“One doth but breakfast here.”—Bishop Joseph Henshaw, 1631
"Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast." -- The Outlaw Josey Wales
I invited Hell out to brunch yesterday. He has a busy schedule, what with the banks, the Dow, the o’cession and the like, but he made time for me. We met just outside Firestone Library on Princeton’s campus of gothic arches, and strolled down to Palmer Square, past the bronze statue of the crouching tiger.
It turns out that Hell has a lively interest in higher education and, despite the numerous issues competing for his attention, keeps well-informed. He had just read Heather MacDonald’s piece in The Weekly Standard about the cosseted treatment afforded “LGBTQ Resources” at Yale despite budget cuts occasioned by the endowment losing a quarter of its value. He had circled several paragraphs and read them to me in his rather sepulchral voice:
Today's solipsistic university, however, allows students to answer the "Who am I?" question exclusively, rather than inclusively. Identity politics defines the self by its difference from as many other people as possible, so as to increase the underdog status of one's chosen identity group. (Women have commandeered an underdog identity even though they are the majority on campuses; that no one objects is a measure of their clout.) And because the robust growth of the student services bureaucracy depends on the proliferation of identity groups, administrations busy themselves with identity-based constituencies that might not even exist.
While the drive to define oneself oppositionally is good for student services administrators, it is not so good for education. Can a student who is furiously itemizing the many ways she has been dissed as a female of color or a lesbian, say, lose herself in the opalescent language of A Midsummer Night's Dream or hear the aching melancholy in Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode? She will have been taught to scour books for slights to, or affirmations of, her own self, but neither the play nor the poem is directly about her carefully cultivated identity.
Yale's sprawling student services bureaucracy is drearily typical. It matters not whether a college is private or public, large or small; all are encrusted with layers of expendable adults catering to students' most narcissistic tendencies. The growth in this bureaucracy helps explain exploding annual tuition costs, which at elite private colleges now run over half the median family income.
“Great stuff,” he said. “MacDonald has a rare understanding of how diversity, the cult of the victim, and identity politics have hollowed out higher education. The universities speak a language that drips with solicitude to others but in fact tends to isolate individuals more and more into the prison of the self. And it is a nice touch that she sees how the adults who run this grotesquerie turn it into a source of comfortable employment.”
I was surprised by Hell’s tone of disapproval. “Don’t you welcome the additional suffering?”
He looked slightly offended but explained, “Not particularly. I do my job, and I go where I’m welcome. But,” he paused and looked balefully at his eggs, “in truth I’ve had my fill of these banal whiners. Can you imagine spending all of eternity at an MLA convention? I would gladly have another Faust, but no. I have darkling plains full of the epigones of Allen Ginsberg, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said. It’s insufferable.”
Hoping to cheer him up, I mentioned that I saw some indications that identity politics was on the wane. Campuses are full of “community service” initiatives and efforts to promote things like “global awareness.”
Hell immediately brightened. “Yes, global warming was one of my best ideas. The sustainability movement would be nothing without it. And I must say the combination of wild speculation, earnest utopianism, and proud despair that sustainability brings forth is something to behold. I especially like the opportunistic embrace of science. I caught a blog called mediocracy yesterday that caught this gem from Mike Edwards, a sustainability activist. Dr. Edwards is the climate change program development officer for a group based in Britain called the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. The Telegraph last month published a letter from him in which he avows that the facts don’t matter, so long as global warming theory gets people sufficiently worked up to support the politics he prefers. Look, I have it here,” and he pushed a crumpled and singed clipping across the table:
The longer I work on climate change, the less important I think it is whether or not the warmists or the sceptics are right. [...] Imagine a world where we had listened to the climate scientists and started to change our resource-consuming behaviour and address the inequities of the global economic system. Although the warming still didn’t materialise, we would have addressed a host of environmental issues and be living a largely pollution-free existence. We may even be saying thank you to the climate scientists who, although they got it wrong, provided us the opportunity to create a cleaner, brighter and fairer world.
He was smiling, which I found a bit unnerving. "The data matter only if they support the theory.”
I protested. “But that’s not what Dr. Edwards says in this clipping. He says the data don’t matter at all, as long as the movement succeeds.”
“Same thing.” Hell was gloating. “And not unconnected to your article a couple of months ago about that anthropologist at Emory University, Peggy Barlett, urging a demotion of reason in higher education to make way for reenchantment with nature. Reason, she seems to say, is OK, provided it doesn’t get in the way of—I have the exact phrase—‘nonrational ways of connecting with the earth’s living systems.’ Now that’s something. Higher education as the promotion of nonrationality!”
I was flattered that Hell had read my article. “Yes, but I think we have to assume that people like Edwards and Barlett are on the extreme edge of the movement. Most of the academics who support sustainability are sensible, rational, and intellectually honest. It is really a mainstream movement.”
He just looked at me and smiled again. He looks even ghastlier when amused. I went for a change in topic. “What do you think of President Obama’s idea that every American should have a year of college?”
“Unnecessary,” he answered. “Most people can damn themselves without ever touching a textbook.”
“I would have thought from your earlier comments that you would prefer a better-educated clientele.”
“True, true,” he said, “But I don’t equate sending one-and-all to college with achieving a better-educated populace. As the numbers go up, the quality goes down. Education is something more than filling chairs. The high schools long ago figured out that they didn’t need to do much to prepare students for college. Everybody who wants to gets in. But having gotten as far as college without much knowledge or effort, most of the students see no reason to start up the Hill of Difficulty. They prefer the Couch of Comfort, the Grotto of Self-Esteem, and the Fountain of Triviality.”
Having just read Tom Wood’s recent series on Education and Intelligence, I was prepared for this. “You exaggerate. We have good evidence that higher education, even in small doses, really does benefit students. Even undemanding curricula raise the average level of students’ intelligence, and teach them something of substance too.”
“Not denying it,” said Hell. “I am sure there will be benefits of some sort. You can call them educational if you like.”
“But it is essentially dilution. Sending everyone to a year or more of college will fill up those college seats and provide reasons to keep expanding the higher education enterprise to its asymptotic limits, but it won’t do much to preserve your civilization. College education is already thinned out, almost to the vanishing point in some cases. Did you, by the way, see the
“I’m not sure I see the connection to the Obama plan.”
“No? Well, perhaps I’m imagining things too. We all have a tendency to believe storylines even when the facts are standing there like policemen patiently asking for our university IDs. I just wonder if President Obama hasn’t convinced himself a little too much of the storyline in which everyone goes to college and gets job skills, a good education, and a commitment to social justice to boot. But I see the day is hastening on. I have appointments to keep.”
Hell to my surprise picked up the check. “You can pay next time.” I was surprised by his gentle demeanor. Hell just wasn’t what I expected.