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Faust, zweiter Teil

Steve Sailer has a good piece on how the college prestige racket works. Basically, he says, no one cares what kind of education top colleges offer. Whatever Dr. Faust may do, a Harvard degree will still prove that its holder was able to get into Harvard and that’s all that really matters.

That certainly fits the impression I got from a grand tour of the New England liberal arts colleges I took with my son a few years ago. Every place I visited the basic deal seemed to be (1) the students don’t have to do anything, (2) the faculty can do what it wants, and (3) the administration raises money and keeps things quiet by making payoffs to feminists and minorities. It all works beautifully. The students get a degree guaranteed to open doors, and in the meantime are lavishly praised for amusing themselves—“our students are so wonderful we don’t have to tell them what to do.” Their parents shell out big time but they’ve gotten their kids into the upper classes so it’s cheap at the price. The alumni, who want to see no evil, are jollied along by huge PR staffs. Everybody sees a pretty campus, which is what you get when you spend huge amounts of money on architecture and groundskeeping. The school proclaims its allegiance to inclusiveness, which puts it on the side of the angels and means it doesn’t have to have any very definite idea of what it should be doing. And the money keeps rolling in, so the administrators can keep their jobs, the professors can keep doing what they want, and the payoffs can still be made.

All of which seems like a harsh description, so maybe I should give particulars. The most striking thing about one of these places is how much money there is, and how much is lavished on the physical surroundings. Everyone looks like he has money. The students’ rooms are jammed with electronics, refrigerators and what not else. The new buildings are all by top-of-the-line architects. The old buildings are beautifully maintained on the outside, and inside they’re all retrofitted and cutting-edge. The dorms and dining halls are much more luxurious than in the old days, with piped-in TV in dorm rooms and endless choices in dining. Everybody spends a term or year abroad, which is perfect because it sounds educational but lets the students and school ignore each other for that length of time. All the students get As and Bs no matter what. The schools all spend huge amounts on public and alumni relations.

So far as I can tell, though, there’s no real intellectual life. From campus bulletin boards it appears that there’s some interest in various sports and hobbies and not-particularly-adventurous pop culture, and there are academic lectures about topics currently in vogue, but not much evidence of personal engagement with anything intellectual. Everything’s either narrowly professional or consumer-oriented and comfortable. All in all, the situation seems worlds apart from the one the Pope described in his Regensburg address:

I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. This was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves.

We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas: the reality that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason— this reality became a lived experience.

I suppose in a sense the quotation nails it. The university used to be comparatively independent although not wealthy materially, and its ideal was the development of rational knowledge to make it, as much as possible, adequate to all reality without distortion. We live in a consumer society in which the highest ideals are comfort, security, and equal satisfaction of all desires, and which excludes all other ideals as troublesome. Our society integrates the educational apparatus, as it integrates all else, with the general system of governance. In such a society how could anything like the university as traditionally conceived, which owes its first allegiance to standards like universal reason that transcend practicality and desire, conceivably exist?