Here at Purdue University, where I recently completed my Ph.D. in English, we have a little garden on the far west side of our enormous campus, where students and their families and professors and nearby residents tend to tomatoes and sunflowers. It’s one of my favorite places here. Overgrown and seemingly unmanaged, this western fringe of campus is perhaps the only place left at the university that is not meticulously landscaped and stage-managed for tour groups and the website. There’s nothing specific to Purdue in this aesthetic conformity. Over the past two decades, financial crises notwithstanding, the American university writ large has undergone a radical physical expansion and renovation, bringing more and more campuses into line with grand architectural visions. That’s precisely why I love the garden: It’s one of the last little wild places left at Purdue. Naturally, it’s slated for demolition.
The administration needs more room for our research park, an immensely impressive and utterly lifeless collection of buildings where few undergrads ever have reason to go. The first expansion will increase the research park by only about 160 acres, but the second phase will add several hundred, consuming far more than just the garden. (The university says it will rebuild the garden elsewhere.) The new construction will be devoted to aviation technology, at a school that could scarcely enjoy a better reputation in that field. Surely the work that goes on at the research park is valuable, but its ongoing expansion literalizes the way the entire campus is being made to look and feel exactly the same — no room left for the ungroomed, the weird or the wild.
This orderliness is just a secondary symptom of a more pernicious trend: the creeping corporatism of the American university. I don’t mean the literal corporations that are taking over more and more of the physical space of universities — the Starbucks outpost, the Barnes & Noble as campus bookstore, the Visa card that you use to buy meals at the dining hall. Enrolling at a university today means setting yourself up in a vast array of for-profit systems that each take a little slice along the way: student loans distributed on fee-laden A.T.M. cards, college theater tickets sold to you by Ticketmaster, ludicrously expensive athletic apparel brought to you by Nike. Students are presented with a dazzling array of advertisements and offers: glasses at the campus for-profit vision center, car insurance through some giant financial company, spring break through a package deal offered by some multinational. This explicit corporate invasion is not exactly what I mean.
Last fall at Oberlin College, a talk held as part of Latino Heritage Month was scheduled on the same evening that intramural soccer games were held. As a result, soccer players communicated by email about their respective plans. “Hey, that talk looks pretty great,” a white student wrote to a Hispanic student, “but on the off chance you aren’t going or would rather play futbol instead the club team wants to go!!”
Unbeknownst to the white student, the Hispanic student was offended by the email. And her response signals the rise of a new moral culture America.
When conflicts occur, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observe in an insightful new scholarly paper, aggrieved parties can respond in any number of ways. In honor cultures like the Old West or the street gangs of West Side Story, they might engage in a duel or physical fight. In dignity cultures, like the ones that prevailed in Western countries during the 19th and 20th Centuries, “insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery,” they write. “When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions.”
You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?
Alice Miller wrote about this 30 plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.
These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.
These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all or nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.
The first book you ever read was a book you didn’t read, but one that was read to you.
And whatever “first” might mean, it’s safe to guess it wasn’t read to you once, but repeatedly, over and over and over again.
By the time you came to your senses and grew into the awareness that you were hearing Goodnight Moon or Good Dog, Carl, the good words of those good books had been sounding over your crib or cradle for a good long time.
You were immersed, O reader, in the amniotic fluid of signs and symbols; surrounded by alphabet soup; always already swimming in a sea of language before you started chirping a few little bits of it back and taking your place in the community of communicators. From childhood you have known writings.
Open your eyes, take a deep breath, cut the umbilical cord (and here, towel off, you’re a mess) and join the great reading party as it mounts another raid on the fortress of that which has been written before we got here.
Welcome to our reading life.
A few months ago, an editor from an academic publisher got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a book for them.
I’ve ignored these requests in the past. I know of too many colleagues who have responded to such invitations, only to see their books disappear on to a university library shelf in a distant corner of the world.
If someone tried to buy said book – I mean, like a real human being – they would have to pay the equivalent of a return ticket to a sunny destination or a month’s child benefit. These books start at around £60, but they can cost double that, or even more.
This time, however, I decided to play along.
So I got the editor on the phone and he asked if I had an idea for them. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Perhaps I could write a book about…” – and here I started piling up ugly-sounding buzzwords.
I could hear how he momentarily drifted off, probably to reply to an email, and when I was done with my terrible pitch, he simply said: “Great!”
