Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
American education, like American society at large, has been undergoing a kind of glacial crisis for decades, one that has advanced imperceptibly but inexorably. It is a crisis of morale, of vision, of ultimate purpose and priorities in our values: it is a crisis so epidemic one can hardly speak of individual corruption or individual accountability.
Paradoxes and ironies abound whenever educational systems lapse into wholesale incompetence: at the very moment our schools and universities are least adequate to their traditional tasks, the voices of national critics of education are hardly heard in the land — by all rights, the recent publicity over Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, the Carnegie and other reports, and Secretary of Education Bennett's accusations, should revive interest also in the criticisms of William Arrowsmith, Richard Mitchell, Philip Rieff, and others. It is likewise ironic that educators inexplicably express unadulterated satisfaction with the job they are doing: amid all the buzzwords about excellence, has no one noticed that profound discontentment is one of the surest earmarks of it?
Such obtuseness is the risk a society runs when it injures itself in its most acute stratum of intelligence, its visionary sense of civilization's mission. The society declines into intellectual anesthesia, narcotized by organized ranks of dullards who, wherever they belong, absolutely should not be occupying positions of authority in education or administration. Dull minds implicitly but all too obviously broadcast something poisonous to the value of education: they make it boring, trite, and unengaging; they make an adventure into an ordeal, a war of attrition between one generation and the next. In one incorrigible impression, dullards convey to students an apathy that years of superb teaching might not be able to undo: they use their authority to persuade students that the life of the mind is more like that of a mollusk than an eagle. Alongside the droning thin gruel of their content, they are reproducing an intellectually cancerous mentality — indifference, mediocrity, the euthanasia of Western culture at the hands of idle chatterers, the decline of the millennial Great Dialogue into drivel. Is modern life really this unexciting? Have we solved, embalmed, and interred even one of the explosive great issues that engaged the geniuses of ages past? Do we really deserve this apocalypse of pointlessness and the flood of trivialized, dispassionate minds that are its agents?
The evidence is sufficient to convict. Decade after decade, our textbooks — including most graphically our military's manuals of instruction — get dummied down. Even professors in honors concede the futility of trying to teach original sources to their students: secondary materials, simplistic interpretations, are all those students will know about Plato, Aquinas, or Marx. The ceiling drops lower and lower, like some sinister passage in Kafka's Trial: we are not scaling our cultural patrimony down to accommodate a generation of dwarves — we are making dwarves of these students, stunting their self-expectations, closing down the reach of their minds.
Higher education most of all, with its ever-narrowing fields of specialization, is no environment for the claustrophobic: the vistas, the frontiers, and the spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship have well vanished from our campuses. They have become institutions adapted for technicians and micro-intellects, for Lilliputians not for Gullivers. Most have become amoral, apolitical worlds from which the massive and tragic issues of our real historical society have been eclipsed, becalmed sancta populated by housebroken academics innocent of controversy — perhaps even less charitably, little concentration-camps of the spirit in which individuals must learn to exist on less and less substance, less and less moral and political nutrition.
Professors and administrators are as much liable as physicians, attorneys, and politicians to the damning wit of George Bernard Shaw: unpoliced by the public, "all professions are conspiracies against the laity." Education is far too vital, the damage it can do is far too irreversible, for this national resource to be entrusted blindly to educators. Once mediocrities and self-serving, petty minds have been indelibly installed in positions of tenure, like a contaminated gene-pool or aquifer they injure every life that they touch. The "crisis" of higher education may in fact already be decided, and it may be the deadwood that has done the pruning.
Certainly, in the 21 years I spent on campus as a student, graduate student, and professor, I never heard of a case (and never heard of anyone who had heard of a case) of a professor being "let go" because of incompetence at teaching. Everyone knew there were such ignoramuses practicing, but general ignorance has never been a handicap to specialized research. Failure to publish, on the other hand, was a constant and fatal complaint, and a rigidly if not one-sidedly enforced criterion for hiring and promotion. If anything, the average professor has accurately regarded commitment to excellence in teaching as a folly begging to be penalized, an indulgence that could not possibly advance anyone's career. As one of my colleagues epitomized the academic corporate culture, "Being the best teacher at a university is like being the smartest man in the Army." The institution itself militates against that very virtue, neutralizes and emasculates it: those who practice it nonetheless do so under color of nothing but individual moral example, renegades against the de facto sanctions of their institution and their profession. It is profoundest hypocrisy not to recognize this perverse institutional corruption of priorities, and extremest folly for students, parents, and society blindly to entrust their futures to such an academic abattoir.
