Kenneth Smith - Dramas of the Mind  

Dramas of the Mind by Kenneth Smith   


In three increasingly more fully fleshed and more disturbing portraits, the mind and life of the American university have been weighed and found wandering. In one respect or another, these accounts will beggar public belief because victims and escapees of that closed world of academia — like the first to bear reports of the unspeakable conditions in the concentration camps — will not easily convince the naive that such senselessness can possibly become so commonplace.

The three writers — Allan Bloom, Russell Jacoby, and Charles Sykes — have opened for view a hermetic vault in which institutional and ideological viruses have been free to mutate without resistance for decades, choking off nearly every trace of commonsense perspectives. Like the modern world at large, it is an order paradoxically both monolithic and fractious: in defense of its self-interest (its privileges and entitlements materialistically defined), it can be stunningly monomaniacal — dissidents against even the most demented forms of consensus risk calamitous reprisals. In this context of self-defense against internal criticism or exposure to public accusation, the university shows a frightening rigor mentis: it is an organization where orthodoxy commands the institutional and professional higher ground, and independence of mind — especially on matters of gravity — is likely to prove a suicidal virtue.

But in the assertion of norms and values, in the positive creed of ideals it may claim to profess, it is devoid of agreement: there is no consensus, no fundament in evidence. Our ostensible asylums for the concentration of intelligence, for individual freedom of thought, and for alternative forms of values and wisdom — most particularly those not viable in the larger world of the market — have fallen prey to anomie, to nearly every divisive vice and ideological hallucinogen in the modern repertory. Our universities are today not controlled laboratories but cacophonous culture-media for the spiritual pathogens of modernism: here we find the extremized relativism of morally rootless and abstracted thinking, the barbarism to which materialistic technocracy and mercenary calculation inevitably lead, grotesquely unrealistic and callous shortsightedness, and the collapse of individual conscience before mass-scale forces.

Only the disaffiliated seem capable of seeing that claustrophobic nest of fear and ambition for what it is: those who have lost their souls to its careerist obsessions and obsequious authoritarianism have no criteria to criticize it with, and certainly no courage to impel them to public accusation. Values and virtues have perished namelessly here to make our system of higher education into abattoirs for the spirit: institutional juggernauts carry out the logic of intellectualism, scientism, and other modern ideologies that pass for academic culture, for forms of value-systems.

Indisputably, these doctors can no longer cure themselves; indeed, they are in the employ of the disease. Not inadvertently but deliberately our universities have become non compos mentis, self-serving media for the cultivation of inanity; it is not a vagrant whim of intellectual fashion that has carried our universities up toward Cloudcuckooland or Laputa, but their own highest and severest ideals of what they think they ought to be. The imperatives and fixations being lived out by these manipulative Wizards of Oz are ultimately no different from those driving the larger society: these hollow men make an all-too-anatomical symptomatology of America itself at the close of the 20th century, a mirror of the base world that foolishly expected them to help ennoble it.

I. PROFESSIONAL PROVINCIALISM. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom performs several different services at once. He is summoning up classical perspectives — from Plato, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and others — to relieve the provincialism and conformism that overcast Americans' self-understanding. He is describing, from the vantage point of a professor of philosophy, the largely unexpressed moral and ideological predispositions of today's college students. He is giving an account, for the benefit of non-academics, of the impact of recent ideological revolutions on American universities' morale and sense of mission. And he is placing in context the lingering death of the humanities, as chief bearers of the essential intelligence of our Western form of civilization: the peculiar intellectual responsibilities and privileges we call liberal education have been waning for decades, dying with a whimper not a bang.

The first and perhaps most pathetic report he has to make is of the climate of mentality among our college students. Conformist, philistine, provincial, and self-complacent to a far more acute degree than their predecessors were, students today have been conditioned by their culture and their educators into a new form of ideology that makes them devalue and resist the benefits of the humanities. Bloom calls this ideology "relativism," a superficial conviction — really, a conviction against having convictions — which locks out competing perspectives from the students' impoverished minds: relativism believes that all values and ideas of what is right and good are equally sound and therefore not susceptible to criticism or to any deeper understanding. All options are assumed to be homogeneous, and a dead-weight paralysis of the will is the result, manifested in indifference and selfish myopia.

