Empire of Illusion Ch. 3: Slouching Towards the Ivies
At this point in the book, it’s becoming more evident to me that Chris Hedges is a cultural conservative of a fairly traditionalist bent. Some readers might overlook this because he’s a progressive, but as anyone who’s lived in a black community in America can attest, left-wing politics and traditionalist cultural values can live together quite comfortably. At his core, Hedges is a cultural conservative because he has a sense of what has been lost in the culture and what the cost of that loss has been, even though his own political allegiances don’t require him to gloss over the role of capitalism in that loss. Conversely, he’s not too loyal to the left to point out that left-leaning academics have allowed the humanities to decline on their watch, retreating into a self-enclosed and miasmic world of faddish jargon.
First a gripe: Hedges is a product of his environment and he focuses entirely on the catastrophic effects of declining standards in America’s elite Ivy League universities, and of the homogeneity of political and corporate leaders who come from that background. But ignoring all other areas of American higher education implies that the decline of the Ivies matters for American society in a way that the overall decline of higher ed does not. But our corporate and political leaders no longer come solely from a handful of elite universities, and the problems he sites are widespread. Surely it’s also tragic when state school students are shortchanged in their education.
More generally, Hedges feels that university education is in a bad place. Students are apathetic or hostile to text-based education, professors are mired in faddish theories that ensure they can only communicate among themselves, administrators are obsessed with a vision of colleges as a product in another consumer market with little memory of other visions of academia, and tuition costs too much. Of course, none of this is anything new. Even the consumer mindset is but the latest in a long line of fads centered on a strange and perennial desire to make universities into something else. Education faddists constantly gripe about traditionalists like Hedges who can still see the old structure of a university poking out from beneath the latest additions.
I find a lot of academics are closet traditionalists. Even if you begin your education with dreams of revolutionary change, you’re committing yourself to a profession that is semi-monastic and which requires a high level of devotion to the stewardship of culture- the day-to-day work in the humanities is quite literally cultural conservatism.
And, little by little, as you develop intellectually in this system, you begin to catch glimpses of the older structure that lies buried under every recent addition. You start to realize that these additions: the therapeutic apparatus, the corporate research and development wing, the consumer culture gewgaws, the sporting/entertainment company, and all the rest are simply veils obscuring what a university actually is. You can still detect the outlines of the old structure: the divisions between students and faculty, between universities, colleges, and departments; even within departments; the special privileges that accrue to each level. What you’re starting to see, in fact, is the outline of a Medieval guild; the sort of authoritative transmission chain that once passed down the highest knowledge of a culture.
And I believe you start to have a sense of why those authoritative teaching structures, like the university and the Church, were so valuable- they provide a ladder of higher and lower meaning that people may climb upwards, and safeguards to prevent them from sliding downwards. As Henry Adams writes: “Safeguards are often irksome, but sometimes convenient, and if one needs them at all, one is apt to need them badly.” One problem with the multiversity is that it provides authoritative structures of meaning only very rarely anymore.
I believe scholars also develop an internal pathos of distance of the sort you see in Hedges- a sense that there are higher and lower things by nature in culture as well as life and that the distance is great between them. They become traditionalists in a sense so deep it’s an existential calling and this often makes them miserable. They become great but curmudgeonly teachers.
A good teacher produces nothing and transmits much. The loss of this truth is at the heart of the decline of the university. Instead of training them to be stewards of the culture, humanities departments pressure young scholars to produce books and articles at a ridiculous pace and “keep current” by constantly innovating in fields that need to actually be taught first. In my profession, a love of teaching is often a career killer.
Many students, meanwhile, really are deeply incurious, but this only becomes a problem when university administrators focus so intently on whether their consumers are happy with the “college experience” that they lose all interest in what their graduates are actually learning. Cynicism sets in. Grade inflation becomes an institutionalized part of the college experience. And, in the end, the humanities are rooted in the careful study of texts, a practice at odds with a society in which active literacy is increasingly vestigial.
What should the traditionalists do in order to keep the transmission chain alive? A suggestion: devote their lives to it, regardless of what happens to the university. I’m increasingly convinced that young scholars need to leave college and go back to learning. Deep learning is slow and patient; it produces very little, but finally transmits the culture’s DNA to the next generation. Live in the library, read the classics, and eat cheaply. If you can write a secular torah of your culture and leave that behind, you’ve done enough. Your “career” might be a disaster- actually it is for most traditionalists, but this is the sacred duty of all scholars.
And then bear in mind that cultures now change by the generation. If Hedges is right that American society is shallow, self-centered, mean, and anti-intellectual, and perhaps certain pockets are, he should take succor in the fact that young people very often rebel against their parents. Will the next generation in line rebel by turning off the television, logging off the Internet, and fight the powers that be by curling up with a good book and thinking through hard problems? It’s a brighter prospect than Hedges’s seeming belief that things will only get worse and worse as America collapses. He’d probably call it self-deluding optimism, and maybe it is. But envisioning a better future gives us something to plan for. The good thing about Dark Ages- they eventually end.