American Character, the Remix: How College is Shaping Us Now

Peter Wood

Education shapes character; and a nation’s manner of educating shapes the character of its people. This is one of those large truths that somehow seem to slip from view and need to be freshened up from time to time. The Duke of Wellington probably didn’t say, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The Duke, as it happened, was not fond of his Eton years. But the pithy expression caught on. The British seem especially good at catching the connection between what really happens in school and the attitudes and capabilities of adults. Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899) depicts a rather unpleasant British boarding school, where pranks spill over to bullying. But the book ends with Stalky and his pals fighting their way out of a Pathan ambush in Afghanistan or thereabouts, and we get to see that their trust in one another, their wiles, and their quickness meet the occasion. 

British alertness to what education really does was momentarily on display last week when former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at the University of Chicago. He argued for an “active and engaged foreign policy,” and cautioned against approaches rooted in mere expediency. In a round-up of seeming expediencies that have had unhappy consequences, he asked “Was it practical to let Pakistan develop as it did in the last 30 years, without asking what effect the madrassas would have on a generation educated in them?”

Perhaps it is easier to see the way education shapes character when we are looking at a distance, but the same principles apply here.   Children never learn or remember all the details of they are taught, but they drink in the basic messages about what is important and what’s not. In that sense, America has its own madrasses —secular madrassas of multiculturalism and sustainability. We call them public schools. Ashley Thorne’s article here last week, “Green Goblins,” pondered the recent poll of American school children by an environmentalist group that purported to find, “One out of three children aged 6 to 11 fears that Ma Earth won't exist when they grow up.”   Our success in teaching reading and math may be a bit spotty, but our success at instilling eco-apocalyptic fear in preteens is outstanding. 

What follows is an exercise in synthesis. I will be gathering up threads that bear on the broad theme that “education shapes national character.” I want to see if we can make some sense of education in our historical moment. 

New Progressive America

The combination of economic turmoil and President Obama’s sweeping policy agenda seems to have awakened American anxiety about what is really happening in the nation’s education system. I’ve been collecting samples of this worry—policy recommendations that frequently contradict one another and that arise from many different parts of the political spectrum. But they are united by the quickening idea that higher education has somehow gone off track and that it is, among other faults, fostering profound weakness in the American character. 

I am drawn to the subject by my own anxiety. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it the day after the presidential election, Obama “won the overwhelming support of college students, faculty members, and higher-education officials during his campaign.”  Overwhelming seems accurate. Among voters under age 30, 66 percent voted for Obama versus 32 percent for McCain. A two-to-one advantage is an extraordinary gap. Kerry’s advantage over Bush with this group in 2004 was a mere 9 points. This under-age-30 cohort of 2.2 million made up 18 percent of the electorate. 

 Last month the left-leaning Center for American Progress issued an analysis of the 2008 presidential election titled New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority.   One of the basic claims of the author, Ruy Teixeira, is that “the college-educated favor progressives over conservatives by large margins.” The details don’t entirely bear this out. Obama actually lost among white college graduates by four points, but that is a smaller margin than Democrats are used to. Teixeira compares it to “an 11-point deficit for Kerry in 2004 and a 20-point deficit for Dukakis in 1988.” State-by-state analyses, however, show Obama’s appeal to the college-educated. “For instance, college-educated whites in Pennsylvania swung Obama’s way by 17 points, turning a 12-point deficit in 2004 into a five-point advantage in 2008.” In any case, Teixeira sees an advantage for the progressive left in “the replacement of older, less-educated whites in the white population by younger, more educated whites.”

From this and other changes, he foresees “an end to the so-called culture wars that have marked American politics for the last several decades, with acrimonious disputes about family and religious values, feminism, gay liberation, and race frequently crippling progressives’ ability to make their case to the average American.” The New Progressive America report also has a substantial section on “A 21st-century educational system,” but oddly the rhetoric of progressive social change vanishes in this section in favor of a rhetoric of “individual upward mobility.” 