Bloom analyzes relativism as the effect of a number of revolutions, both popular and academic: the erosion of literateness, the failure of families to consolidate moral character or intellectual integrity in their young, the moralistic-propagandizing purge of classic works by liberationists and egalitarians, the ascendency of the psycho-social sciences as purveyors of a glib vocabulary for self-understanding, the complacency and self-congratulation of high-tech barbarians, the dominion of an unacknowledged Rock-fascism — all these forces conspire to produce young people with far less access to alternative ideas and perspectives than ever before. Relativism is the effective collusion of two different anti-cultures, the popular and the academic.

Students thus graduate, believing themselves sophisticated and cosmopolitan, when in fact they have become insular and uncaring know-nothings unable to appreciate any culture other than their own vacuous relativism. They embark on life with their handicaps confirmed by the university: they have become "flatter and narrower," abstract minds with no aspiration to grow, to become more profound or even more clearly self-understood.

Increasingly, our universities do not have the wisdom or resources to give: their faculties themselves had just such an incoherent and lukewarm education. Lacking any exposure to classical perspectives, academics have become as pathetically and merely contemporaneous as their students; professors more and more are absorbed solely in reading the works of their colleagues, the secondary and tertiary materials in academic journals. It is unrelieved intellectual onanism, irrelevant hypothesizing and abstractionism. For reasons of institutional politics and individual over-specialization, even premier American universities have failed repeatedly to formulate and implement a core curriculum: plainly they no longer have any clear vision of their civilizing mission or of any course-contents essential today to the understanding of a well-educated student. Bloom proceeds from these academic afflictions to a more general account of the burdens of transmitting traditional and modern principles of political and social life: he draws most heavily on his own two polestars, Plato and Rousseau, and his arguments reconstruct well (for academic or general readers) the heart of Western political perplexities. Quite apart from his audit of contemporary resources, his portraits of ancient tradition and modern foundations are insightful enough nearly to qualify The Closing of the American Mind to be set beside Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, as a generally masterful treasury of perspectives on our lives.

The American public is still almost perfectly oblivious to the turbulence and cultural devastation on its own campuses, understandably so, since a more cloistered environment than a modern university is hardly conceivable. Most intelligent laymen would be shocked to learn how anemic and structureless university curricula have become, and how very little they contribute to the cultivation of judgment, conscience, understanding, or taste. Intimations of moral bankruptcy in the various professions — legal, medical, clerical, commercial, political, as well as educational — would be a great deal more intelligible to anyone who takes Bloom's indictments to heart.

Bloom's prognosis for higher education is in no way hopeful: "One cannot and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out." Ironically, in the larger society no less than on campus, the substantive need for these very resources has become ever more excruciating: "Our problems are so great and their sources so deep that to understand them we need philosophy more than ever, if we do not despair of it, and it faces the challenges on which it flourishes." How educational institutions could do more than our present universities have done virtually to exterminate that kind of intelligence is nearly inconceivable.

II. GHETTOES FOR THE AUTISTIC. Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe is an audit, perhaps even more alarming than Bloom's, of the state of our educational institutions and our national intellectual life. His ultimate concern is "the vitality of a public culture," our access to a medium of illumining ideas that will help us control or come to terms with the great issues of our time. Cultivating such a medium requires committed and professional craftsmen of the mind, extravertive intellectuals with a generous sense of civic responsibility and a genius both for conceptual articulation and also for rhetorical power.

In the 1950s we had such a cadre of "public intellectuals" — Galbraith, Buckley, C. Wright Mills, Edmund Wilson, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and others. Today the same figures dominate our public culture, less the many lost to the attrition of mortality. "While the aging industrial plant of America elicits much talk, the aging intellectual plant passes unnoticed." What has happened to those younger lights who should have replenished our intellectual stock but did not?

