The Closing of The American Mind
How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students
Simon & Schuster, Inc. (1987)
“Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the last man.”
“Certainly compassion and the idea of the vanguard were essentially democratic covers for elitist self-assertion.”
“Tyrannical impulses masqueraded as democratic compassion, and quest for distinction as love of equality. Self-knowledge was utterly lacking, and their conquest was so easy.”
“The radical students of the sixties called themselves “the movement,” unaware that this was also the language used by young Nazis in the thirties and was the name of a Nazi journal, ‘Die Bewegung’.”
“…The imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war, is overriding for a man who can define no other interest worthy of defending. The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old. In fact, as I have argued, the thought was really the same. The New Left in America was a Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left. The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini. Heidegger himself, late in his life, made overtures to the New Left. The most sinister formula in his Rectoral Address of 1933 was, with only the slightest of alterations, the slogan of the American professors who collaborated with the student movements of the sixties: “The time for decision is past. The decision has already been made by the youngest part of the German nation.”
“The student moralism was a species of the Tartuffe phenomenon, but a wholly new mutant of it. Unlike other revolutionary movements, which tended to be austere and chaste – beginning with the first revolution, 1688, in England, which was really puritan – this one was antipuritanical. The slogan was “Make love, not war.” Although the similarity of language was exploited, this is very different from “Love they neighbor,” which is an injunction very difficult to fulfill.”
“They themselves wanted to be the leaders of a revolution of compassion. The great objects of their contempt and fury were the members of the American middle class, professionals, workers, white collar and blue, farmers – all of those vulgarians who made up the American majority and who did not need or want either the compassion or the leadership of the students. They dared to think themselves equal to the students and to resist having their consciousness raised by them. It is very difficult to distinguish oneself in America, and in order to do so the students substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents’ conspicuous consumption. They specialized in being the advocates of all those in America and the Third World who did not challenge their sense of superiority and who, they imagined, would accept their leadership. None of the exquisite thrills of egalitarian vanity were alien to them.”
This education has evolved in the last half-century from the education of democratic man to the education of the democratic personality. (27)
The recent education of openness … pays not attention to natural rights or the historical origins of our regime, which are now thought to have been essentially flawed and regressive. It is progressive and forward-looking. It does not demand fundamental agreement on the abandonment of old or new beliefs in favor of the natural ones. It is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are not shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible? (27)
When I was a young teacher at Cornell, I once had a debate about education with a professor of psychology. He said that it was his function to get rid of prejudices of in his students. He knocked them down like tenpins. I began to wonder what he replaced those prejudices with. He did not seem to have much of an idea of what the opposite of a prejudice might be. He reminded me of the little boy who gravely informed me when I was four that there is no Santa Claus, who wanted me to bathe in the brilliant light of truth. Did this professor know what these prejudices meant for the students and what effect being deprived of them would have? Did he believe that there are truths that could guide their lives as did their prejudices? Had he considered how to give students the love of the truth necessary to seek unprejudiced beliefs, or would he render them passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and submit to authorities like himself, or the best of contemporary thought? My informant about Santa Claus was just showing off, proving his superiority to me. He had not created the Santa Claus that had to be there in order to be refuted. Think of all we learn about the world from men’s belief in Santa Claus, and all that we learn about the soul from those who believe in them. By contrast, merely methodological excision from the soul of the imagination that projects God and heroes onto the wall of the cave does not promote knowledge of the world; it only lobotomizes it, cripples its powers. (42)
The improved education of the vastly expanded middle class in the last half-century has also weakened the family’s authority. Almost everyone in the middle class has a college degree, and most have an advanced degree of some kind. Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents and grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. But – inevitably but – the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education with the prejudices and the pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources. It is not evident to me that someone whose regular reading consists of Time, Playboy and Scientific American has any profounder wisdom about the world than the rural schoolboy of yore with his McGuffey’s reader. When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately available obvious things for him to learn where the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market? (59)
When I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties, I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example that would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration or joy. (62)
The latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts is feminism. The struggles against elitism and racism in the sixties and seventies had little direct effect on students’ relations to books. The democratization of the university helped dismantle its structure and caused it to lose its focus. But the activists had no special quarrel with the classic texts, and they were even a bit infected by their Frankfurt School masters’ habit of parading their intimacy with high culture. Radicals had at an earlier stage of egalitarianism already dealt with the monarchic, aristocratic and antidemocratic character of most literary classics by no longer paying any attention to their manifest political content. Literary criticism concentrated on the private, the intimate, the feelings, thoughts and relations of individuals, while reducing to the status of a literary convention of the past the fact that the heroes of many classic works were soldiers and statesmen engaged in ruling and faced with political problems. Shakespeare, as he has been read for most of this century, does not constitute a threat to egalitarian right thinking. And as for racism, it just did not play a role in the classic literature, at least in the forms in which we are concerned about it today, and no great work of literature is ordinarily considered racist.
