Ian Corbin’s sketch of the spiritual wasteland of elite higher education is a true and vivid likeness. He’s less incisive when he tries to diagnose the causes.
It’s pardonable in a professor of philosophy to think that what students need is more philosophy. But Corbin’s own observations illustrate that the very possibility of higher education depends on a prior cultivation of character, of emotional discipline, of healthy and stable habits of heart and mind. If we can’t protect the young from cynicism and inculcate in them decent (if not noble) thoughts and feelings, we’ll deprive ourselves of much more than the next generation of philosophers, artists and intellectuals. A time may come, if it has not already arrived, when we find ourselves without genuine leaders in any field.
Truth Is Not Enough
What Corbin gets right echoes Alan Bloom’s pronouncements in the Closing of the American Mind (1987). In describing the mass of students, Bloom gave us the memorable phrase, “souls without longing.” That’s still true, Corbin indicates, but things have progressed somewhat.
The students Bloom described in the 1980s are the teachers now; their views are the officially sanctioned ones. Being nonconformist today carries the punitive threat of social and professional sanction, and the pit of downward mobility now yawns below with more menace. But the rub is today’s students don’t really believe in the vacuous official ideology, vaguely described as political correctness. Nothing but fear of failure and dumb inertia holds things together.
Corbin likens the whole business to a dried tinderbox waiting to ignite.
All this is dead right, but if Corbin had looked beyond elite institutions—or even a little deeper into them—he would have realized that ignition is already well underway. From school shootings and homicidal bullying to the rise of the alt-right, the official ideology is everywhere failing even to keep up appearances. An epidemic of depression and anxiety is spreading in plain sight.
Corbin makes it sound as though it were laziness on the part of students to produce the requisite attitudes and opinions on demand. In fact, it’s exhausting and dispiriting work; and there’s only barely enough energy left over to down six or eight beers on Thursday after classes.
So, what is to be done? According to Corbin, what we need is to “live in the truth.” We need intrepid questioning in place of empty pieties, philosophy instead of mindless ideology. This is sound advice for running a philosophy class, but as a general prescription it’s inadequate.
The education of good and decent (or even just emotionally stable) adults is something quite different from the Socratic method. Even the free search after truth that Corbin encourages in his classroom ultimately depends on the success of a preparatory moral education; not the open questions and big ideas of the university, but the inculcation of resilient and honorable character during childhood.
Philosophy itself teaches this. In his Laws, Plato writes that education means “loving what one ought to love and hating what one ought to hate.” Aristotle says that “the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them.”
Pained Souls, Unable to Love
Like Corbin, I have some experience teaching philosophy and politics in elite northeastern institutions.
In my opinion, Bloom was right when he told us long ago that American college students are unmoved by the love of wisdom because they are unmoved by love in general. Notwithstanding raging hormones and officially sanctioned invitations to every kind of sexual exploration, the typical college student is (to use the philosophy jargon) decidedly unerotic.
But these souls are not, or are no longer, as Bloom put it, simply “flat.” They are confused, disordered, stuck in an arrested childhood, and often in extreme emotional pain. The epidemic of mental disease is an open secret. Fully one half of the students at the elite college where I teach are known to be in therapy or medicated for mental health issues. Hospitalizations for suicide attempts have increased exactly tenfold in a decade. And alcohol poisoning is as regular as the common cold.
Incoming faculty are duly briefed about all this by a growing team of full-time professionals hired, not of course to solve this problem, but to manage it as best they can.
Students don’t like to talk about love or about their relationships. But if the stars align, and all things are propitious, and if you prod the right student in just the right tone — maybe, just maybe — you will be rewarded with an honest torrent of pain and disgust and rage.
Once during a classroom discussion, hoping to call in question some common and pernicious opinions, I asked what personal experience the students had of “micro-aggressions.” One usually quiet girl, now shaking with emotion, burst out with the story of a boy she knew who had made a bet with another boy about how many girls he could kiss in a 72-hour period. By the end he had apparently reached near a dozen. This Don Juan ended up contracting mono because—she spat the words out—“of the literal bacterial build-up!”
Only real and profound distress could have made her ignore the social demands of displaying a chill attitude so entirely. Around the room I spied angry or resigned recognition. What could I say? I gingerly suggested that perhaps “micro-aggression” wasn’t the most appropriate category to understand this kind of degraded behavior.
Is it possible, I asked aloud, that what’s really going on here is that there are just no rules and standards in dating anymore, that this kind of thing is part of a wild free-for-all because the old codes have broken down and there aren’t new ones yet? Maybe men and women do not know what they ought to expect from one another, and have forgotten how to value one another, or even how to become the kind of man or woman that deserves to be honored by the other?