Jacoby traces a varied trail in explanation: the communal habitat of such minds, the Bohemias of Greenwich Village and the like, has been lost to urban renewal as our cities have become stark contrasts of wealth and poverty. The publishing market for such individuals — general-interest magazines, serious books — has shrunken down to little or nothing, and the pay-scale for freelance writing of this weighty sort will not begin to support a person even in a state of poverty. What has happened to our failed crop of public-spirited minds is evident: "The missing intellectuals are lost in the universities," and by that institutionalization they have become altogether different creatures, in values, conscience, and capability. "Younger intellectuals no longer need or want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors. Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media." These people have become both invisible and indifferent to the public.

Universities surreptitiously acquired a new kind of authority in the process: they became positioned to monopolize our intellectual culture, our resources for understanding and evaluating our political and personal lives. But universities have never been hospitable to original or heretical thinking: virtually from their founding they have been places of stultifying conformity, conventional and pusillanimous institutions. They oppress, strangulate, and unhesitatingly punish the kind of audacity and innovation that are the lifeblood of intellectual culture. But the choice between academia and freelance thinking and writing became absolute: salaries and the prospect of tenure were as seductive as the alternative was bleak and futile.

What C. Wright Mills wrote in 1951 is ageless and well-cited by Jacoby:

"Men of brilliance, energy, and imagination" are not drawn to universities. Nor do colleges "facilitate, much less create, independence of mind." The professor is a "member of a petty hierarchy, almost completely closed in by its middle-class environment and its segregation of intellectuals from social life... mediocrity makes its own rules and sets its own image of success."

But intellectuals find themselves increasingly voiceless in any other context: "Between the intellectual and his potential public stand technical, economic, and social structures which are owned and operated by others."

Not only the public but even many professors are unaware of the price academization has exacted: "Academic freedom itself was fragile, its principles often ignored....The threat emerged, perhaps increasingly, from within; academic careers undermined academic freedom....The institution neutralizes the freedom it guarantees." What Upton Sinclair wrote about universities in the early 20th century still describes the complexion of values on most campuses: "...Every single man who had anything worthwhile of any sort to teach me was forced out of Columbia University in some manner or other. The ones that stayed were the dull ones, or the worldly and cunning ones." Jacoby notes that academic institutions, like any others, " 'naturally select' pliable individuals," indeed, so pliable that the greatest force toward conformity is the faculty's own "self-intimidation."

The cloistered, nearly totalitarian environment — the ideologically closed shop — of the academy has perfectly obscured from the public the pernicious values that are universities' corporate culture: "To succeed neither brilliance nor public contribution count, since both are viewed with suspicion — signs of a nonprofessional bent — but [rather] conformity and 'contacts'...". By design, academics speak and write only for one another: work of general significance, published in a form accessible to the laity, is received not merely with condescension (as "popularizing") but indeed with apprehension, as if the author were trying to eradicate class barriers, to dissolve the academic monopoly on understanding, and even to fraternize with the implicit enemy. It is an infringement of academic privilege by the unwashed, and nothing moves academics to close ranks more abruptly than such an appeal to the rights and minds of the public.

As Jacoby summarizes one researcher, "Universities that might seem to be 'the last sanctuary for individual initiative in a society dominated by corporate psychology,' ...have become 'havens' for 'patronage, committee decisions, conviviality, callousness, and provincialism.' " The consequence is a direct relation between " 'the declining number of great thinkers and the growing prominence of universities.' " An institution we naively look to for solutions has itself become a kind of intellectually genocidal problem. So potent is that regime of slavish conventionalism that even the most revolutionary mentalities among us — the Marxists, the leftists of the 1960's generation — have been utterly subverted by academicism, and are now more pedantic and abstruse than the professors they once egged and insulted. That is no country for those with minds of their own.

Universities, now rife with discontent and demoralization over boredom and purposelessness, have been profligate stewards of our highest values and most potent concepts. They have not done the job poorly; they have not tried to do the job at all. They neither conserve the past nor try to innovate for the future, but have become directionless derelicts, blind and inertial. Self-interested careerism, administrative busywork, and the everlasting hustle after grants have made our universities into places where schole — the "leisure-time" to take a long-term perspective, to cultivate disinterested objectivity, hold ideas, and courageous independence of mind, the privilege and value after which schools and scholastics were indeed named — has perished in a frenetic trivial pursuit. Education, no longer a calling, has become for most a mandarin's privilege, menial, mechanical, and amoral.