But all literature up to today is racist. The Muses never sang to the poets about liberated women. It’s the same old chanson from the Bible and Homer through Joyce and Proust. And this is particularly grave for literature, since the lost interest was most of what remained in the classics after politics was purged in the academy, and was also what drew students to reading them. These books appealed to eros while educating it. So activism had been directed against the content of books. The latest translation of Biblical text – sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ – suppresses gender references to God, so that future generations will not have to grapple with the fact that God was once a sexist. (65-66)
…I do not suggest that it [rock music] has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tape the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of childrens’ emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.
Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them. In alliance with some real art and a lot of pseudo-art, an enormous industry cultivates the taste for the orgiastic state if feeling connected with sex, providing a constant flood of fresh material for voracious appetites. Never was there an art form directed so exclusively to children.
Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as ploymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.
The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness thus becomes indignation and then transforms itself into morality. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture. And then comes the longing for the classes, prejudice-free, conflictless, universal society that necessarily results from liberated consciousness – “We are the World,” a pubescent version of Alle Menschen werden Brüder, the fulfillment of which has been inhibited by the political equivalents of Mom and Dad. These are the three great lyrical theses: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love. Such polluted sources issue in a muddy stream where only monsters can swim. A glance at the videos that project images on the walls of Plato’s cave since MTV took it over suffices to prove this. Hitler’s image recurs frequently enough in exciting contexts to give one pause. Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux. There is room only for the intense, changing, crude and immediate, which Tocqueville warned us would be the character of democratic art, combined with a pervasiveness, importance and content beyond Tocqueville’s wildest imagination. (73-74)
…As Western nations became more prosperous, leisure, which had been put off for several centuries in favor of the pursuit of property, the means to leisure, finally began to be of primary concern. But, in the meantime, any notion of the serious life of leisure, as well as men’s taste and capacity to live it, had disappeared. Leisure became entertainment. The end for which they had labored for so long has turned out to be amusement, a justified conclusion if the means justify the ends. The music business is peculiar only in that it caters almost exclusively to children, treating legally and naturally imperfect human beings as though they were ready to enjoy the final or complete satisfaction. It perhaps thus reveals the nature of all our entertainment and our loss of a clear view of what adulthood or maturity is, and our incapacity to conceive ends. The emptiness of values results in the acceptance of the natural facts as the ends. In this case infantile security is the end, and I suspect that, in the absence of other ends, many adults have come to agree that it is.
It is interesting to note that the Left, which prides itself on its critical approach to “late capitalism” and is unrelenting and unsparing on its analysis of our other cultural phenomena, has in general given rock music a free ride. Abstracting from the capitalist element in which it flourishes, they regard it as a people’s art, coming from beneath the bourgeoisie’s layers of cultural repression. Its antinomianism and its longing for a world without constraint might seem to be the clarion of the proletarian revolution, and Marxists certainly do see that rock music dissolves the beliefs and morals necessary for liberal society and would approve of it for that alone. But the harmony between the young intellectual Left and rock is probably profounder than that. Herbert Marcuse appealed to university students in the sixties with a combination of Marx and Freud. In Eros and Civilization and One Dimensional Man he promised that the overcoming of capitalism and its false consciousness will result in a society where the greatest satisfactions are sexual, of a sort that the bourgeois moralist Freud called polymorphous and infantile. Rock music touches the same chord in the young. Free sexual expression, anarchism, mining of the irrational unconscious and giving it free rein are what they have in common. The high intellectual life I shall describe in Part Two and the low rock world are partners in the same entertainment enterprise. They must both be interpreted as parts of the cultural fabric of late capitalism. Their success comes from the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bouregois, to have undangerous experiments with the unlimited. He is willing to pay dearly for them. The Left is better interpreted by Nietzsche than by Marx. The critical theory of late capitalism is at once late capitalism’s subtlest and crudest expression. Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the last man. (77-78)
…The herd is modern, the hive ancient. Of course, neither image is an accurate description of human society. Men are neither atoms nor parts of a body. But this is why there have to be such images, since for the brutes these things are not a matter for discussion or deliberation. Man is ambiguous. In the tightest communities, at least since the days of Odysseus, there is something in man that wants out and senses that his development is stunted by being just part of a whole, rather than a whole itself. And in the freest and most independent situations men long for unconditional attachments. The tension between freedom and attachment, and attempts to achieve the impossible union of the two, are the permanent condition of man. But in modern political regimes, where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primary over community, family and even nature.
