Essay
07.19.2019

On campus, today's forlorn meritocrats no longer believe what the apparatchiks are teaching them.

If you’re teaching philosophy to freshmen, especially in spring, there often comes a moment when you start to lose the class. Sometimes internship fever has kicked in, and the professional uselessness of Plato’s reflections on beauty swells bright and vibrant in the minds of your students, almost visible in the room. Sometimes a sadistic architect has lined a wall of your classroom with wide windows gasping out onto a verdant quad of sunbathing, frisbee-tossing students, and you end up shouting and flapping your arms about Kant to no apparent avail.

I’ve never taught accounting, computer science or any other easily marketable skill, so perhaps that’s a different game entirely, but my discipline has a unique criterion for success: it’s the one that contains an emotional posture in its name—philia-sophia, the love of wisdom. A successful pedagogy, in my book, is one that exposes our ignorance and charts a walkable path away from it, activating the natural human desire for wisdom. I’ve done few things more rewarding, and spent few hours more pleasurable, than in a class session where the students are lunging at some bit of wisdom that answers to a deep, tender hope or confusion, the grasping of which might help them put some order and meaning to their lives. If the students don’t want to be wise, however, this particular game is over. All that remains is grade anxiety and memorization.

It’s a beautiful thing when you can keep them on the hook for a full semester, but even if you lose them, it means you had them once. This loss is a prospect few professors need grapple with now, because very few students ever get gotten. The American university as a whole—and I’ve taught everyone from Ivy League seniors to ESL students just arrived from China—has scarcely any students to lose. It has clients, beneficiaries, prestigious alums in the making, future donors, whatever, but not many students. It makes hardly any attempt, however half-hearted, to put a hook in their souls, or lead them toward any beautiful thing, any richer way of life. It wins their money, their conscious attention and their anxieties only because it holds the key to professional success, to good salaries, respectability, and—perhaps above all—to not being perceived as failures in the game of life. If there are students who truly regard their school as an alma mater, the mother of their soul, they are few and far between.

A Cult of Correctness

You could miss this fact. An education is almost always an inculturation, and the culture the current academy imparts is one replete with norms and values and totems of excellence, however thin. The students, when their turn comes, praise the village gods with a single, clear voice. Middle class mores of efficiency, hard work, prudence, respect, tolerance, technological progress, global perspective, cosmopolitan culture-sampling, fealty to the newest dogmas of the culture war—each of these are strong and clear and unquestioned in the minds of our students, at least according to what they say in class discussions. If you were to ask them about their views on shareholder capitalism, transgender bathrooms, hormone therapy for children, religious pluralism, or any other heavy-freighted question, nine times out of ten the only—and I mean the only—consideration on their minds will be to quickly scan their memories for the correct position on this matter. The talented ones will express the same conclusions but with an appropriate quantity of emotional emphasis. Correct answer accessed and retrieved, “discussion” is ended and they return to checking their emails and social media notifications.

If you’re motivated and talented as a teacher, you can try to fight this. You can dig and pry and try to loosen the dirt so real discussion can take place, and sometimes, when conditions are propitious, you can succeed. But most of the time, our brave young learners will simply ingest the teachings on hand and emerge from the chrysalis of college as absolutely immaculate Deloitte consultants, Google programmers, and Financial Analysts forged in the womb of the meritocracy, shimmering and slick—young, wide-eyed, open-minded, inoffensive Jamie Dimons. Leaning way the fuck in. Beautiful.

There is good news, though—a strange secret gospel I’ve recently discovered.

They don’t believe a word they’re saying.

Living a Lie

Not really, not deep down. It isn’t that they necessarily disagree on the substance of the doctrines or rituals, they just find them vapid – acceptable, if need be, but not especially galvanizing. But why fight when there’s no real alternative? It’s the game we are playing here, and no one wants to lose if they’ve got the wherewithal to win.

The problem, the vacuity at the heart of the university, is simple at first. The professors aren’t even trying to hand their students wisdom. They don’t dare to preach, to make some careful, heartfelt case for one way of life rather than another. They are efficient conveyor belts of information and expectations. Of course one will mouth and embody the pieties of the professional managerial class. We don’t need, really, to make a case for them. They are the water we swim in and to depart from them would be suffocation, lunacy.

Yet the very few teachers who dare to make some counterargument, be it on religious or moral or political grounds, will tend to accumulate grateful, loyal disciples, a small cult that whispers together and looks furtively around to see if they’re being overheard.

On this level, all we need are braver thinkers and teachers. Simple enough. Change the screening process for the academic hiring funnel, and give our students something to care about. But of course it’s not that easy: this level is merely a microcosm. The more foundational level is increasingly a Rawlsian one—we bracket the big questions, let those take their shape (or not) at home, or church, and talk only of the big bright things, those things we all naturally believe as good American Liberals. Things you needn’t make a case for.

I have, personally, grown up in this Rawlsian society, and I’m more or less okay, at least in this one regard. Why should we worry if our students get little of spiritual substance at school? Let them do a good job at work, marry an appropriately meritorious partner and cruise Zillow for a dream home. They can listen to Beyoncé, read self-help books, and find their own favorite little Pho place. Job done. Life all wrapped up with a bow.

If this appeals to you, I have bad news that’s actually good: it’s not going to work, not for long. The current system is a dried-out tinder box.

