I ask my readers not to be shocked by the title of this essay. “To Hell With Culture” was the title of my last essay published in Chronicles, in September 1994. Readers of it saw that I was not an enemy of culture; and now I am not an enemy of higher education. I wish merely to emphasize that the problems are wrongly stated. Culture is not being threatened, but civilization is—for many reasons, one of them being the accepted idea that culture is of a higher order than civilization. And now it is not colleges that are threatened, but intelligence and civility—for many reasons, among them the lopsided belief that these virtues are the outcome of higher education. The opposite is true: the quality of higher education depends on the respect that people have for intelligence and civility.
Allow me to begin with a long-range view. In the histories of great nations universities were seldom important. The universities of Italy had little to do with the art and the literature of the Renaissance. At the peak of the Elizabethan Age, the influences of Oxford and Cambridge were nugatory. During the 18th century, the university of France was creaking and antiquated; the influence of the Sorbonne on the French Revolution in 1789 was nil. Yet those were glorious periods in the history of those nations.
In the 19th century, there came a change—the rise of universal education, among other things. Among them were the practices, the curricula, and the structures of higher education in Germany—adopted and emulated in many places of the world, including nations that were unrelated and unfriendly to Germany. In many cases the results—the adoption of the German middle-school curriculum and of universities that trained specialists—were salutary, even though the German system of mental training was forced at the expense of what could be called character education.
The evolution of higher education in America was unique. More than 100 years ago it evolved into a compound of English and German influences and structures; the college system was inherited from the British Isles, and universities followed the German model of specialized graduate training. (In this sense, it may be argued, “multiculturalism” began not after the 1960’s but at least two generations earlier.) The American college’s origins were English, including its nomenclature, such as the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. The graduate schools of the universities adopted the German model, with the Ph.D. degree. Yet these, though important, were but secondary phenomena within the enormous rising tide of universal, or near-universal, education. This involved most of the nations of the Western world, too; but what was peculiarly American was the multiplication of educational institutions beyond anything comparable elsewhere. By 1880, a state such as Ohio had about 70 colleges and universities—perhaps half as many as all of the rest of the world combined. In 1955 Herbert Hoover wrote: “With only about six percent of the world’s population we have almost as many youth in our institutions of higher learning as the rest of the world put together. We could probably enumerate more libraries and more printed serious work than the other 94 percent of the people of the earth.” Four years before this emanation of Progressive optimism, T.S. Eliot wrote: “We must combat the illusion that the maladies of the modern world can be put right by a system of instruction. . . . There is also the danger that education . . . will take upon itself the reformation and direction of culture, instead of keeping to its place as one of the activities through which culture realizes itself.” (That Hoover as well as Eliot are heroes of American conservatives at least suggests what is wrong with the conservative movement itself, though that is another matter.)
What then happened in the 1960’s is well-known, so that I may sum it up necessarily inaccurately, and briefly. For many reasons (one of them being the national reaction to Sputnik, another being the glorified image of the Kennedy era) higher education experienced a financial Golden Age in the early 60’s, whereby the academic profession attracted hordes of people for whom an academic career would have had few or no attractions before. Except for the professorate in the most elite of universities, a college professorship was not very well paying before the 1950’s; consequently, a professor’s job was not highly esteemed among the population at large. Now all this changed, and together with that came the change in the ideological climate and the civilizational breakdown of the 60’s, to which most of the new professors were not immune, to say the least. According with the habit of intellectuals not only to represent but to incarnate current ideas, this led to a novel professorial behavior, together with the predominance of antinomian, neo-Marxist, neo-Freudian, neo-modern, neo-feminist, etc., etc., teachings and ideas still prevalent in our institutions of higher learning 30 years later, since most of these people remain comfortably situated in our universities.