The spirit of this choice must inevitably penetrate into all the details of life. The ambiguity of man is well illustrated in the sexual passion and the sentiments that accompany it. Sex may be treated as a pleasure out of which men and women may make what they will, its promptings followed or rejected, its forms matters of taste, its importance or unimportance in life decided freely by individuals. As such, it least according to thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, it would have to give precedence to objective natural necessity, to the imperatives of self-love or self-preservation. Or sex can be immediately constitutive of a whole law of life, to which self-preservation is subordinated and in which live, marriage and the rearing of infants is the most important business. It cannot be both. The direction in which we have been going is obvious. (113)
Two Revolutions and Two States of Nature
It is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature. We are like aristocrats who do not care to know that our ancestors were once savages who, motivated only by fear of death and scarcity, killed one another in quarrels over acorns. But we continue to live off the capital passed on to us by these rejected predecessors. Everyone believes in freedom and equality and the rights consequent to them. These were, however, brought to civil society from the state of nature; in the absence of any other ground for them, they must be just as mythical as the tale of the state of nature told by the unreliable travelers. Instructed by the new natural science that provided their compass, they went to the origin and not to the end, as did the older political philosophers. Socrates imaged a shining city in speech; Hobbes discovered an isolated individual whose life was “mean, nasty, brutish and short.” This opens up a very different perspective on what one wants and hopes for from politics. Prudence points not toward regimes dedicated to the cultivation of rare and difficult, if not impossible, virtues, but toward a good police force to protect men from one another and allow them to preserve themselves as well as possible. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society’s purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature’s imperfection causes war.
The reports from the state of nature mixed bad news and good news. Perhaps the most important discovery was that there was no Garden of Eden; the Eldorado of the spirit turned out to be both desert and jungle. Man was not provided for at the beginning, and his current state is not a result of his sin, but of nature’s miserliness. He is on his own. God neither looks after him not punishes him. Nature’ indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must care for himself without the hope that good men have always had: that there is a price to be paid for crime, that the wicked will suffer. But it is also a great liberation – from God’s tutelage, from the claims of kings, nobles and priests, and from guilt or bad conscience. The greatest hopes are dashed; but some of the worst terrors and inner developments are dispelled. (162-163)
The Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa
…The new revolutionary charm became evident in the U.S. in the sixties, much to the distaste of old Marxists. There is also something of this in the current sympathy for terrorists, because “they care.” I have seen young people, and older people too, who are good democratic liberals, lovers of peace and gentleness, struck dumb with admiration for individuals threatening or using the most terrible violence for the slightest and tawdriest reasons. They have a sneaking suspicion that they are face to face with men of real commitment, which they themselves lack. And commitment, not truth, is believed to be what counts. Trotsky’s and Mao’s correction of Marx in calling for “permanent revolution” takes account of this thirst for the act of revolution, and its appeal lies therein. The radical students of the sixties called themselves “the movement,” unaware that this was also the language used by young Nazis in the thirties and was the name of a Nazi journal, Die Bewegung. Movement takes the place of progress, which has a definite direction, a good direction, and is a force that controls men. Progress was what the old revolutions were evidence of. Movement has none of this naïve, moralistic nonsense in it. Motion rather than fixity is our condition – but motion without any content or goal not imposed on it by man’s will. Revolution in our times is a mixture of what it was earlier thought to be and what André Gide called a gratuitous act, represented in one of his novels by the unprovoked and unmotivated murder of a stranger on a train. (221-222)
…The imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war, is overriding for a man who can define no other interest worthy of defending. The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old. In fact, as I have argued, the thought was really the same. The New Left in America was a Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left. The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini. Heidegger himself, late in his life, made overtures to the New Left. The most sinister formula in his Rectoral Address of 1933 was, with only the slightest of alterations, the slogan of the American professors who collaborated with the student movements of the sixties: “The time for decision is past. The decision has already been made by the youngest part of the German nation. (314-315)