The Last Intellectuals, like other recent criticisms of our educational misadventures, is damning indeed but still only tantalizing: what do these systemic kinds of negligence portend about the world we are creating, the obtuse and escapist people we are becoming? Where there is no vision, the people perish — and indeed do not know it, and do not know to fear it.

III. BRAHMINS AND UNTOUCHABLES. Charles J. Sykes's indictment of American higher education, Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, is to our universities what A Bright Shining Lie is to our military — an account of the deception of a people by its own deluded and dysfunctional institutions. Far better than did The Closing of the American Mind or The Last Intellectuals, Profscam has managed to take the full measure of our educational disorders: it perceives that the crises are indeed structural, that like the hamartia or tragic flaw of character in Greek drama, these institutions' deadly vices are exactly the converse of their virtues. It is impossible to identify the most profound dementias in this world without accusing the "professional ideology" of faculties and thus antagonizing them wholesale — as Bloom and Jacoby were unwilling to do.

That is indeed the scale and substance of the issues — institutionalized conformism, hypocrisy and mediocrity, and the wholesale oppressive force of national organizations weighing in as vested academic interests against precarious individual consciences and student needs. Sykes portrays a system so riddled with the cancer of myopic self-interest, and so addled with groupthink, that it now takes an outsider to recognize how pernicious its mores have become. Profscam argues that our universities are failing utterly at the tasks of education because, behind their rhetoric and self-deception, they are in fact trying to do something utterly different. The maladies of higher education are traced not (as Bloom did) to mere cultural and moral failings, but to a far more complex and distressing knot of institutional and professional perversities — the "politics of knowledge" (and its economics), the internally destructive priorities of our universities, and the radically irresponsible professional culture of our faculties. The problem is not that universities have simply failed to be what they claimed to be, but that they have succeeded, by a self-serving agenda, at making themselves into a wholly different beast.

Prime villain in the piece is the self-congratulatory professoriate itself, its regime of hyperspecialized research (almost universally dismissed as abstruse dreck), and its mindless and craven caste-system which ultimately rewards nothing but such research. The duties of teaching are consistently shunted off onto academic peons. Neglect — of students and of the general-knowledge undergraduate curriculum — is so profound that the structure of general competence and understanding may well have disintegrated irretrievably.

Sykes details the rise of the professoriate as an abstracted body of academic Brahmins whose self-defined professional responsibilities consist solely in research. The various disciplines, which are analogous to "academic villages, complete with elders, wise men, and elaborate rituals of initiation and ostracism," utterly control "the informal hierarchy of status, reputation, and prestige," and thus dominate all who desire recognition, acceptance, and honor. There is no place whatsoever at our major universities for those immune to these motivations. The consequence is a professional order far less like a community than a caste-system, with its "ingrained sycophancy," "thinly veiled old-boy network," "stranglehold of the elders," and "black holes" reserved for the "out-of-step."

Not prestige alone but craven fear is at work here, since "those peers have the power to send recalcitrant academics into exile and oblivion." From the first day of admission to graduate school, there is relentless selection to ensure servility before such a regime of research and prestige. The reward-structure is plain: "...The higher one rose in academia, the less one had to teach." Over 20 years ago, the Carnegie Foundation had warned that the new academics had come to view students as "impediments in the headlong search for more and better grants, fatter fees, higher salaries, higher rank." Today those kinds of academics have arrived; the university is theirs. And their values, alas, are now our national crisis. "Regardless of how little time they devoted to undergraduate teaching," those professors "wished to reduce that time still further...". It is an incoherent and hypocritical world, a flimsy rationalization for an order of "absentee professors."

The most radical, outrageous, and exactly right charge Sykes has to make is this: "...The academic culture is not merely indifferent to teaching, it is actively hostile to it. In the modern university, no act of good teaching goes unpunished." In higher education, there are "radical disincentives to teaching... virtually everywhere." Outstanding teachers, like authors with generally significant works, are regularly resented, disparaged, pitied as professionally suicidal, and dismissed. After several decades of iron-fisted and systematic selection, our faculties have come to be populated with anti-intellectual research-technicians, devoid of any passion for ideas, much less for education.