New Progressive America captures perfectly the soaring spirits of the progressive left since the November election. And I am inclined to take most of its factual claims at face value. They translate into a simple picture: American higher education among those under 30 of all races has produced an overwhelming attachment to the politics of the progressive left. Conservatives, I suppose, can hope that some fraction of the alumni will grow out of their current enthusiasm, but there is no real data to support that. 

To the contrary, numerous analysts, left, right, center, and independent, have looked at the election returns and remarked a generation shift that favors the left. One of the more intriguing is Richard Florida’s analysis purporting to show that the up-and-coming “creative class” swung for Obama; that states with a high concentration of people psychologically “open to experience” voted for Obama; and that states with a high concentration of “conscientious or dutiful personalities” voted for McCain. 

This doesn’t exactly sound like the “end of the culture wars,” unless what Teixeira means is total victory by the progressives over all those dull, dutiful people inhabiting uncreative states. 

Send More Legions?

What figures on the left have been noticing, however, has also been noticed by figures more or less on the right. The spin is a little different. Dorothy Rabinowitz, for example, writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, in “Obama Blames America,” thinks that the President’s negative comments about the U.S. during his trips abroad won’t perturb or even surprise his “legions of supporters.” That’s because:

Five decades of teaching in colleges and universities across the land, portraying the U.S. as a power mainly responsible for injustice and evil, whose military might was ever a danger to the world—a nation built on the fruits of greed, rapacity and racism—have had their effect. The products of this education find nothing strange in a president quick to focus on the theme of American moral failure. He may not share many of their views, but there is, nonetheless, much that they find familiar about him.

This is an inversion of the Duke of Wellington’s supposed comment. If Eton of the early 19th century had taught English youth that the nation was rotten to the core and certainly no better than the French reign of terror or the depredations of Bonaparte, that misunderstanding at Waterloo might have been avoided.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that legions of college graduates have absorbed the anti-Western propaganda of the academic left as an undigested lump. Kipling’s insight applies as much to today’s colleges as the boarding schools of the British Empire: a great deal of what counts for character formation takes place outside the classroom. That’s one reason why the National Association of Scholars has spent so much time and effort for the last two years on student affairs and residence life. The most vigorous proponents of illiberal ideologies on campus these days aren’t the professors. They are the student affairs “professionals” running what they see as “co-curricular programs” centered on social justice, diversity, and sustainability. 

Another component of the cultural divide is whether higher education has already overgrown its legitimate place in American society or whether its proper destiny is to grow a great deal more. President Obama is in the latter camp, as are numerous higher education leaders. Back in December, I commented in “Cold Brine” on the College Board’s proposal to graduate 55 percent of young Americans from college by 2025, in contrast to today’s 34.4 percent rate. The goal was echoed, without being specified, in the Carnegie Corporation’s ad campaign later that month, which I wrote about in “Asking a Lot.” This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education features a front page story about the head of the Lumina Foundation, Jamie P. Merisotis, who has one-upped (actually five-upped) the College Board. He wants sixty percent of Americans to have college degrees by 2025. 

For reasons I explained in “Cold Brine,” even the 55 percent goal is plainly impossible. We would have to massively redirect the nation’s resources to more than double the size of higher education in that time frame; virtually eliminate the possibility of students dropping out; and admit people to college study so grossly ill-equipped by lack of intelligence as well as lack of preparation that a college education would have to be radically defined downwards from its already low standard. At the 55 percent level, we would need spaces for 14.6 million more students in the next 17 years. Merisotis’ estimate of additional spaces to accommodate a 60 percent rate of all Americans getting college degrees is “16 million more college graduates”—that’s 16 million in addition to the 30.8 million that would be awarded at the current rate. 

And the point of this would be?  The Chronicle reports that Mr. Merisotis “was excited” when he heard President Obama tell Congress in February that “he wanted America to attain the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.” The Lumina Foundation already had set its similar goals. But the Chronicle article is silent on why Mr. Merisotis thinks this massive expansion of higher education is a good idea, and it sidesteps the issue of practicality, quoting only one critic who thinks Obama ‘s goal is “unrealistic.”  

