First — sigh — some disclaimers (I hate this modern “as a ___” confessional style of writing, but it’s necessary here). I don’t have tenure. I’m not even on the tenure track. In fact, academia isn’t my main gig — I have all the paper qualifications a “real” professor has, but I’m strictly a part-timer on my off hours from my real job. So I’m hardly deep in the belly of the beast, unlike Sauron’s Lazy Eye, who is in the Majors for real (and who seems like a really nice guy, based on e-interactions). But I’ve taught at, or been taught in, every level of the American university system, from the Ivy League to Football U. to Private Liberal Arts College ™ to Community College. Anecdotes aren’t data, of course, but I’ve got lots of anecdotes.
It’s true, as Sauron says (though not quite as hyperbolically), that college has always been more “a holding tank for rich twits’ rambunctious kids” than “a place of serious study.” By the 1600s, certainly, the old Scholastic curriculum was widely ridiculed as useless, angels-on-pinheads stuff (that’s where the phrase comes from, I believe) — read Hobbes if you want some really top-shelf invective against “Schoolmen” and their musty old pointless hidebound junk.
BUT — and this is the important part — colleges back then were intended to, and did, produce the next generation of the Elite. Only three types of people went to college back when:
- The sons of the aristocracy, who needed a literal “safe space” to sow their wild oats before becoming the actual aristocracy;
- The sons of the nouveaux riches, who needed to hobnob with aristocrats’ kids to learn how to be just plain riche; and
- Very intelligent, very ambitious commoners’ sons on the make.
The first two groups were already the elite; they just needed to learn to act like it, either by blowing off steam for a few years, or by making contacts and learning the social rules of the game (or both). The third group was being actively co-opted into the Elite. That’s how Hobbes got his university education, for instance — if you’re the Elite, you want a guy like Hobbes on your side. Imagine the damage he could’ve done, had he thrown in his lot with the Roundheads!
As recently as the 1950s, college worked like this in America, too. Originally founded to train ministers back when ministers were the Elite, places like Harvard and Yale had rigorous enough academics, but their real function was the transmission of Elite standards of behavior and outlook. That’s why they cooked up the SAT back in the days — a modern economy needs math to run*; guys like Slade Jackington van Pelt VI can’t count past ten without pulling off a sock; therefore the guys who can do math must be co-opted wholesale. A Harvard diploma, then, meant less “this is a well-educated individual” (though it often also meant that), and more “this guy is a Friend of Ours,” Mafia-style.** He may not know just why it’s so important to be able to read Kant in the original Greek, but he knows Kant’s a part of Western Civilization, and he knows — and, crucially, likes — Western Civilization.
Modern college, needless to say, does NOT work like that.
I have yet to meet a professor, grad student, or administrator who could actually tell me what the point of a college education is. Yeah yeah, we’re all required to memorize the canned answer (“it creates the informed citizenry that is vital to the maintenance of a democracy”), but the only information the citizenry get from their time on campus is that democracy is nothing but a system of oppression designed by the Pale Penis People. Or the other canned answer (“to give students a broad overview of Western Civilization”), but ditto. The Elite, in other words, spend all their time telling the Aspiring Elite that Elitism is the source of all the world’s ills.
This is, in real world terms, like ExxonMobil making Lenin their CEO.
The truth is, college today is a giant racket. They’ll happily take your money, as it provides sinecures for the Diversity they love to interact with act cocktail parties (and absolutely nowhere else). But as for actually teaching the Liberal Arts as they’re traditionally understood? Fuhgettaboudit. Short of wearing a MAGA hat in the faculty lounge, the fastest way to get fired from a modern university is suggesting that someone like Kant might be worth reading.
Can it be fixed? I really truly madly deeply doubt it. Even if you fired every egghead from Berkeley to Boston and replaced them with the Z Man’s readership, you’d still have to deal with a studentry educated in American grade schools, raised by American parents and/or (usually or) the American internet. As I said over at Z Man’s, kooky California classes on pop culture fluff aren’t just political. In my experience, vast swathes of college students — I’m increasingly coming to believe it’s the actual numerical majority of college students — can’t write a coherent sentence, can’t tell you the century in which the Civil War was fought, can’t find Great Britain on a map, can’t read a text more complex than a tweet. Moreover, they don’t know that they don’t know this stuff, and not only don’t they care they don’t know it, they actually get offended at the notion that they should care. If they don’t already know it, it is by definition not worth knowing….
And that’s why you get classes like “The Epistemology of Game of Thrones.” At least they’ll do the fucking homework… maybe… if it’s not dollar beer night down at the student union and there’s nothing better on tv. Dumb it down far enough, and you can in good conscience (in the loosest sense of that term) give them the As which are their birthright, that their parents have paid for, and that they — and their parents!! — will gripe all the way up to the Dean’s very doorstep if they don’t get. The customer is always right, after all.
*N.b. Hobbes always considered himself first and foremost a mathematician.
**Which also explains why the Ivies were so wishy-washy about Jews. Jews tend to ace the SAT, but can Abe Goldstein ever truly be a “Harvard man” the way Slade Jackington van Pelt VI is?