Features 12.20.2019
16 minutes

Higher education has become spiritually expensive.

It is striking when the structure and imagery in a work make the point for you. They take you down a river of rhythm and logic that resembles a piano more than a legal casebook—like a dance, splitting and merging into a harmony that would be hard to convey through didactics alone. Such commentary is rare, and rarer still is a point important enough to be pedestaled with such literary glitter.

But Ian Marcus Corbin has a point. It is an important point, that many have tried and failed to make. Corbin caught what was missing in his essay, Losing the Class.

We are losing the class! This is the chord progression that Corbin repeats. He repeats this often and in enough different ways that the reader realizes it must be important. But as each paragraph washes over you, he adds something new that changes the word’s meaning.

What does he mean? Class—like the American class system? Or class-i-ness—refinement, beauty? Or does he mean an elite losing the support of the people—as in, the party has lost the working class? Or does he mean losing the class in terms of losing a literal classroom?

He means all four—and this is by design.

He starts off, “If you’re teaching philosophy to freshmen, especially in spring, there often comes a moment when you start to lose the class.” Corbin plays with this. Class as an aesthetic. Class as a social technology. Class as…a classroom. A group of students at attention, eagerly learning from an authority. Excitedly expanding their minds with philosophical wisdom from the ages—until Corbin loses them and they stare glassy-eyed out the window. All of these “classes” are related.

He discusses disenchantment on campus: “If there are students who truly regard their school as an alma mater, the mother of their soul, they are few and far between.” They answer questions not in an eager quest for understanding, but in pre-packaged, cached responses meant to make him happy. Even responses echoing themes of social justice and utopia-building ring hollow—truisms that they learned to repeat but really have no heart for.

“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.”

His students reflect the general ennui and hopelessness of the decade. “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.”

There is a connection between losing the class at a university, losing the sublime quest for the aesthetic that the upper class is responsible for cultivating, and losing the following of the people. All of this is related. How?

Corbin didn’t have the space to conduct a meta-analysis on the language within his article. But perhaps the answer is in our unwillingness to tell the truth, and an even larger unwillingness to bear the trade-offs that these truths reveal to be necessary.

Losing the class. Who lost it? And does anybody miss it?

 Masking the Class

Masking your class status is a social lie that everybody engages in at some point in their life. This can be strategic, but the problem with social lies is that even if the supposed adults in the room know what is going on, others are never told the rules of the game. These people include children who do not spot the lies—who weren’t there to witness their creation—and these are the people who end up suffering most.

The let-down that millennials feel about Boomer disengagement is not just due to the rebelliousness of young people—it is real. They were lied to about college loans. They were lied to about marijuana. They were lied to about diabetes and autoimmune diseases and the Food Pyramid. Even if some lies are due to honest mistakes, and even if there are sometimes understandable reasons to tell them, misconceptions about how to successfully exist in the world have detrimental effects on the young people who believe them as truth rather than seeing them for what they are: facades.

One such major social lie is that America is a classless society. Of course, we know that Jeff Bezos is richer than Frank from across the block, but our class system is more like a murky brackish-water estuary than a sedimentary rock formation. This is different than the overt way that class works in most other nations.

This has major positive effects. The poor and middle classes have hope that they can advance in society—and they do, in ways that are impossible in most places outside of America. Meanwhile, the rich are taught that they should not feel superior to everybody else. All this promotes an ethos of hard work and natural equality.

The benefits probably outweigh the costs, but the lie that no class structure exists in America produces strange effects. Class struggles are often covertly reframed as ideological battles. And our ephemeral elite class fails to take seriously the responsibility that comes with their status.

What is the elite class in the United States? Who are they, and what do they do all day? If you cannot answer these questions, it is not your fault. There is a reason why there is no set definition of what constitutes “rich” in America: it is a useful loophole when anybody can both be and not be part of our Schrodinger’s elite, depending on who is asking and why.

This murkiness of position and purpose starts in the K-12 school system and the universities. For generations, teenagers were told that the only way ahead is with a college degree—and that they must get one, no matter the cost. For many people, the cost has not been worth it. That ever-increasing numbers of students are self-reporting mental health concerns is not an accident: it is a byproduct of not knowing their role in society or what they ought to be doing before college, in college, or after. If the top students in the nation do not know what they are supposed to be doing, how is everybody else supposed to sort themselves out?