It was also no surprise that many of those professors who had been most eloquent in their sermons about the sanctity of the university, and who had presented themselves as its consciences, were among those who had reacted, if not favorably, at least weakly to what was happening. They had made careers out of saying how badly the German professors had reacted to violations of academic freedom. This was all light talk and mock heroics, because they had not measured the potential threats to the university nor assessed the doubtful grounds of academic freedom. Above all, they did not think that it could be assaulted from the Left or from within the university, although serious examination of events in Germany would have taught them that it was indeed the university youth, as Heidegger pointed out, who had become disenchanted on theoretical grounds with the old education, and what much of the same thing had been going on then. The society at large had gradually become persuaded of the justice of liberal notions of intellectual freedom just as the first waves of doubt about them from Europe were smacking against our shores. A conviction of the self-evidence of Enlightenment principles to all thinking people, combined with simplistic economic and psychological explanations, permitted American professors to misinterpret the German experience and to avoid the fact that the theoretical critique of morality in all its forms had been the precondition of the acceptability of certain kinds of public speech in Germany during the twenties. These American professors were utterly dismayed, as were many German professors, when the constituency that they took for granted, of which they honestly believed they were independent, deserted or turned against them. Students and colleagues wanted to radicalize and politicize the university. To fulminate against Bible Belt preachers was one thing. In the world that counted for these professors, this could only bring approval. But to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them. They were not in general strong men, although their easy rhetoric had persuaded them that they were – that they alone manned the walls protecting civilization. Their collapse was merely pitiful, although their feeble attempts at self-justification frequently turned vicious. (317-318)
Among the campus disruptions and the student movement there has grown up a mythology, an expression of the tastes of those for whom the atmosphere depicted in Ten Days that Shook the World is more stimulating than that in Hegel’s Berlin lecture room would have been. One of the myths is that the fifties were a period of intellectual conformism and superficiality, whereas there was real excitement and questioning in the sixties. McCarthyism – invoked when Stalinism is mentioned in order to even the balance of injustice between the two superpowers – symbolizes those gray, grim years, while the blazing sixties were the days of “the movement” and, to hear it survivors tell it, their single-handed liberation of the blacks, the women and the South Vietnamese. Without entering into the strictly political issues, the intellectual picture projected is precisely the opposite of the truth. The sixties were the period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts. Not a single book of lasting importance was produced in or around the movement. It was all Norman O. Brown and Charles Reich. This was when real conformism hit the universities, when opinions about everything from God to the movies became absolutely predictable. The evidence brought from pop culture to bolster the case for the sixties – that in the fifties Lana Turner played torchy, insincere adulteresses while in the sixties we got Jane Fonda as an authentic whore; that before the sixties we had Paul Anka and after we had the Rolling Stones – is of no importance. Even if this characterization were true, it would only go to rpove that there is no relation between popular culture and high culture, and that the former is all that is now influential on our scene. (322)
…In an admirable phrase Montesquieu encapsulated the moral taste that the student leaders represented and on which they played. “Men, although they are individually rascals, are collectively a most decent lot: they love morality.” This is the formula for Tartuffe. The student moralism was a species of the Tartuffe phenomenon, but a wholly new mutant of it. Unlike other revolutionary movements, which tended to be austere and chaste – beginning with the first revolution, 1688, in England, which was really puritan – this one was antipuritanical. The slogan was “Make love, not war.” Although the similarity of language was exploited, this is very different from “Love they neighbor,” which is an injunction very difficult to fulfill. “To make love” is a bodily act, very easy to perform and thought to be pleasant. The word “obscene” was transformed out of sex into politics. Somehow the students had touched on a whole set of desires previously thought to be questionable, which had hardly dared to name themselves but which were ripe for emancipation and legitimation. The ideology for the revolution was already in place. Moderation of the infinite bodily desires had become “repression” of nature, one of the forms of domination, the buzzword of the advanced thinkers and consciousness raisers. All that was needed were the heroes willing to act out the fantasies the public was now ready to accept as reality: the hero, as hedonist, who dares to do in public what the public wants to see. It was épater les bourgeois as a bourgeois calling. The practices of the late Roman Empire were promoted with the moral fervor of early Christianity and the political idealism of Robespierre. Such a combination is, of course, impossible. It is playacting, a role, and the students knew it. But that haunting sentiment was assuaged by the fact that this was the first revolution made for TV. They were real because they could see themselves on television. All the world had become a stage, and they were playing leads. The cure proposed for the bourgeois disease really was its most advanced symptom. (328)