Perfunctory teaching on the one hand and a Babel of specialization on the other combine to exert enormous internal pressure within the universities to purge difficult and subtle materials from the curriculum, as well as everything among traditional values that might be subversive of these self-serving orthodoxies. What Sykes terms the "Ignorance Lobby" in behalf of lowered standards has coupled forces with iconoclastic specialists and ideologues to seek "the abolition of the traditional canon" of literary and other classics. The regime of specialization has eroded the substance, the intellectual capital, of our universities. Fractious academic politics have centrifuged the "core curriculum" apart into incoherence, intellectual squalor, self-indulgence, and triviality.

After repeated crusades for "reform," curricula are far more eccentric than ever. The modern "multiversity" is closer to anarchy than community as a result. "...Nowhere is the power of the academic culture more evident than in its success in sabotaging reform." The monopoly of academic interests means that "...the very reforms designed to correct the ills of the academic culture end up ratifying the same values that created the problems in the first place." Sykes's recommendations are strong but perhaps not strong enough. As one chairman warns, "Academics just can't take that much change. You can't force faculty to be good teachers. No amount of beating them with a stick will do any good." No legislative or administrative fiat, and perhaps not even any amount of popular pressure, will reverse the ingrained values of the research-professoriate: for decades, these faculties have been expressly selected for their aversion to teaching. Not just mediocrity but virulent contempt for education, as Sykes himself insists, is dominant, emplaced in positions of institutional as well as professional prestige. By making different demands on these faculties, we will not alter their sympathies, their abilities, their understanding, or conscience: the system of selection and reinforcement has worked too well for too long.

Profscam describes the panoramic triumph of materialistic priorities over human needs, of the seductions of Mammon and Ego over the stringencies and subtleties of culture. That now-endemic venality, which Sykes attributes to a perverse collegial and professional ethic, however, was not initially the fault of the professoriate at large: Sykes's own sources — particularly Dugger's Our Invaded Universities — demonstrate that administrative priorities were shaped not by any responsiveness to faculty demands but by the nexus of political and corporate power from the world outside. The research-ethic did not triumph on a level playing field, and the traditional humanitarian consciences among our faculties did not expire gratuitously. The tragic and obscene fact is that we have, today, the universities that shortsighted, barbarous forces of plutocracy wanted us to have — universities subservient to research-and-development, to the petty psychology of self-aggrandizement, their faculties bereft of any transcendental moral resources that might occasion resistance to such an ideology. To see this sorry situation for what it is — wholesale institutional capitulation to the most ignoble and vitiating kinds of motives — would call for exactly the sort of clarity and independence of mind that the situation itself has made into an endangered species of mentality. The manifest irony is that the resulting impoverishment of values, conscience, imagination, tradition, and theory will inevitably lay waste to what remains of our squandered empire and prosperity. Whom the gods want to destroy, they first make mad: the purge of excellence from our academic ranks and agenda was indeed deliberately conducted, and originally served political, not institutional, purposes. Sykes's contemporaneous account ignores that etiology, and thereby dilutes the accountability of our state, society, and economy for the very disservices our universities reflect back to us.

Our academics will not readily own up to such hypocrisy and venality, nor should we expect them to. Morally engaged self-reflection is not their long suit. But Profscam is not a book they can so magisterially dismiss, as they largely seem to have done with Bloom's and Jacoby's accusations. In the midst of the mechanics of attempted reforms, we cannot permit ourselves to forget the troubling larger questions behind this miasmal pollution of our pool of intellectual and academic values. How can this gravely misdirected state of institutions and mentalities have come to pass? I identify four causalities:

1) The vices of self-serving careerism and minimal effort, at whose utter mercy almost every campus in the U.S. today stands, are of course not obviously pathological in the eyes of their carriers. These vices are no different from the banal corruptions that have so gutted the ethics of the world outside the campus, and they are readily accepted as normality, as human nature, as the very archetype of the ideals of successful materialistic life. Actors have a precept: no villain is a villain to himself. And indeed, neither is any mediocrity a mediocrity in his own mind, or any swine a swine but to others. Competent moral self-criticism is the linchpin of all human objectivity and of all professional values that deserve the name; but that kind of competence at the critique of one's own illusions and presuppositions was the prerogative of the humanities and philosophy in particular, which are now eclipsed probably beyond any redemption by the more materialist disciplines. Licentious self-delusion and grotesquely self-congratulatory mediocrity have consequently unobtrusively come to put our nation's future at risk for their own myopic self-interest.