In the world of Schrodinger’s elite, who do we look up to? Role models are scant. We have never had an official aristocracy. The billionaires wield power with their money, but everybody in the unofficial aristocracy—the millionaires, the businessmen, the Harvard professors—has no official political power. What power they do have is generally limited to charity, job creation, campaign contributions, and limited media influence.

But even these powers can be restricted by a critical media. The media can destroy you if you are their target. The elites resemble celebrities more than politicians: they are reality TV stars, to be absorbed vicariously, to be laughed at—but not to be looked up to as an example.

In previous time periods, the elites were set apart in their dress, hideouts, and mannerisms. And people never really knew what they were doing. They lived completely different lives. Now you can watch them on TV and see that they are no different. They are equally stupid. Equally petty. There is no difference between upper and lower, student and teacher. They just have much more money.

I do not think it is an accident that Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson have become two of our greatest cultural icons. Musk’s image is that of an experienced scientist using his gifts to send us into space. Peterson’s image is that of an impeccably credentialed, universally respected professor who took up the banner of responsibility and self-mastery. There is a reason these two characters symbolize an elite: they have some tangible claim to legitimacy. In the world of Schrodinger, these men show us something real.

Losing Our Purpose

Students are fed up. Their collective unhappiness is impossible to ignore. They want substance over ideology, solutions over promises. As much as the media insults millennials for being entitled brats, and as much as they drown their feelings in layers of irony—ultimately they want what we all want. They want to know what is going on. They want the truth.

What is a university for?

I do not mean lyrical diatribes about the liberal arts university as the last vestige of Western Civilization. Or the liberal arts university as a place to build proper citizens to participate in a democracy. I mean, what are you supposed to leave with on graduation day that you did not already enter with?

In other words: these institutions cost money. What are you paying for?

Is the point to fulfill prerequisites, say, for medical school? For some, yes.

Is it to gain concrete skills and knowledge to join the work force? Not really. Graduates from Harvard and Princeton famously go into “open-ended” jobs where their Philosophy degrees suggest the ability to process complex topics they had not encountered before. Even degrees in the sciences famously and intentionally do not cover the most practical aspects of their fields.

Is the point to obtain a mark of approval from the university? This is closer to the truth. Somebody who finished a Yale degree—at the very least—was somebody who managed to finish a Yale degree. Despite all the talk of grade inflation, this is not an easy task.

And this is generally as far as the conversation goes: from the idealism of a functional democracy, to the jadedness of college as vacant status-marker. But just because that is the range of public conversation does not mean that is the range of all possible conversation. What else might be the point of a university?

How about to find a spouse? After all, college and the few years after is the last time when you get to interact with other people as kids. You do not have a professional identity yet—you are just yourself, and you make friends for no other reason than for the hell of it.

What about to experiment with different roles in organizations before you are locked down in a job? See how far you can rise in a fraternity before running for public office?

What about to develop relationships with mentors, so that you can learn the best practices in your field through observation and osmosis?

Here is another question that people do not ask: It is assumed a liberal arts university is a good—both for the students, and for society. But there are both concrete and spiritual trade-offs. What are the trade-offs of attending a four-year liberal arts university?

If you attend for anything other than engineering, you are foregoing trade school. You are foregoing a clear entrance into a guild and a sense of concrete belonging to a skilled trade path. That community and tangible sense of upward movement is no small thing to give up. It gives you a long-term sense of place and purpose. Otherwise, you are foregoing four years of work, travel, community college, or community building where you grew up. What are you gaining in its place?

In this decade? You are probably gaining an existential crisis. A complete unmooring of place and purpose. You don’t know where you’re going, or why you’re going there. In part, this is due to the corporatization of the university. Corbin writes,

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.

In part, this ties back to Schrodinger’s elite. Studying ancient Greek—or reading Plato, for that matter—seriously is a decadent and luxurious thing to do. To strive for a richer way of life means that you are not struggling to survive. It suggests that you have time for such self-indulgence. It signals that you have privilege—even if you do not. It is a clear tell that you are part of the elite—a stain that many strain to scrub off of their resumé. To be privileged in the world of higher academics means to be bad. It means to be responsible for all the ills of the world.

So how can somebody study with a full heart and full enthusiasm, if studying these subjects is itself socially contestable? Especially at the very liberal arts colleges and universities where academic elitism of this sort is criticized the most?

Is it any wonder that students are not just struggling with an inadequate knowledge of the classics, or struggling to speak meaningful personal truths, as Corbin says, but struggling with their mental health?