But how have our universities brought themselves to endanger the very values they were reasonably expected to preserve and promote? Over the past quarter-century, universities have gradually but decisively remolded themselves from the "community of scholars" as which they began into something critics have rightfully deprecated as "knowledge factories." As institutions of higher learning have reconceived their mission, impelled by research grants and economies of scale, they have ceased entirely to be workshops and clinics for the modeling of character, the seasoning of judgment, the articulation and refinement of the most challenging values our traditions have to offer. The departmental disciplines have largely renounced any attempt to purvey general concepts of what they are and do, much less of how they integrate with other subjects. And for easily a couple of generations now, teachers have ceased even the pretense of being exemplary human beings or any sort of paradigm of what fulfilled human potential could look like: charismatic or inspiring teachers are more likely these days to provoke resentment rather than admiration among their colleagues.
In a vertiginous downward spiral, this transformation has undermined both the authority of the teachers — as who could say that narrow technicalities imbue anyone with evident mastery of the art of living or thinking? — and the practical and cultural significance of the subjects. No moral or ethical competence is implied at all in the narrow expertise of the vast majority of academic specialists, and it cannot be claimed that what they impart is anything but value-neutral data. The reductio ad absurdum of this form of education — higher education subverted into little more than a trade school — is the transcription of a professor's lecture-notes into students' class-notes, a paper chase in which human beings are only pathetic intermediaries in a process of dictation. What can be successfully transmitted that way is of course only the trivia of education, the small-change of information which leaves the understanding of both teacher and students perfectly disengaged. This is "teaching" at its most mechanical, and faculty who indulge in it should rightfully fear replacement by a software package: they could always have been aptly replaced by a book, at least back before they helped depress the literacy-skills of their students.
Philosophers, anthropologists, historians, and the like would probably concur: the common and natural circumstance for most societies throughout history is to transmit knowledge from generation to generation embedded in a sense of values. Education's traditional claim to being obligatory lay in the evident reality that it was normative: it dealt with ideals binding on our own moral and intellectual format, the highest standards of expectation and accountability. Not the content but the modality of what was taught was all important, the conviction that nothing was more crucial than one's competence at structuring one's mind and life: and to this purpose, the art of identifying essentials and the logic of their relations was indispensable.
This sense of the integrational power of education — its value as a ligament in our integrity and as a dynamo powering our self-development — has been all but perfectly compromised out of existence in American education, whose rationale has come to be nothing but economic and materialistic. The moral heart of education has been gutted, and a utilitarian implant substituted: such was the fate of the humanizing, civilizing, spiritualizing mission of education. The sort of values for which America has become internationally notorious eventually ate away at its own lifelines, the "primal line of descent" (as Rieff has called it) by which civilizations replicate their values from generation to generation. Education was traditionally a vital function because it administered what individuals needed to know: it was vital, not least because it honed the individual's judgment and enabled him to discriminate what was essential from what was not.
Contemporary higher education has conditioned its practitioners to traffic in micro-issues, in ephemeral data appropriately published in "journals" (reports of the day), and other technicalities that are little more than instrumental, not normative, for the conduct of life or thought. Those matters are going to be perfunctory acquisitions for virtually any student: they neither require nor do they reward deep reflection, because they are morally neutered matter, deliberately purged of political, religious, or other provocative resonance. To use a term academics now mostly mock, they are thunderously irrelevant. Even though professors perceive nothing wrong in wasting public funds and students' time, the public and the students in their own ways have cast votes of no-confidence in this sort of institutional Trivial Pursuit.
Under a strikingly Orwellian strategy, this re-conditioning of academic culture has proceeded under the aegis of "professionalism" — ironically and perversely enough, since it has involved the wholesale suffocation of the values and obligations that make professions professions. This reconceived mission — subversion, if you like — in vicious combination with the notoriously petty politics of inbred departmental relations, has worked to discourage and demoralize individuals who may still labor under that traditional sense of teaching, as a stewardship over our most precious treasury of ideas and values, a drive (as Matthew Arnold described it) "to know the best that has been said and thought in the world." Instead, the currently ratty mantle of educational authority has fallen grotesquely onto the shoulders of eccentric pygmies who revile the very traditions they are supposed to assimilate and reanimate, and who treat as cattle the students whose minds are their whole reason for existing.