Saying this was of course a gamble and it apparently failed. The first girl was still involved in her bad memories and nearly in tears. A second girl, who never lost an opportunity to express some strong and very silly opinion, accused me of “blaming the victim.” The most popular boy spoke up to denounce “toxic masculinity.” The other boys hung their heads in shame and proved their guilt by exercising their right to remain silent.
The point of this anecdote is to give a sense of the secret life of the students. Of course they were “emotionally unavailable” to my reasoning. They don’t need philosophy. They need a nourishing and wholesome social universe.
No wonder the more intelligent ones are cynical, as Corbin says, subscribing to what I call timid Machiavellianism. They don’t expect loyalty from their friends or their boyfriends and girlfriends. The best they hope for is a confluence of interest, mutual enjoyment. They see hypocrisy in everything and everyone, and they train themselves in all innocence to manipulate appearances and laugh at ideals.
But they are timid because, as Corbin suggests, they love power much less than they fear failure and the pain that comes along with it. This is their philosophy; it works equally well for study or romance. Caring too much is just weakness inviting hurt, and no one really believes what they say anyway. Those that do, well, that usually ends up being pretty awkward.
My classroom discussion about “micro-aggressions” was a pedagogic failure. Yet several students of both sexes later told me they’d very much appreciated the opportunity to talk about these things. It was apparently of therapeutic value. Yet I am certain that therapy, in or out of the classroom, is not the way to cure this ill.
Eros, as the feminists have long argued, is no private affair. A whole generation wounded in their ability to love will not approach learning with yearning desire. If they aren’t able to love one another, they won’t love themselves, or their communities, or their country. They will not know how to lead, or what is just as important, how to identify a deserving leader.
These are large and intractable problems. But let us at least rule out solving this problem through the reading of Great Books. On the contrary, both the reading and writing of Great Books requires hearts and minds sound and settled enough to despise the soft nihilism of the “failson” memes Corbin mentions, or the hard nihilism of other parts of the secret world of young adults.
There Is No Leadership Without Honor
It would be foolhardy to suggest there’s any simple method of straightening all these crooked souls. How are we to lift our children out of a spiritual quagmire that, to a large extent, is just an intensification of the same cultural decay that we ourselves inhabit?
The problem is a general cultural problem, and the school has no direct influence over what happens in the privacy of the family, what gets uploaded to YouTube, the quantity of violent or quasi-pornographic material to which the average 12-year old is exposed, or how many beats per second animate the latest hit song. And yet—if we are talking about elementary school education—perhaps the way to start improving things is really not so wholly mysterious after all.
Instead of beginning with the failure of American education to produce genuine philosophers and intellectuals, we might make a more modest start by asking why the education system produces so few leaders that inspire others and draw constructive energies from them. If the problem has a systematic character, it is the absence of healthy role models.
Why so few real leaders? The reason is actually staring us all in the face. Teachers are visibly constrained in their authority and often at the mercy of students. Nor are students required, or even permitted, to exercise even the most limited organized authority over one another.
Despite what we hypocritically tell ourselves, as a society we seem passionately averse to leadership. We don’t trust it. We place teachers under the minute supervision of school principals, principals under legions of administrators, administrators under unending regulation, and finally, even the regulations themselves are not generated by responsible individuals, but spun out of the pronouncements of social scientists by faceless committees.
Students observe no free and spontaneous authority above them; they obey, if they obey, a cautious borrowed authority perpetually and timidly appealing to rules not of its invention. And they learn from this experience how best to get along.
I myself experienced the transition from an older to a newer educational philosophy during my grade school days. When I was in fourth grade, among other innovations, my public school ended competitive house-league sports, introduced a policy of zero tolerance for violence, and began to use a new system of grading designed to make academic failure nearly impossible and academic success as inconspicuous as possible.
I’ll outline by way of illustration how just one of these policies—the directive of zero tolerance for violence—affected me personally. Previously, the first consequence of getting in a fist fight had been an interrogation of the parties into the circumstances; some punishment followed on the basis of the explanations given and the histories of the students involved. It was an imperfect system, of course, and there were injustices. Now, under the new policy, everyone involved in a fight was penalized equally; no questions asked.
I was a relative shy and sensitive 11-year-old, not the type to look for fights. That kind of little boy will inevitably be bullied at one time or another. My bully was a nasty piece of work. Jesse — I still remember his features—picked on me for weeks. He poked and prodded, he teased and cursed, he spat and threatened.
Despite being averse to fighting, a time came when I realized I would need to do something about it. Telling the teachers would have resulted in a punishment more grating than painful to Jesse, and even if it hadn’t made things worse for me, it certainly wouldn’t have made them better. One fine day I lunged at Jesse in the schoolyard.
He was big, so the fight didn’t last long and I didn’t win. But Jesse left me alone after that. The teachers, on the other hand, as I learned, did not want to hear any whys and wherefores, or what had precipitated the fight. They were dogmatically uninterested in the justice of the thing. After facing down Jesse, who inspired real fear in me, can anyone imagine I was afraid of a weak disciplinary system that punished me for standing up for myself?