Forget the consequences to society for a moment. What are the consequences for the kids? How do we lift them out of existential depression? Students find solace online, in ironic jokes and language where they can speak the truth away from authority. Corbin writes,

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.

Losing the class. What about losing your sanity? I do not know what the solution to all this is, but my suggestion is that the supposed adults in the room need to speak more honestly about which success-signals are fake and which are actually meaningful.

The Virtue of Tradeoffs

We can start with the fact that well-being is often not linear, and cannot be measured in a linear way. Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, and this has its perks. But he made his wealth by running logistics for the world—a job that most people would find extremely boring and extremely stressful. He has lost years of his life that no amount of money will buy him back.

Furthermore, the amount of joy that wealth brings you works on a U-curve. There are certain things you can do when you have 100 thousand dollars that you cannot do when you only have one thousand. There are things you can do when you have 10 million dollars that you cannot do when you have 100 thousand.

But when you have 500 million dollars, there are things you cannot do anymore. You lose anonymity. You get threatened. You cannot go out in public without being noticed. People are watching you. Losing or giving away all of your money is not an easy way out, because people will be watching that too. If you become the guy whose donations to Mexico ended up with the cartels, your reputation will be destroyed. There are trade-offs to being in different class brackets.

When you go study English at Amherst, there are sacrifices you are making. Some people will question your contribution to society for the rest of your life, but this will not compare to how much you will question yourself. People will assume you are a pompous prick regardless of your social status or motivations for your study. You might change their minds, but this is the inevitable treatment you will face from certain unkind people. This is the price you pay for the joy of indulging in great literature.

But in return, you hopefully gain a richness of being that others do not have. Not to mention a high-status degree.

If you study a science, you may feel great about having knowledge and knowing complex skills that others do not, but you may feel a different sort of inadequacy as you spend hundreds of hours on redundant tasks that may not lead to anything productive. You may end up a middle-man in a strict hierarchy, wondering why the universe feels empty.

There are many kinds of spiritual pointlessness. There is no way to avoid suffering.

But there are better ideas and worse ideas, depending on what you want from this world. There are trade-offs, but you are still the one making the trade, and you can often get something you want in return.

The problem arises when people put too much of themselves into things they do not actually care about—that our teachers tell them they need to care about. This is an unfair and uninformed trade. Or when people think that they should be able to have everything. Or when people feel inadequate and existentially depressed for failing to fill every single social niche because they do not understand their own unique role in the social fabric.

And yet that is exactly what we tell them. We tell them all three of these flawed ideas. Since grade school, students are told that they have to be everything, all the time. They have to be good at every subject to get into university, and they have to take on a platter of extra-curriculars to make themselves competitive. And then, if they do this, they will have whatever they want—whatever that even is.

America is a historically optimistic country. If told we cannot do something, the question is “why not?” If told we cannot be everything, we try harder—and then we get sad when we fail. But while we are still running on the optimistic high of landing on the moon in the 60s, we have been losing the second major characteristic apart from optimism that made this achievement possible: our commitment to solving problems.

We still assume that things will get better—or that they should get better—or that they must—but we do not take it in our hands to make it happen. This is always a job for…somebody else. Even in the eyes of the Schrodinger elites who have lost their class, all of these world problems are for the other guy to solve. Somebody richer. Somebody smarter. Somebody across the world in a different country.

Losing the class…how about losing the ability to calculate basic trade-offs? There used to be words for this—“calculated risks,” “foresight,” “vigilance,” “prudence.” These were seen as virtues. People focus debates on principles—and if you even mention measurements or statistics these days, never mind compare results, you get accused of “abandoning your principles.” But this becomes a problem when you want to stay sane in a world defined by scarcity—because you cannot get everything, all the time, and you will drown in existential hopelessness if you try. By calculating trade-offs you can even begin to sort out what is normal and what is an aberration: which problems are brand new, and which ones have been problems of human nature for millennia.

My hope is that enough people will realize that there is a crisis of meaning before we lose all the souls, like Ian Marcus Corbin, who want nothing more than to pass on their knowledge to eager students. Then the liberal arts can once again flourish as they were meant to, and students will break through the facades of modernity and learn the things that really matter.

At Princeton, over the entrance of a lecture hall, reads this poem by H.E. Milrow from the class of 1914:

“Here we were taught by men and gothic towers—democracy and faith and righteousness—and love of unseen things that do not die.”

Origin of this feature

Origin

The Death of Virtue and the Rise of Expertise

America must educate a new elite worthy of the name.