At the same time, we must insist on the maintenance of academic standards. Getting something for nothing creates crises of confidence. Students disengage in classrooms when they know there are no repercussions for doing so. Schools should focus on making sure conferring degrees represents serious effort and struggle on behalf of students. This requires not only addressing grade inflation but also restricting admissions. Fewer students will mean fewer colleges, or at least colleges with more modest ambitions. Let’s state the obvious: Not every high school graduate should go to college, and not every college is going to produce global leaders.
The identity crisis on campus mirrors the absence of academic standards in another way: Rather than creating communities of learning, we are busy creating communities based on accidental characteristics. This fragmenting of the academic community has a number of effects. For one thing, it invites students to think of academic learning as subordinate to group identity. The search for truth is substituted with the possession of “my truth.” Secondly, academic success relates to one’s relation to a peer group. Students learn more and can become more resilient and develop more active minds when they are challenged by their peers in informal conversations. Certainly learning takes place in the classroom, but a good deal of it takes place outside the classroom. Schools such as Hillsdale that make learning “cool” are adept at supporting and cultivating these kinds of interactions. Faculty should be involved in helping to form these communities of learning but also need to be as absent as possible so that students may create their own dynamic. Getting rid of affinity groups may encourage students to reconvene on a different basis, and that will likely be an academic one. When I was in college, our coffee table was an “all-comers” corner. It didn’t matter what race or sex you were; the only thing that mattered was whether you were smart, engaged, informed, and ready to mix it up. It was invigorating and humbling and got us outside ourselves.
Having said that, I would not for a minute discount the itch affinity groups scratch. The original title of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was Souls Without Longing. It’s not inconsequential that the publisher replaced souls with minds. Students had souls back then and they have them now; and while we might be doing a poor job cultivating their minds, we haven’t fully quieted their souls. But restless souls that are not given a positive direction, particularly when we allow feeling and not reason to rule, will soon settle on anything that promises to give them that sense of meaning they so desperately need.
Rather than suppressing the desire, we should understand that student groups respond to a genuine human need and offer a means to satisfy the desire. Here is where the academy’s loss of confidence makes of itself its own gravedigger. The restoration both of disciplinary integrity and high academic standards will give students a sense of accomplishment, dissipate a lot of the ideological battles taking place on campuses, better prepare students for life outside college campuses, and provide a tonic to the poison of boredom that infects undergraduate life.
I’d be remiss here if I didn’t remind the reader that rigor accompanies genuine academic work, and this academic work in turn cannot be thought of simply in instrumental terms. Subordinating academic work to bourgeois notions of career development or advancement or progressive or conservative notions of preparing students to fight the culture wars distracts us from genuinely unifying engagements with transcendentals. The open-ended search for truth contrasts with closed ideological formation; it’s the difference between education and indoctrination. Among the many objections against indoctrination is that it is predictable, and therefore dull. It’s no wonder that our students are so bored. We seldom place in front of them the prospect for open-ended discovery, the excitement that accompanies it, or the joy involved in rigorous effort.
Neither ought we neglect the place of beauty in their lives. Truth attracts us while error repels us, and this is a fundamentally aesthetic insight. Eros drives us to penetrate ever deeper into the truth. Thus, either misdirecting or suppressing the soul’s longings is an act of de-eroticization. The solution involves reawakening those desires, and art and beauty are the mechanism of such reawakening. Schools must intentionally avoid whatever is coarse or grotesque or otherwise ugly (including much rhetoric) and stimulate the twitch for beauty.
Concretely, this means using books or essays that are well crafted and engagingly written. Where possible, avoid the mind-numbing and soul-crushing prose of textbooks and much of academic writing. With effort and attention, most any class, especially in the humanities and social sciences, can be taught using books that people want to read instead of have to read. Likewise, books should not be assigned on their ideological merits but on their literary ones. All too often we view education as an opportunity for students to form their identities rather than to engage dialectically with something attractive. Perhaps the best metaphor for this is that many young men on our campuses would rather view pornography than date an actual young woman. The former is a perverted and artificial notion of attractiveness, one that is replicable, indistinct, and replaceable. The latter is beauty itself: inexhaustible, irreplaceable, unique, and significant. The former is an escape and the latter an adventure. The former is solipsistic and the latter communal. The former is isolating and the latter integrating. The former brings with it shame and the latter joy.
Beauty has always been the pulley by which humans have lifted themselves out of despair. Our crisis is not simply that we don’t have a clear idea of what beauty is or why it matters; our crisis is that we no longer care to ask the question. To the degree we think about beauty, we reduce it to matters of taste. This subjectivizing of beauty has serious consequences, and not only as regards the search for truth. Young people need as much as ever to discover the joy of a Mozart concerto; the pain, angst, and triumph of a Mahler symphony; the exquisite tension of Brahms; the infinite ingenuity and piety of Bach. The Four Seasons aren’t The Four Seasons. Unless truth retains its intimate connection to a more fulsome notion of beauty, it too becomes highly subjectivized. It’s little wonder then that our notions of what is good suffer the same fate, buttressing themselves through humanitarian sentiment rather than individual obligation.
This struggle against subjectivism shouldn’t be misconstrued. I’m referring here to a set of standards and cultural artifacts that can make some headway on the depths of human longing, and suggesting that colleges do themselves a disservice when they ignore such. A simple affirmation of what is good or beautiful has more power than a hundred criticisms of what is wrong, and affirmation and criticism shape the soul in different ways. Professors on both the left and the right suffer from a tendency to negativity. Indeed, by elevating “critical” thinking over mere thinking or, worse still, over piety, we put students in an adversarial relationship to their culture.
The appeal of negativity only lasts so long. The mind may open, but eventually it wants to close on something. Affirmation compels assent more than negation does. This is, of course, part of the appeal of identity politics, and simply complaining about it reinforces that appeal. The key is to present an attractive alternative. Part of that must involve building relationships with students, relationships grounded in a shared academic enterprise. Students will quickly realize that if you don’t care about their politics you are much more likely to care about them.
Sticking to teaching what the school pays you to teach makes this all the easier. If Plato is to be trusted, “do your job” is a principle of justice, for it leads to a harmonious balancing of elements. Part of doing your job also means not doing someone else’s job, and not letting someone else tell you how to do your job. I’m not the president of the college. I am free to let him know how I see things, especially if asked, but I am not free to tell him how to do things. One obvious reason for this is that I’m not required to attend to the big picture, nor to attend to all the different stakeholders and interests; nor, for that matter, am I responsible for the decisions that get made. Accountability is related to office and function; faculty who weigh in on how the college ought to be run should be reminded it’s easy to make those calls from a couch.