But it would be mistaken to attribute the troubles of American higher education principally to this ideological element. The principal factor was, again, the tremendous inflation, submerging everything: inflation of students, of course, but also of grades and degrees. By 1980, in a state such as Pennsylvania, nearly one-half of high school students were going on to college. When there is more and more of something it is worth less and less, which is the main problem of democracy, whether the focus be the value of the currency or the worth of a college education. But beneath this overwhelming condition something more disturbing was happening. Thirty or 40 years ago the majority of American college and university students were of the first generation: their parents had not had the chance of a college education. During the last quarter-century most of these students were the sons and daughters of parents of whom at least one had a college degree. But the general experience shows that most of these students were (and are) educated worse than their predecessors. Yet their grades are higher: in 1980, an astonishing majority (over 70 percent) of undergraduates in our leading colleges had grades such as A, A-, B+, perhaps B. And this brings me to my main point, that the principal—and perhaps insoluble—problem of American higher education is not ideological or intellectual but social and, yes, moral.
During the 19th century, the ideal of the English public school was the education of character-cum-intelligence, with the emphasis on the former. In the university colleges the emphasis shifted to intelligence, but of course not at the expense of character. But what is “character”? A difficult question, further obscured by the still current Freudian emphasis on the subconscious, and on the motives of men and women. Let me only say that character is directed to purposes, rather than being dependent on motives: to conscious behavior and to the conscious functions of the mind. This was (and not only in England) hardly separable from the ideal of the gentleman— a social category, of course, but not merely definable within the limits of a class. For gradually the meaning of “gentle” became inseparable not only from birth but from behavior and, yes, thinking. Beginning at least 250 years ago, a “gentleman” had to embody a recognizable amount of civility and also some learning. (That this ideal was something very different from the notion of an Intellectual—a word that, as a noun, began to appear in Britain and America only about 100 years ago, with its provenance from Russia—needs no further explanation.)
There were some differences between the contemporary English and the Jeffersonian ideals of a cultivated man. But, essentially, the ideals of the English and of the better American private schools and colleges were not very different. They suggested higher standards of civility, including behavior. (I recall the sign of an American eatery on Madison Avenue in New York around 1950: “A Hamburger With A College Education.”) Before the recent emergence of a meritocracy in America, the main purpose of parents sending their sons and daughters to elite colleges and universities was social, rather than intellectual. That social emphasis was less so in the Yale or Harvard of the early 19th century, but it then reached its peak during the—in retrospect, short-lived—bourgeois period in the history of the United States, approximately from about 1880 to 1955. But there was a worm in the apple. There were—and still are—good reasons for sending a boy to Princeton, perhaps principally for the sake of learning good manners (after all, as Goethe said, there are no manners that do not have a moral foundation somewhere). But the acquisition of good manners was seldom separable from the ambition to fit into good company—that is, a preparation for the rise on the social, even more than on the occupational, scale. The result was an often excessively cramped social consciousness. That Bohemian rebel and traditionalist Dwight MacDonald (a Yale man) recalled that, working at the New Yorker, he was endlessly harassed by John O’Hara who wanted to know the smallest details about clubs and colleges and the width of neckties and belts worn by their members—and not for the sake of gathering such details for his novels, either.
Let us not have illusions about the climate of our most famous institutions in the past. Santayana summed it up in his Character and Opinion in the United States; in a different way, so did Henry Seidel Ganby in his memoirs, entitled Alma Mater. “Many of the traits that had made the twentieth-century American in business and the professions . . . are really traits of the alumni of the old American colleges. . . . This stabilizing of character and temperament, and also of prejudice, [was] probably due to the college graduate, for our alumni strengthened their bonds and gained in class consciousness just when the so-called old American was losing his grip.” As early as 1894, Santayana wrote about Harvard: “A gentleman had begun to be an anomaly. . . . Some teachers of the old school naturally remain—teachers in whom the moral and personal relation to their pupils is still predominant, but the main concern of our typical young professor is not his pupils at all. . . . His vocation is to follow and promote the development of his branch of learning by reading the new books and magazine articles on his subject and contributing himself to its ‘literature.'” And Ganby, reminiscing in 1934 about the same period: “We lived in a cautious society and caution bred timidity. . . . That is why there was so much that was feminine in academic life, so much jealousy, so much vanity, so much petty intrigue. The faculty seethed with gossip. Some of our best professors were so vain that it was impossible to argue with them over any opinion they had made their own.” Not entirely different 100 years later, is it?