But, unsupported and excoriated, this part of the soul lives on, dwelling underground, receiving no sublimating education. As with all repressed impulses, it has its daily effects on personality and also occasionally bursts forth in various disguises and monstrous shapes. Much of modern history can be explained by the search of what Plato called spiritedness for legitimate self-expression. Certainly compassion and the idea of the vanguard were essentially democratic covers for elitist self-assertion. Rousseau, who first made compassion the foundation of democratic sentiment, was fully aware that a sense of superiority to the sufferer is a component of the human experience of compassion. He actually was attempting to channel the inegalitarian impulse into egalitarian channels. Similarly the avant-garde (usually used in relation to art) and the vanguard (usually used in relation to politics) are democratic modes of distinguishing oneself, of being ahead, of leading, without denying the democratic principle. The members of the vanguard have just a small evanescent advantage. They now know what everyone will soon know. This posture conciliates instinct with principle. And it was the one adopted by the students who feared assimilation to the democratic man. There they were in those few elite universities, which were being rapidly democratized. And their political futures were bleak, their educations not advantaging them for elective office, providing only the prospect of having to work their way up in the dreary fashion of such contemptible persons as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But these universities were respected, looked to by the democratic press and were the alma maters of much of the powerful elite. These little places could easily be seized, just as a polis could have been seized. Using them as a stage, students instantly achieved notoriety. Young black students I knew at Cornell appeared on the covers of the national news magazines. How irresistible it all was, an elite shortcut to political influence. In the ordinary world, outside the universities, such youngsters would have had no way of gaining attention. They took as their models Mao, Castro and Che Guevara, promoters of equality, if you please, but surely not themselves equal to anyone. They themselves wanted to be the leaders of a revolution of compassion. The great objects of their contempt and fury were the members of the American middle class, professionals, workers, white collar and blue, farmers – all of those vulgarians who made up the American majority and who did not need or want either the compassion or the leadership of the students. They dared to think themselves equal to the students and to resist having their consciousness raised by them. It is very difficult to distinguish oneself in America, and in order to do so the students substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents’ conspicuous consumption. They specialized in being the advocates of all those in America and the Third World who did not challenge their sense of superiority and who, they imagined, would accept their leadership. None of the exquisite thrills of egalitarian vanity were alien to them.
One could appreciate and even sympathize with the frustrated inclinations, the love of glory that could not be avowed, the quest for the recognition of excellence that were revealed in the sixties campus politics. However, the hypocrisy of it all, and the ignorance of what a man has to know and to risk in order to be political, made the spectacle more repulsive than touching. Tyrannical impulses masqueraded as democratic compassion, and quest for distinction as love of equality. Self-knowledge was utterly lacking, and their conquest was so easy. The elite should really be elite, but these elitists were given the distinction they craved without having earned it. The university provided a kind of affirmative-action elitism. There had for a long time been a conspiracy in the universities to deny that there is a problem for the superior individual, particularly the one with the gift and the passion for ruling, in democratic society. Suddenly they found themselves confronted by potential rulers who accused them of complicity in the crime of ruling. It served them right.
It was with respect to precisely this problem that I had one of my greatest satisfactions as a teacher. The little Greek Civilization Program a group of professors set up against the currents had just gotten under way the year of the crisis. It consisted of about a dozen enthusiastic freshmen, and we had been reading Plato’s Republic during the entire year. We had not finished it when the university became a chaos. Almost all classes ceased, as students and professors alike turned to the serious business of making the revolution, hanging about the campus and going from one crazy meeting to another. I had joined with a group of professors who announced they would not teach until the guns were off campus and some kind of legitimate order had been restored. But these students had become deeply involved with the story of the ambitious Glaucon, who was founding a city with the help of Socrates. So we continued to meet informally. They were really more interested in the book than the revolution, which in itself proved what kind of a counter-charm the university ought to provide to the siren calls of the contemporary scene. These students were rather contemptuous of what was going on, because it got in the way of what they thought it important to do. They wanted to find out what happened to Glaucon during his wonderful night with Socrates. They really looked down from the classroom on the frantic activity outside, thinking they were privileged, hardly a one tempted to join the crowd. I later found out that some of these students had indeed gone down from the library seminar room into the agora, where the action was. They had made copies of the following lines from the Republic and handed them out, competing with the hawkers of other kinds of tracts:
“Do you too believe, as do the many, that certain young men are corrupted by sophists, and that there are certain sophists who in a private capacity corrupt to an extent worth mentioning? Isn’t it rather the very men who say this who are the biggest sophists, who educate most perfectly and who turn out young and old, men and women, just the way they want them to be?”