When Too Much Education Chases Too Few Jobs

Let’s back away from the particulars and consider the larger picture. Once again, a British observer proves helpful. Michael Burleigh is an historian whose most recent work is Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism.  At one point he considers the “the mindless and supposedly economically driven over-expansion of higher education” as a factor in the rise of terrorism in Europe and the Middle East. How so? Higher education helped to uproot students from their communities, set them outside the responsibilities of work, and exposed them to “jaded academics, many not much older than their students,” and gave these students “an antidote for accidie and boredom through laicised left-wing messianisms and the espousal of violence for other people.” They learned “theories almost guaranteed to disable these students for the job market,” and universities in places like Egypt created a “demi-educated lumpen intelligentsia, whose degrees were the intellectual equivalent of a Western high school certificate.” 

I suppose one can’t quote this without the caveat that the massive over-expansion of American higher education has not produced terrorists. It has produced a fringe of crazy anarchists who run around the streets of Manhattan blocking traffic in Union Square and causing grief for New School president Kerrey. (See “New Fear at the New School”) But since Bill Ayers decided to devote himself to radicalizing schools of education instead of blowing things up, America has been blessedly free of college students bent on advancing social change through mayhem and bloodshed. 

I don’t see our history of mass education leading to careers for many as clerks, baristas, and dog walkers as an indefinitely sustainable pattern. It is, of course, built on hope. Those college graduates have had little tastes of intellectual nihilism in college, but these were always sweetened with the sugar of social justice preaching. So they have Obama-sized “hope” of changing the system along with their own very American hope of personal advancement. Flood this system with 15 or 16 million additional students, many of them basically uneducable, and will we maintain this delicate combination of illusory social “hope” and semi-realistic personal ambition? I doubt it. The system somewhere has a tipping point at which the university becomes a giant holding pen for young people who have few other options and no real future. 

One advantage is that such a system would temporarily lower the unemployment rate by taking people out of the job market. But the disadvantage is that people are quick to sense futility. Turning the university into a massive system of dependency for the young just isn’t a good idea. Those who favor the massive expansion seem to believe the seldom examined notion that a college education is something like a conveyor belt that turns high school graduates into highly skilled, employable, “knowledge workers.” Indeed, higher education can approximate that model when we have a robust economy, a supply of generally capable and ambitious students, selective admissions standards, and some sort of sane curriculum.  These conditions, however, are not fixed, and even before our current economic crisis it had become clear that much of American college education is misaligned with both the job market and the prospect for life-time careers. 

While I say the conveyor-belt-to-prosperity model of higher education is seldom examined, it is in fact the subject of a lively debate, just not a debate that gets much attention from the broader public. Last year Claudia Dale Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz published The Race Between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press), a book that argues a close “co-evolution of educational attainment and the wage structure in the United States through the twentieth century.” But since 1980, say Goldin and Katz, an “educational slowdown” has led to falling wages and “rising inequality.” This is fuel for the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and President Obama’s view that more and still more students should earn college degrees. The other side of the story is best represented by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which generally presents the view that the federal government has unwisely expanded higher education through massive subsidies in the form of student loans. The Center’s director, Richard Vedder, for example, strongly disagrees with President Obama’s 2020 goal. He writes:

And, let us return to the goal of becoming number one in the proportion of adults who are college graduates. First of all, is that necessarily a good objective? I know many many college graduates taking jobs for which a high school diploma is perfectly adequate, or perhaps a high school diploma plus some specialized post-secondary vocational training. But even if the President's goal is somehow a good one, we would have to have a revolution in education at the K-12 level as well, one that the president would never support because it would offend his union allies. When 30 percent or so of kids do not make it out of high school, it is hard to be number one in college graduates. When over 40 percent of those who do go on don't make it out of college, it becomes impossible. The president is concentrating on the one-third or so of high school graduates that do not go on to college, ignoring the larger other problems that keep 4 of 5 high school freshman from getting a bachelor's degree within a decade of entering high school.

The criticism of higher education as overgrown and deleterious to the lives of some students doesn’t sit well with either side of the American political spectrum. Clearly Obama and the progressive left think higher education is an engine of prosperity (as well as votes) that can be scaled up indefinitely.  Conservatives often concur in the idea that higher education generally advances the nation’s economy. But there are also dissenters on both sides—people who think higher education simply is not doing its job very well.