There are a few salutary phenomena. For the last 20 years at least it appears that some of the best college and university students are not more “liberal” but more “conservative.” Also, some of the best scholars, especially in the humanities, may now be found in small and generally unreputed colleges and universities. Fifty years ago it was rare to find a first-rate man in Kansas or Arkansas—this is no longer so today. There is also a slow, but perhaps significant, seepage of conservative and neoconservative scholars into higher academic positions, sometimes even in the so-called elite universities. Do not, however, take too much comfort from this latter phenomenon. A tendency to ideologization, to professional and personal intrigues, to jealousy and exclusion, is as frequent among newfangled conservatives as among the most ossified old liberals. “Knowledge without integrity,” Samuel Johnson wrote in Rasselas, “is a dreadful thing.”
The greatest, and most enduring, American myth has been Education—ever since Emerson and perhaps even since Cotton Mather—often at the expense of the task of bringing up civilized children at home. In the 19th century, the most imposing building in an American small town was a bank. In the 20th century, it was the public high school, where parents expected their offspring to learn how to drive and dance and learn the rudiments of sexual contacts—in loco parentis. (This may now be a thing of the past, since so many of our public schools fulfill not much more than the function of custodial institutions.) But in loco parentis now involves every educational institution in America, from pre-kindergarten to graduate schools. Education for learning—and, alas, often education of civilized behavior—is cultivated in fewer and fewer homes. Most of the problems of American higher education are not only inseparable from the problems of the dissolution of traditional family and home life; they are the direct consequences of it.
The problem of higher education in America is the problem of the degradation of democracy. The founders of this Republic (such as Jefferson) may have proceeded from an overestimation of the intelligence—including the learning capacity—of the people. But expectation is always preferable to distrust, as even gullibility may be preferable to cynicism. What has been happening in our “culture”—entertainment, television, indeed in all of our educational institutions—is a cynical underestimation of the intelligence, indeed of the learning capacity, of our young people. The results are all around us. Just look at the names of the courses offered at some of our elite institutions. This is not the place to illustrate, let alone list, the myriad imbecilities practiced, taught, and institutionalized in some of these institutions during the last 30 years. Yet the prestige of our elite institutions has not suffered much in spite of this. As a matter of fact, the sons of the best (and not only the richest) people of the world send their sons to study at Harvard or MIT or Stanford: the sons of sheiks as well as those of European prime ministers or of East Asian millionaires. There is a lesson in this somewhere—perhaps the one put starkly in one of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, that the world awards the appearance of merit, not merit itself. But this is a perennial human condition, not a particularly American one.
At the same time, fewer and fewer rich or ambitious foreigners now send their offspring to American colleges. For the function of the American college changed even more drastically than that of our graduate schools of specialized training. The American college must now do—at best—what the American high school was supposed to do two or three generations ago. At best: because the results are not encouraging. At the end of this chronological century the average college graduate—consider that his parents are pushing him into schools earlier and earlier, so that this happens after 17 or 18 years of schooling—shows little adequate ability to read and write. In any case, the college has become nothing more than extended middle school, or private school at most; and the college degree amounts to what a high school diploma was worth 40 or 50 years ago. The effects of all this spread beyond what is or what is not in the college curricula. They are social. College Joe, Betty Co-Ed, and the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi are now period pictures. “A Hamburger With A College Education” today would suggest a hamburger that is not more but less meaty— and tasty—than other hamburgers: perhaps one with reduced cholesterol, or surely with salsa.
There are now hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of high school graduates who never had to read a book. There are now such college graduates, too. Of course the respect for books and reading and learning must come from elsewhere, as it has always: from the home—or, in these atomized and suburbanized and dispersed habitations—from the desire for a home and for a family. So is the habit of reading and learning inseparable from the desire for reading and learning. Let me repeat: the problem of American higher education is not ideological or intellectual. It is social and moral.
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