Americans, in their historical contempt for intellectuals (educators' low pay remains a pretty cogent measure of disesteem), have inadvertently helped to forge a system of higher education utterly unlike the benign Olympus of cultured, committed individuals, or the sanctuary of geniuses, as which the public still pictures it. It is not just public schools or academic schools of education which are abusing and depressing the imaginative and critical potential of our nation's single most crucial resource. It is virtually every academic subject that has become infected with intellectual self-indulgence, an obscene contempt for the individual needs of fledgling minds, and arrogant resistance to the very idea of accountability to the public good. Universities at the close of the twentieth century have largely made themselves atrociously disserviceable, intellectually capricious sovereign states: with rare exceptions, they have betrayed their stewardship of tradition and defrauded their public wards of the resources for lack of which our nation will be paying for decades.
It is dismaying evidence of our crass materialism that we seem to think only of our lost competitive edge in international markets. Catastrophic as it is, this is only the least of the penalties for our educational misadventures. The loss of critical acumen, the crippled amplitude of imagination, the fatal vice of complacency — these fruits of ineptitude afflict everything we do, from methods of political campaigning to budgetary realism, publishing, and the broadcasting programs of our mass media. Democracy itself is hardly impervious to the concerted assaults of public "servants" with no competent grasp of the reasons why our governmental and legal principles and processes are as they are. A shamefully manipulable laity gets lulled nearly to sleep by the hireling-experts of interest groups who insist the emperor is actually in no way naked. When the lame choose the blind for their leaders, it is certainly not their bodies that are lame.
The real treachery is our own habituation — this frog got boiled gradually enough that he's even comfortable. We have made such extensive and cynical accommodations with mediocrity and incompetence that almost nothing distresses us, not even our students' last-place ranking among the industrialized nations in verbal and mathematical skills. And what of the less tangible but more crucial forms of cultural and moral intelligence? Exactly how bad must a situation be, to move the National Commission on Excellence in Education to alarm like this?: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." Indeed: it is a decomposition of entirely strategic importance, and nothing about it is more alarming than the failure of government, universities, and community to respond with alarm. Our disorder is only at one level a matter of functional, institutional incompetence; at another, more crucial level, it is a diagnostic reading of our communal values. Our nation's intellectual defense-system — the values that sustain and direct our key institutions — is internally riddled with something very like AIDS. We are systemically enfeebled, indifferent in our very constitutions to the preconditions for health or for decay. Our resistance is quelled, and any sort of ideological dementia or vitiating pseudo-value is free to corrupt us at will: but unlike literal AIDS, our condition masks itself almost perfectly. It takes a cultivated mind to understand what has lapsed from our national life, and just such individuals have been imperiled by our universities' Cultural Revolution, the modern vandalism in ideas and values.
When individuals and nations no longer have the edge, they will learn to feel the bite of that edge in someone else's hands. America seems dangerously willing to delude itself — it did not lose its competitive edge for no reason at all. The values required to stave off that eventuality had been moribund for a long time, because the regime of mediocrity in education has long roots. That regime's fatuous rhetoric about the importance of education and excellence is a narcotic, a counterfeit that Americans largely prefer to the real thing. But there is a distinctive bite to the bone that is missing from all that rhetoric: it is a visceral and electric charge, the discharge of passion, vision, and command over a subject that every truly excellent teacher radiates. It conveys by the most elemental human morality — example — just what a mind is worth and why you had better give a damn about the care of yours. Hear it in the searing words of our most poignant conscience, James Agee:
In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God.
Every breath his senses shall draw, every act and every shadow and thing in all creation, is a mortal poison, or is a drug, or is a signal or symptom, or is a teacher, or is a liberator, or is liberty itself, depending entirely upon his understanding: and understanding, and action proceeding from understanding and guided by it, is the one weapon against the world's bombardment, the one medicine, the one instrument by which liberty, health, and joy may be shaped or shaped towards, in the individual, and in the race.—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men