Living the Truth

Humans need a few things to survive—air and water, food, shelter and sleep, for instance—and a few more things to thrive: companionship, pleasure, purpose, health and a little money come to mind, maybe also wisdom and beauty. This latter list is somewhat negotiable, at least for a time. We can think of times and places where one or another thing was in short supply. But long-term spiritual sustainability is another matter. Dostoevsky once defined a human as “the animal who can get used to anything,” and while I’m loath to disagree much with the author of The Brothers Karamazov, subsequent Russian history suggests that this adjustability has its limits.

I’m thinking in particular of the human need to “live in the truth,” the need trumpeted by anti-Soviet dissidents like Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the need to say out loud, in public what they knew to be true. When I encountered their stories as a Poli Sci undergrad, I was moved to hope by this demand, because it seemed to me—it still does—that it makes clear something good and mercifully unkillable in the human spirit—unkillable, we know, because the massive machine of the Communist Party tried so hard to kill it, and failed, despite having several generations to try, and all but total power.

This last part bears expounding: there are some things that just can’t be durably implanted in a culture. The world of the dissidents, the one that formed them from infancy, was one where the smart move, the only safe one, was to say exactly what the nomenklatura decided must be said, for the health of the party. They’d been raised by a generation that did the same. If in fact bread was in short supply, one remarked with turgid vigor on how well the state-owned bakeries were doing at supplying bread. Unanimous, enthusiastic nodding to follow. Neighborhoods and families were turned into official or unofficial spy networks—reporting an unpatriotic word from a sibling or coworker could redound very much to the informant’s benefit. And yet, despite all of this inculturation, all of this time and power, danger and threat, the colossal effort to sink the lies of the party into the inner life of the citizens like roots into soil was finally abortive. Because the truth feels healthy coming out of human mouths, and lies feel sick.

It sounds hyperbolic to say it, but here in America, we’re nursing a similar sort of instability and similarly courting upheaval, albeit of a milder kind.

Memes from the Underground

In our case it’s happening, among other places, in our universities. Like in the case of the Soviet Union, the status quo is sickly, and the chances that it’ll last a long time are slim. I didn’t know this until this year. I’d been in the habit of telling non-academic friends that no, contrary to what one sees on cable news and Twitter, elite universities are not hotbeds of radical sentiment. They’re incubators for obedient career-seekers, good pliable company men who’ve drunk all the Kool-Aid Silicon Valley and McKinsey have to sell them. I now think that’s only half right.

In the fall semester I happened by chance to ask a pair of students, during office hours, about internet meme culture. They answered without hesitation: that, they said, is the place where they find and share real truth. The truths that really resonate, make one feel understood, not isolated, and part of some larger collective. Meme culture is a many-splendored thing, but the memes that spoke to them, I learned, were the despairing “failson” memes that underline the futility of our efforts towards things like mastery, respectability, etc. They highlight the difficulty and exhaustion of “adulting” and longingly fetishize death, or at least the prospect of dropping out of the success race, which is, to quote Ecclesiastes, meaningless, meaningless. These were Harvard students, quite literally as far away from failsons as “we” are capable of making.

That was fall semester. In the course of a spring semester discussion at Boston College, I ran the above analysis by a full class of seniors, and there was unanimous agreement. It’s a cynical and apathetic generation, they all said. Sure—they’ll go ahead and mouth the pieties of the professional managerial class, in class, because that’s what one does, and sure—they dutifully apply for internships, jobs, etc., but yeah, actually? Really? These trophies we dangle for them—money, status, comfort, uneasy comity, etc.—mean nothing. Who could possibly give a shit? You just don’t want to be yelled at, or homeless, and this is how you do it.

During office hours in the following week, I had a talk with two of my students, both progressive activist types, a man and a woman, neither of them white. Both were graduating seniors, and both reflecting on the conversations they’ve had during their studies at Boston College. They shared one particular frustration, perhaps the opposite of what one would think. Both said they had felt constrained in their time at BC by certain norms of speech and thought, especially around topics like gender, relationships, race, etc. Both felt pressured to adopt certain progressive certainties that papered over the texture of an actual human life. Both of them assumed that this was due to some very strange particularities of their own lives—an idiosyncratic desire, for instance, to find a husband and raise children, a weird experience of women and men as being different from one another, in ways that might be relevant for the conduct of romantic relationships.

In both the Harvard and BC examples, these very bright, ideally successful, perfectly equipped meritocrats felt alienated from the academic culture that made them and trained them for winning as we now understand it. And they all felt the need for recourse to a subterranean culture where you can talk, read, explore, or laugh at ideas that can’t be examined in class. Maybe in dorm rooms, maybe on the internet. One is tempted to think of samizdat, the production and distribution of dissident literature under Soviet communism. In this contemporary case, there is no concerted program developing yet, no new fleshed-out ethos to counter the dominant narrative. It’s mostly just skepticism and alienation, the sense that whatever is really, deeply true and important, this isn’t especially it.

If that’s right—with all of the proper caveats about the diversity of opinion that is present in any large, diverse group—our students are playing the game like good little Party members, but they don’t believe the doctrine. They don’t believe what they are compelled to say.

I don’t know that revolution is coming tomorrow. You can live awhile in lies, and the riches offered in exchange for compliance are tangible and appealing. It’s a comfortable life we extend to our best and brightest. But whatever you expect for a massive, demanding, expensive institution that has lost—for a whole generation—the hearts and minds of its constituents, long-term stability isn’t it. The Party has lost the class. 

is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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