2) Like any profession, higher education is thought to represent a kind of guild, an officially sanctioned monopoly of abilities: in this case, a monopoly of knowledge, of authoritative research and intellectual credibility. Now we have entrusted the strategic work of securing our national intelligence to an institutional apparatus of expertise which is so inept and short-sighted as to have let its own curriculum disintegrate; our faculties cannot even replicate their own specialty-competence from generation to generation, much less minister to the general-knowledge needs of the students at large. The evidence of incompetence has been upon us for over a decade. But faculties and their administrative spokesmen, enjoying a radically unregulated privilege, control the faucets of official evidence and acknowledgment. Like our news media, they have the power to define issues out of existence, to cloud the public mind. Those all-too-many authoritarians among us — laymen as well as academics — who will believe nothing that does not come from official lips will be waiting forever for academics to indict themselves. One of the most distinctive indices of inept education is uncritical intellect, the pathetic dependency of those who capitulate in principle to the authoritarianism of those who are "supposed to know": credentialism and institutional position are all, individual understanding is nothing. Such fideism sets a hermetic seal upon the delusions, the ideological viruses, that Bloom, Jacoby, and Sykes have anatomized: credulity is the precursor for the kind of obscurity, the retreat from public accountability, that the irrational regime of academic expertise thrives upon.

3) Modern forms of education absolutely do not secure moral intelligence, professional or civic responsibility, or even sound common sense. On the contrary, modern societies yield up increasingly abstracted individuals — rootless, myopic, intellectually narrowed — ripe for indoctrination. Because their own conscience offers no significant resistance, they can be conditioned to believe and to do nearly anything. Their minds are porous and their wills pliant: no other virtues have been inculcated in them by their years of schooling. As a people, we have learned nothing from the case of Eichmann, from the demonstrable "banality of evil" that modern vacuity has made possible. In the eyes of the professoriate, there is nothing heinous, treacherous, or self-endangering about making themselves into "a fraternal conspiracy against the public good." There is only self-interest, and no one among them has ever challenged the nihilistic potential in such a mentality: on what substantive and objectively valid principles would such a critic stand? At the very mention of such norms, the cultural and moral vandals among our faculties would set out on a search-and-destroy mission.

4) Like academics themselves, the public has taken for granted that universities are places of diverse viewpoints. Academics are patently a fractious, squabbling lot, contentious and eristic; and it is true, almost every political or moral complexion can be found among them. Surely some among them would have resisted, spoken out, made an issue of this institutional atrocity? But an institution empowered to weed out at every stage any individuals who deviate from the academic consensus on the most important questions — specifically selecting for the most obsequious, pusillanimous types — is indisputably conducting a kind of characterological Holocaust. The disciplines and the institutions alike discredit and isolate any dissident in ways that make him seem eccentric and self-serving, and ultimately deprive him of a public forum altogether. Only a few such annihilations are needed to keep an immense population of less self-sacrificing mentalities in line: the futility of heroics, the impotence of the voiceless — these are the operative principles of totalitarian regimes. Ultimately, that is the most frightening implication in the malignant syndromes of our higher education. All modern, mass-scale institutions have prodigious mind-altering potential, totalitarian potential: individual conscience, the audacity and courage to make a sacrificial example of oneself, grows feebler and fainter. The very language of individual spirit, and certainly the values to sustain it, has become one on our campuses with the languages of the Copts, the Sumerians, and the Hittites. A new and unbelievably anemic table of values is being propagated, one that fits human beings only to become parasites within mindless organizations. The eclipse of the humanities is indeed the eclipse of Man.