“But when do they do that?” he said.
“When,” I said, “many gathered together sit down in assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps, or any other common meeting of a multitude, and, with a great deal of uproar, blame some of the things said or done, and praise others, both in excess, shouting and clapping; and, besides, the rocks and the very place surrounding them echo and redouble the uproar of blame and praise. Now in such circumstances, as the saying goes, what do you suppose is the state of the young man’s heart? Or what kind of private education will hold out for him and not be swept away by such blame and praise and go, borne by the flood, wherever it tends so that he’ll say the same things are noble and base as they do, practice what they practice, and be such as they are?” (Republic 4916-4920)
They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it, had had an experience of liberation. Socrates’ magic still worked. He had diagnosed the complaint of the ambitious young and showed how to treat it. (330-333)
The Student and The University
This disposition affected the natural scientists’ behavior at Cornell and everywhere else. In the attempt to use the admission of students and appointment of faculty as means for this or that social goal, which has lowered university standards and obscured the university’s purpose, they cooperated with the new agenda, in their own way. They adopted the rhetoric of anti-elitism, antisexism and antiracism, and quietly resisted doing anything about the issues in their own domain. They passed the buck to the social scientists and the humanists, who proved more accommodating and could be more easily bullied. Natural scientists too are Americans, in general favorably disposed to the mood of the times. But they are also pretty sure of what they are doing. They cannot deceive themselves that they are teaching science when they are not. They have powerful operational measures of competence. And inwardly they believe, at least in my experience, that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge. In the dilemma that faced them – mathematicians wanted, for example, to see more blacks and women hired but could not find nearly enough competent ones – they in effect said that the humanists and social scientists should hire them. Believing that there are no real standards outside of the natural sciences, they assumed that adjustments could easily be made. With the profoundest irresponsibility, scientists went along with various aspects of affirmative action, assuming, for example, that any minority students admitted without proper qualifications would be taken care of by other departments if they did not do well in science. The scientists did not anticipate large-scale failure of such students, with the really terrible consequences that would entail. They took it for granted that these students would succeed somewhere else in the university. And they were right. The humanities and social sciences were debauched and grade inflation took off, while the natural sciences remain largely the preserve of white males. Thus the true elitists of the university have been able to stay on the good side of the forces of history without having to suffer any of the consequences.
To find hysterical supporters of the revolution one had, not surprisingly, to go to the humanities. Passion and commitment, as opposed to coolness, reason and objectivity, found their home there. The drama included a proclamation from a group of humanities teachers threatening to take over a building if the university did not capitulate forthwith. A student told me that one of his humanities professors, himself a Jew, had said to him that Jews deserved to be put in concentration camps because of what they had done to blacks. Finally these men and women were in action instead of idling away their time in libraries and classrooms. But they worked to their own undoing, for it is the humanities that have suffered most as a result of the sixties. The lack of student interest, the near disappearance of language study, the vanishing of jobs for Ph.D.s, the lack of public sympathy, came from the overturning of the old order, where their place was assured. They have gotten what they deserved, but we have unfortunately all lost.
The reasons for this behavior on the part of many humanists are obvious and constitute the theme of this book. Cornell was in the forefront of certain trends in the humanities as well as in politics. It had for several years been a laundering operation for radical Left French ideas in comparative literature. From Sartre, through Goldmann, to Foucault and Derrida, each successive wave washed over the Cornell shores. These ideas were intended to give new life to old books. A technique of reading, a framework for interpretation – Marx, Freud, structuralism, and on and on – could incorporate these tired old books and make them a part of revolutionary consciousness. At last there was an active, progressive role for the humanists, who had been only antiquarians, eunuchs guarding a harem of aging and now unattractive courtesans. Moreover, the almost universal historicism prevailing in the humanities prepared the soul for devotion to the emergent. Added to this was the expectation that in such changes culture would take primacy over science. The intellectual anti-university ideology of which I have spoken found its expression in these conditions, as the university could be thought to be the stage of history. Lucien Goldmann told me a few months before his death that he was privileged to have lived to see his nine-year-old son throw a rock through a store window in the Paris of ‘68. His studies of Racine and Pascal culminated in this. Humanitas redivivas! Students took to the action but not to the books. They could work on the future without the assistance of the past or its teachers. The avant-garde’s fond expectation that the revolution would introduce an age of creativity, that art rather than antiquarianism would flower, that imagination would finally have its innings against reason, did not find immediate fulfillment. (351-352)