The question then becomes, how did our “intellectuals” get to be the way they are?
Believe it or not, “college” was a conservative institution well within living memory. We were suspicious of our intellectuals long before the 1960s, of course — to a frontier people, incomprehensible enthusiasms probably have ulterior motives — but we were not in any meaningful sense “anti-intellectual.”
Before the 1960s, even the most fiercely intellectual intellectuals reached wide audiences. The James brothers, for instance (William and Henry), were as Boston brahmin as it got, but though their works weren’t page-turners most literate Americans at least knew their names and the outlines of their thought. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote popular light verse; though we slog through them now, heavyweight writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne were bestsellers in their day. We even claimed native sons T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound when they got famous / notorious enough (though they didn’t return the favor), and no one then or now would call them popular writers.
So what happened? How did our “intelligentsia” go, in the space of maybe two generations, from “aloof but respected” to “hated and mocked”? How did they go from conservatives — meaning, if nothing else, “conservators of high culture” — to purple-haired, nose-ringed genderfluids with custom pronouns?
There are two answers, a simple and a complex one. Both are right as far as they go. The first is simple arithmetic. The Cold War required more techies than the Ivy League could provide. What we should’ve done, of course, was create a separate “defense tech” higher ed system, but that’s not the American Way. Instead, we noticed that there were all these state colleges around, wasting their math and science faculty on Rocks for Jocks-type classes for the local sons of privilege. Why not give them gazillions in grant money to buy the kind of lab equipment you can design missiles with?
The problem, though, was that universities — which, again, were profoundly conservative institutions back then — didn’t see “churning out missile designers” as their core function. They really believed all that “shaping young men’s characters” stuff they put in the college motto. So they made all the aspiring missile designers take stuff like English and History….
I think you see where this is going. Since only “original” “research” gets published (it’s the hoariest old college tradition of them all), and since everything that needed to be said about high culture had been said centuries ago, the only way to crank out the huge numbers of new English, History, etc. PhDs that the vastly expanded student bodies required was to vastly expand the meanings of “original” and “research.” Thus the road to tenure takes only Left turns, and thus the Mark van Dorens and Van Wyck Brookses of the academic world — “liberals” by the standards of their day — became crusty old dinosaurs within their lifetimes. Mark van Doren might deserve a few years in Purgatory for encouraging Allen Ginsburg’s pretensions, but nobody deserves the hell of watching his lifetime’s work wiped out by creepy old Nazi-collaborating Frogs who insist there’s no such thing as “literature.”
The second reason our “intellectuals” are the way they are stems from the first. I’m an educated man by today’s standards, but as I’ve said here many times, the institutions that granted me advanced degrees at the turn of the 21st century wouldn’t even have admitted me as an undergrad in the middle of the 20th. Compared to mine, the erudition of the Baby Boom generation of professors is deep, profound… and those are the half-trained scabs crashed through to fill English 101 slots back in the early 1960s. Living “the life of the mind” is awful damn hard when your mind doesn’t have much furniture…
Which is the profound, sick genius of “radical” politics. A guy who graduated with a BA from Podunk State in 1960 knows at least Latin, probably Greek, and likely can still diagram a sentence and factor a quadratic. I have a Master’s and a PhD, from places with much heftier reps than Podunk State, and I can’t do any of that. So which is easier: Admitting that I suck, and that putting me in front of a college classroom is like putting a kid straight from tee ball in the batter’s box against Max Scherzer… or claiming that all that stuff — the Greek and Latin and whatnot — is just a patriarchal imposition of the Pale Penis People?
I’ve got a few decades’ worth of pay stubs from various colleges, so you know which one I picked. At least I had the good grace to feel a pang of conscience while cashing the check, though. Most of my colleagues, though, really believed that stuff….
Part III soon.Loading Likes...