“The best thing now,” he continued, “is if you could jot down a few pages, as a proposal, which we could then send out to reviewers.” He paused a second, then added: “If you have any friends who could act as reviewers and who you think could sign off on the project, then that’d be great.”
I was intrigued by the frankness.
Today, adjunct instructors make up half or more of all faculty. There is, of course, a legitimate role for such faculty. The category was created to cover those outside the academy who might come in to share their expertise in a special course—say, for example, a marketing executive who comes in to teach a business school course on marketing. These people aren’t looking to achieve a tenured academic position, but they are “faculty” nonetheless.
What such people are generally paid is what we might call an “honorarium” rather than a salary. We can’t really afford to pay the high-level executive what she earns at her regular job, but we feel it “honors” her to be paid something. The justification for not paying them benefits is due to the presumption that they have benefits (and usually better benefits) through their full-time jobs, and so offering them employee benefits such as health insurance (as opposed to, say, free parking, use of the library, and access to the gym) would be superfluous.
The kind of “adjunct” faculty we’re discussing now, however, are not in this category. Most of the adjunct faculty that now make up more than half of higher education faculty are not “honored” members of the community who have come into the university to provide students with the benefits of their practical experience. They are hired at poverty-level wages with no health-care benefits and no guarantee of continued employment from semester to semester.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Educationdescribing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A phoenix is a bird that rises from the ashes, but the University of Phoenix is a diploma mill that may soon go down in flames.
On Wednesday, University of Phoenix’s parent company Apollo Education Groupannounced that the business and marketing practices of the for-profit school are now under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). CNNMoneyreports that Apollo will “cooperate fully” with the FTC investigation, which requires them to provide the federal agency with documents on their finances, marketing, accreditation, and military recruitment practices from the last four years.
Apollo’s stock (APOL) predictably took a nosedive following the announcement.
I often reserve my Sunday afternoons for trips to the local university library. These visits are bittersweet, for although I live in an area of the country which is considered to be “very conservative” and is very Republican (the Democratic Party often does not field a complete list of candidates in an election), I rarely have any trouble finding available in the stacks works by and about the major conservative writers whom I esteem. Am I truly the only reader of Kirk, Weaver, and Voegelin in a town with a university of 30,000 students?
Today was a typical jaunt which led me to the stacks on a quest to find the following works: The Counter-Revolution by Thomas Molnar, Paul Elmer More and American Criticism by Robert Shafer, Democracy and Populism by John Lukacs, andDemocracy without Nations? by Pierre Manent. Lucky for me, I had absolutely no problem in acquiring these works as they were neatly situated on the shelves. “Neatly” is key here, for this library is not one of the better organized ones that I have frequented. If a book is easily found, it has probably not been borrowed for a long time. Sure enough, after finding each work, I opened the front covers and found the following dates for the most recent readings: the More book was last borrowed in January, 1968; Molnar had one perusal in January, 1974; I am the first to borrow the Manent book (published 2007). But the Lukacs book was borrowed in April, 2006 (I am pretty sure that I was the previous borrower).
How does one acquire the treasure of knowledge? 1 What duties, habits, virtues, and practices ought to order the Christian intellectual’s soul in his pursuit of truth? What does daily life look like for a Christian practitioner of the artes liberales? As a wise father speaking softly but weightily, guiding his children down the straight and narrow way, Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life invites his readers to quiet their souls, to rest, and to partake in deep, godward reflections on these fundamental questions.
Cradled both in St. Thomas’s enduring advice to students in the Epistola exhortatoria de modo studendi and in the solace of Sertillanges’s silence, The Intellectual Life first appeared in 1921. 2 But “[i]n reality these pages have no date,” he writes in the preface. “They came from what is deepest in me.” Indeed, the timeless nature of the work is self-evident. Page after page the interested reader cannot help but hear deep calling to deep; wave upon wave of wisdom, of experience, of reality roll upon the reader’s shore, directing one’s attention to the truth of things.
Sertillanges begins at the beginning of the intellectual life, asking: what are the elements of an intellectual vocation (ch. 1)? The answer is as challenging as it is poignant. The intellectual’s high calling is a sacred bond, a covenant. Those who seek truth must give themselves wholly to her, for the truth serves only her slaves. Persistent and well ordered effort is the ray whereby God’s light shines into one’s study; for scientia, knowledge through causes, is itself obtained only through causes. Thus only those who have counted the high cost dare tread truth’s way. “Love spending much time in your cell, if you want to be led into the wine cellar.”