This was the first beginning of my deep-felt contempt for the school authorities. I saw clearly that justice did not interest them, and that their punishments were mere annoyances, so I despised them in my heart. Worse, I saw that the system itself rewarded cowards and punished any budding display of manly fortitude.
As every child knows, school is a kind of small polis, a city-state with its own laws and system of honor. I was 11 when I came to the conclusion that official honor offered by the teachers was contemptible and worthless. Real honor was to be found somewhere else entirely, among the kids.
In losing me, the school lost an intellectual and serious boy in every way theirs to lose. I found my way back, but this game of honor is deadly serious. Not only the few boys and young men that snap and become school shooters, but the legions who suffer and eventually lose interest, are all caught in the intolerable psychological trap of needing a strong idea of honor to direct them while despising the dispensers of honor and their feeble honors.
I’ve never quite understood why this is such a mystery to most people.
A Modest Proposal for Education Reform
The excising of honor and discipline from education has been the project of more than a century.
John Dewey called in 1899 for an educational “Copernican revolution” that would make the child into “the sun around which the appliances of education revolve.” Since then we’ve heard sermons about self-esteem, child psychology, the causes of aggression, the need for self-actualization, the superiority of cooperation over competition, and a hundred other platitudes used to justify removing all authority, hierarchy, honor, and discipline. The more we proceed, the worse things get. The worse things get, the more aggressively we promote the progressive educational philosophy.
Half a century of educational philosophy devoted to creativity has produced one of the most arid and uninspiring periods in art and letters in the history of this nation.
The wise contrarian G. K. Chesterton once dismissed the notion that education means drawing out of a child his inner creative potential with the following observation:
There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.
Chesterton saw very clearly the threat to genuine creativity in the educational philosophy of creativity, but he could not have imagined the extent of the moral and intellectual collapse now underway.
I do not pretend to have any very clear idea how best to reform educational policy, whether at the national or state level, or what role common standards should play. But I can offer a modest proposal as to how a particular elementary or high school could be reformed, based on tried and true principles that have worked in the past.
Schools could introduce a policy of totally prohibiting phones and other devices during the school day.
Students read less than they used to and have shorter attention spans. Social media and electronic devices are known to be contributing factors. They also have the effect of weakening the impression of the real environment: while using such devices the child is physically in one place but mentally in another place altogether.
The experience of being for eight hours a day physically and mentally in one and the same place might even alter the quality of the remaining sixteen hours. It will necessarily make children more transparent to adults, and it will reduce opportunities for online bullying.
Schools could empower older and upstanding boys and girls to police their classmates, with real authority, under teacher oversight.
Bullying, as everyone knows, is getting worse all the time, sometimes with horrific results. Adults are clueless about what goes in the kids’ world, but the kids know well enough. Instituting a system similar to the prefecture long used in the British school system would entail honoring good kids and giving them a conditional and limited but real authority over their peers.
But to do this would require more meaningful public marks of academic and moral achievement.
Make the official honors truly valuable; attach real privileges to age and accomplishment that can be gained and lost.
The fiction that everyone can succeed equally, the whole ethos of “no child left behind,” would need to be replaced with a rhetoric and policy of “every child’s best.” There is more than one way to excel, and many paths to achievement, but not everyone can be equally excellent in all things.
De-emphasize collaborative work and make more use of rule-bound and scrupulously fair competition. Publish class grades and increase their range. Require public speaking and debate. Have children memorize and declaim great works of poetry and prose.
Have students rise when their teachers enter the classroom. Allow teachers more freedom and authority in the running of their classes. Make disciplinary measures more painful and less irritating. Use school uniforms to prevent the kind of self-exposure that’s incompatible with a posture of learning.
Separate boys and girls, if not entirely, at least from time to time, to allow them to pursue learning in their different ways. Channel the aggression and high spirits of boys into leadership roles, even if this means that more boys gravitate to them than girls. Let girls be softer and gentler if they so choose.
Some of this will no doubt seem harsh to many contemporary Americans, even violent. But can it be more violent than what we are doing to our children right now? By leaving them to themselves to develop as they will, we have deprived them of the one thing we most owe them—a clear and firm indication of what we think they ought to become as men and women. Education is serious business, as G. K. Chesterton understood:
Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth.
If we refuse to interfere to instill strength of character and purpose in the young, at least some of them will find it on their own. Yet we ought to fear that what the younger generation achieves in spite of its teachers will be turned against their broken authority in justified resentment. Already it is possible to observe that the ultimate fulfillment of our progressive pedagogy is not a generation of fragile ‘snow-flakes’ after all; it is something much closer to Greta Thunberg’s harrowing posture of abandoned and outraged childhood.