus, political correctness demands that the old-fashioned idea that academic posts should go to the
best-qualified people be abandoned.  More and more universities are setting up departments of women’s studies, black studies, and, now, of “gay” studies.  Students are encouraged to think of themselves primarily as members of the women’s community, the black community, the “gay” community, or whatever other community they are thought to belong to; if they fail to think and behave as members of those collectivities, they are often persecuted by the others.

All students are to some extent victimized by this nonsense, but particularly the black students.  Everyone must admire the great effort now being made by the American nation to redress the injustices of slavery.  The best way of doing that, however,  is surely to encourage blacks to live and work together with whites and to produce work that can be judged by the same standards, not to huddle together whining with self-pity and breathing hostility against others.  Also, black students, no less than any others, need to be given an education that will enable them to think independently, not indoctrination of the kind common in totalitarian states.

Not all blacks who teach in universities are talking this kind of nonsense; the absurdities of such agitators as New York professor Leonard Jeffries cause some people to forget the existence of a considerable number of black scholars, some of whom are doing excellent work in combating the harm done by the rabble-rousers.

More guilty even than those rabble-rousers are the university administrators who, out of sentimentality or cowardice, allow blacks to get away with behavior that would not be tolerated in other students.  Just as there are black professors who do not encourage this kind of thing, so there are moderate feminists who champion the cause of women without fanaticism and homosexuals who are free of persecution mania.

Some 20 years ago, the famous critic Lionel Trilling wrote that American society was likely to alienate itself increasingly from the humanistic educational ideal; now that higher education no longer led as easily as it once did to higher pay and social betterment, it was sure to be less valued.  Resistance to higher education started in the 60’s: Too many people were going to college; most people are not suited to it; many of them loathed it; and, once they ceased to think that they would profit from it, they revolted against it.  Students of the present generation are not rebellious, like those of the 60’s, but they are just as difficult to teach; many are dull, lazy, and materialistic, caring only for vocational training and impatient of real education.  Nor has the cult of political correctness done much to cause higher education to be valued more.

This trend, if it continues, can lead to disaster.  In the long run, the prosperity and, indeed, the livelihood of everyone depends on the most gifted people and the education they receive.  Also, even a modicum of higher education can enormously increase the comforts and the pleasures of human life.  We can already perceive the beginnings of a backlash against the destructive nonsense of political correctness.  When that develops, I hope to see as well a reaction against the increasingly rapid movement toward crude utilitarianism.

One of the most infuriating things about academics is the contempt that such men of theory are very apt to show for those who carry on the business of the world.  It is a mistake to allow that superior attitude on the part of some of them to blind us to the advantages that higher education brings or to the merits that some of its practitioners have.  It is possible to remain conscious of those advantages and merits even while doing all we can to ridicule and resist the dangerous absurdities of the new collectivism, with its distressing resemblance to the kind of collectivism that, in the 30’s, led to the rule of Hitler and Stalin.