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ever to excel

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 27, 2007

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At the First Things blog, R.R. Reno reflects on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and has some well-targeted remarks on the moral incoherence of contemporary higher education. Some excerpts:

Higher education has become, argued Bloom, the professional training of clever and sybaritic animals, who drink, vomit, and fornicate in the dorms by night while they posture critically and ironically by day. Bloom identified moral relativism as dogma that blessed what he called "the civilized reanimalization of man." He saw a troubling, dangerous, and soulless apathy that pleasured itself prudently with passing satisfactions ("Always use condoms!" says the sign by the dispenser in the bathroom) but was moved by no desire to know good or evil, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness.

I remember reading Bloom in 1987, feeling as though he was describing what I was experiencing as a young graduate teaching assistant. Bright, energetic, ambitious Yale students could master material with amazing speed. They could discuss brilliantly. They could write effective, well-researched papers. But they possessed an amazing ability to understand without being moved, to experience without judging, to self-consciously put forward their own convictions as mere opinions. On the whole, they seemed to have interior lives of Jell-O.

I have since learned that students are often not as they appear. Quite a number have steely souls and passionate convictions, but they have learned that the proper posture of higher education is either soft diffidence or its counter-image, snarky critical superiority. At times, a cultivated moral passion is OK, even desirable, especially if it is sincerely felt, unconventional, and asserted as an imperative of personality. An urgent vegetarianism expressed with a vehemence bordering on taboo, for example, can be quite acceptable. What is positively discouraged, however, are reasoned, principled commitments. So students who have real and serious moral or religious convictions hide them and cordon them off from their educational experience.

Key to Reno's insight is the role he assigns the "imperative of personality." If I have the knack of projecting my passions as an identity -- i.e., of announcing "this vegan, this gay, this goth is WHO I AM" -- I preemptively disqualify criticism as simply an instance of bigotry. Of course, not every passion is granted this status, as committed Christians know too well. Nor is this lopsided tolerance (by which these enthusiasms are welcomed and those are damned) peculiar to the secular university. What Reno has to say about Catholic institutions is painfully accurate:

Every Catholic university has its own story. But the basic dynamic tends to be the same. For all their good intentions, most Catholic administrators are hopelessly confused and inconsistent when it comes to the goals of education. Just talk to a Catholic dean or college president. They do not want non-Catholic students to be "uncomfortable," and they want everyone to feel "included." Then, not a minute or two later, the conversation shifts, and the very same proponents of inclusion will insist that we need to challenge our students with critical thought and diverse perspectives. Hello! You can't have it both ways -- making students comfortable and challenging them.

Of course, what most Catholic educators usually mean is that a professor should challenge the traditional beliefs of Catholic students and challenge any conservative political or economic beliefs that students are foolish enough to expose. This critical project, which is conveniently well-coordinated with the agenda of secular education, has the desired effect of making administrators and faculty feel good about their great vocation as critical educators while -- miracle of miracles -- making anybody who disagrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church feel comfortable and welcome.

Reno's critique of the typical Catholic college administrator calls to mind some acid observations by Joseph Epstein in a review of Elaine Showalter's Faculty Towers (Weekly Standard, 9 May, 2005):

Being with the show has doubtless clouded Showalter's judgment of [Randall Jarrell's novel] Pictures from an Institution, which contains, among several withering criticisms of university life, a marvelously prophetic description of the kind of perfectly characterless man who will eventually -- that is to say, now, in our day -- rise to the presidencies of universities all over the country. Cozening, smarmy, confidently boring, an appeaser of all and offender of none, "idiot savants of success" (Jarrell's perfect phrase), not really quite human but, like President Dwight Robbins of the novel's Benton College, men (and some women) with a gift for "seeming human"-- in short, the kind of person the faculty of Harvard is currently hoping to turn the detoxed Lawrence Summers into if they can't succeed in firing him straightaway for his basic mistake in thinking that they actually believe in free speech.

Reno's right. Jarrell's right. And (as shown by the eclipse of Harvard's Summers) Epstein is right as well. And his depiction of the contemporary college president is eerily exact: "cozening, smarmy, confidently boring, an appeaser of all and offender of none, an idiot savant of success" -- we've all met this man. On Parents Weekend, you may even get to shake his hand. Even if he puts on a roman collar for the occasion, the odds are enormously against his being able -- still less his being inclined -- to mount a moral defense of Catholic doctrine where the wrong folks will be made uncomfortable thereby. His clerical garb, like his presidency itself, betokens not a positive faith commitment but a career history of successful capitulations. So instructed as to be unconscious of the latent ironies, he is -- more truly than he knows -- a "person for others."

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