Is Higher Ed Detroit or Wall Street?

In the Sunday New York Times this week, for example, Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, offers the bold prescription, “End the University as We Know It.” Some might say Taylor already did that back in the 1980s when he helped to popularize the works of his close friend Jacques Derrida and to create the North American market for postmodernism.  But now he would like to go further. He argues that “graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” It produces graduates for whom there is no market; and he is particularly pained by the narrowness and hyper-specialization in doctoral programs. 

Taylor’s proposed solution is that colleges and universities “must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.” He would like to jettison departmental organization from higher education and replace it with “a curriculum structured like a web or a complex adaptive network.”   The “complex adaptive network” apparently consists of people from different disciplines talking to one another about “problems.” Taylor also favors “collaboration among institutions,” dissertations in novel forms such as web sites and video games, wider career options for graduate students, the re-imposition of mandatory retirement, and an end to tenure. 

None of Taylor’s provocative suggestions deal directly with the problem of educational giganticism, but his concern about the dismal job prospects of graduate students is a tacit rejection of the College Board-Lumina-Obama approach. If we are about to launch a Great Leap Forward in nearly doubling the size of higher education in less than a decade, graduate students need not worry. Colleges and universities will be reduced to hiring anyone they can find to fill faculty positions. They might even be driven so far as to hire some of the conservative and traditionalist scholars they have worked so hard these last 25 years to drive out.

On the other side of the political ledger, in last week’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Jacobs wrote an article on “How Business Schools Have Failed Business.” Jacobs covers some of the same ground I laid out earlier this month in “B School Postmodernism” but his specific foci are the failure of business schools to teach students anything about management compensation systems, board responsibilities, and financial accountability:

Nationally, finance departments at business schools offer hundreds of courses in asset securitization and portfolio diversification. They have taught a generation of financial leaders that risk can be diversified away. But in their B-school days, few investment bankers examined the notion of "agency costs." That concept explains that as the gulf between the provider and the user of capital widens, the risks involved with selecting and monitoring the participants in the portfolio increase. It should come as no surprise that financial institutions amassed securities that consist of a diversified portfolio of deadbeats.

Jacobs is a professor in the business school at the University of North Carolina, and writes without a trace of the anti-capitalist animus that infects much of higher education. This makes his critique of his own quarter of higher education all the more bracing: 

By failing to teach the principles of corporate governance, our business schools have failed our students. And by not internalizing sound principles of governance and accountability, B-school graduates have matured into executives and investment bankers who have failed American workers and retirees who have witnessed their jobs and savings vanish.

These are problems that presumably can be fixed by adjusting the curriculum, but the sorts of adjustments Jacobs asks for may require deeper changes than he imagines. The cultural light-headedness that has overtaken business schools didn’t start there. It wafted in from the college of liberal arts, which has spent a quarter century promoting the liberating idea that reality doesn’t matter—in fact, doesn’t exist. The business professors simply took a deep lungful of this helium—the idea that education is all about learning to manipulate symbols. From there it was easy to imagine that “risk can be diversified away,” and that boards exist to smile benevolently on management. 

The Duke and the Dauphin

 What today might be the equivalent to the playing fields of Eton or Stalky’s boarding school?   Have we reached, “The war on terror was lost in the dorm rooms of Delaware?”   Not yet, but it is hard to find examples of colleges that summon their students to virtues such as courage, resourcefulness, and independence.   

I suppose at one time we might have imagined Huck Finn’s democratic raft the model of how a small-scale society can shape American character for the better. But that’s past. Colleges today are more the province of Huck’s colorful acquaintances, the Duke of Bilgewater and the Dauphin.  The pretentious bunkum of higher ed leaves students half-cynical though still half impressed. They  have a smothered awareness that the multicultural, diversity, sustainatopian regime is somehow unreal, but since that regime is the going thing, and the university is so closed to alternative views, they play along. 

The academic left has triumphed in making itself normative on campus—and thus compelling in both senses. It is compelling in that it seems believable so long as you are playing the game, and it is compelling too in that you risk social friction and worse if you don’t go along. That’s the kind of compulsion described by the University of Delaware student, Bill Rivers, in his account of UD’s dorm-based indoctrination program (see “Never Mind Tocqueville, Let’s List Slurs”).

So is the character of students shaped by our system of higher education best summarized as conformist?  To a large extent, yes. The progressive left, as witnessed by the Center for American Progress’ report, New Progressive America, is counting on a vast, quiescent consensus among the college-educated, a consensus sufficient to end the culture wars and usher in a reign of one-sided agreement on all important issues, a sea of leftist tranquility. As I’ve said, I don’t have any strong reason to deny this proposition. The left’s near total domination of education at all levels, including colleges and universities, has given it ample opportunity to instill its basic values. These include a settled hatred of Western civilization, an elevation of identity groups and corresponding devaluation of common humanity, and a preference for the homogeneous group over the free-spirited individual.

Along with the conformity comes a warmth-seeking, affirmation-thirsty need for the therapeutic. College graduates today have been used to a life of self-esteem-enhancing bromides.  They seldom see difficulty as valuable in its own right. Any Everest that faces them won’t be climbed by someone laconically explaining, like Edmund Hillary, “because it is there.”   It will be climbed, if it is climbed at all, by a social justice recycling alliance “to draw attention to our issues.” Grandstanding comes more easily to these folks than doing; and accomplishment without an audience is almost unthinkable.

The character that contemporary American education seems most to foster is also a person unmoored to any abiding sense of reality. He or she—more often she given that about 58 percent of the students are young women—is ambitious, dissatisfied, and vaguely angry.   College has made it a settled fact that America is a profoundly unfair society, but that the “structural inequalities” run so deep that there is little that can be done about them. This allows the alternatives of resentful passivity or frenetic pursuit of symbolic protests and acts of atonement. Often you see both in the same person. Lethargically pessimistic one day, stridently assertive the next.

That education leaves people dissatisfied is not necessarily a bad thing, but dissatisfaction comes in different flavors. This isn’t the kind of dissatisfaction that often reaches the point of prompting someone to say, “I would actually like to know something about the history of my civilization other than that it was a tale of torment for oppressed minorities.”   Rather, it is the dissatisfaction of inveterate grumblers. The really pernicious premises of postmodernism seem to sink in and take root. Life becomes a game of appearances and gestures. Materialism may be despised, but it is at least available as a lifestyle option.

No generation is without its vanity. In this case, the growing cohort of sub-educated, not-very-ambitious, forever dissatisfied consumers of sustainability agitprop see themselves pretty much as Richard Florida sees them: profoundly creative and “open to experience.”  That’s a nice way of saying they don’t know what’s valuable and what isn’t, and they are baffled by the problem of how to draw lines.

This is, unfortunately, a picture of lassitude, waste, and false ideals that are pretty much immune to disillusionment since being disillusioned is part of the creed. Genuine enthusiasm is available mostly in celebrating cultural themes that are (or are imagined to be) from outside our own exhausted traditions. But where genuine enthusiasm fails, feigned enthusiasm is readily summoned. This is a generation as well without an actual existential threat.  The communist behemoth is gone, and the best that this generation can do by way of monsters under the bed is the fantasy of global warming brought on by people living too well.

The best I can say about this is that every culture breeds a counter-culture. In this case, there are thousands of young college graduates who have found their inner voice of true dissatisfaction with the enforced superficiality of the American college and respond by seeking their own answers. I know some of these gadflies, and I expect they will they will be the ones to restore a faltering civilization when at last it becomes clear that our current system of educating more and more people for less and less reason proves untenable.

The economic crisis we are enduring is a crisis that may seem an opportunity to some and a mere setback to others, but it is a cause of suffering for a great many. Such times test a people’s fortitude and neither being “open to experience” or “conscientious” suffices. We need deeper reserves of character. I expect we will find them, but when we do, we will also find that our lavish system of higher education had little to do with keeping them alive. We will get along despite what higher education has done for us.

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