My recent post at Ricochet: the results of FIRE’s recent study on the free speech climate at America’s universities, a view of Harvard from 1835 (which I posted here a while back), and some signs of pushback against academic credentialism.
Like all intelligent men who are not in any way creative, Sir Robert Peel was dangerously sympathetic towards the creations of others. Incapable of formulating a system, he threw himself voraciously on those he came across, and applied them more vigorously than would their inventors.
I don’t know enough about Sir Robert to have an opinion about whether this was a fair assessment of him, but I think it’s a valid and important point in general. “Intelligent but not creative” describes a high percentage of people in academia, ‘nonprofits’, and the media (as long as you don’t set bar for ‘intelligent’ too high, especially in the case of the media)…and I think this has a lot to do with their eager adoption of theoretical frameworks such as critical race theory, cultural Marxism, and various types of gender theorizing…and the special and often weird vocabularies that tend to go with such things.
The need to conform, the desire to promote oneself and to feel superior, and the search for meaning also play a part, of course.
See Lead and Gold, which is why I discovered the Maurois quote in the first place. As LG notes, the voracious-framework-adoption phenomenon is also found in business, though at a somewhat lesser level than in academia, media, and nonprofits, I think, due to the exigencies of competition and the need to deal with reality sufficiently well to actually produce products and services.
See also my post Professors and the Pornography of Power, which cites Jonathan Haidt on what he calls the single-lens approach.
Previous Worth Pondering post.
Harriet Martineau was a British writer who has been called ‘the first female sociologist’ and even ‘the mother of sociology.’ (No fair blaming her for the activities of sociologists today!) From 1834-1836, she paid a long visit to the United States and traveled and observed extensively. Her comments about Harvard University are interesting:
The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. She has a great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise, whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new ones.
She attended a Harvard commencement and remarked on the speeches given:
A great variety of exercises were gone through by the young men: orations were delivered, and poems, and dialogues, and addresses. Some of these appeared to me to have a good deal of merit; two or three were delivered by students who relied on their reputation at college, with a manner mixed up of pomposity and effrontery, which contrasted amusingly with the modesty of some of their companions, who did things much more worth of honour. I discovered that many, if not most of the compositions, contained allusions to mob-law; of course, reprobating it. This was very satisfactory, particularly if the reprobation was accompanied with a knowledge of the causes and a recognition of the real perpetrators of the recent illegal violences; a knowledge that they have invariably sprung out of a conflict of selfish interests with eternal principles; and a recognition that their perpetrators have universally been, at first or second hand, aristocratic members of American society.
The next day, Martineau attended the annual meeting of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society:
Prayers were said by the chaplain of the society; and then a member delivered an address. This address was, and is, to me a matter of great surprise. I do not know what was thought of it by the members generally; but if its doctrine and sentiments are at all sanctioned by them, I must regard this as another evidence, in addition to many, that the minority in America are, with regard to social principles, eminently in the wrong. The traveller is met everywhere among the aristocracy of the country with what seems to him the error of concluding that letters are wisdom, and that scholarship is education. Among a people whose profession is social equality, and whose rule of association is universal self-government, he is surprised to witness the assumptions of a class, and the contempt which the few express for the many, with as much assurance as if they lived in Russia or England. Much of this is doubtless owing to the minds of the lettered class having been nourished upon the literature of the old world, so that their ideas have grown into a conformity with those of the subjects of feudal institutions, and the least strong-minded and original indiscriminately adopt, not merely the language, but the hopes and apprehensions, the notions of good and evil which have been generated amidst the antiquated arrangements of European society: but, making allowance for this, as quite to be expected of all but very strong and original minds, it is still surprising that within the bounds of the republic, the insolence should be so very complacent, the contempt of the majority so ludicrously decisive as it is. Self-satisfied, oracular ignorance and error are always as absurd as they are mournful; but when they are seen in full display among a body whose very ground of association is superiority of knowledge and of the love of it, the inconsistency affords a most striking lesson to the observer. Of course, I am not passing a general censure on the Association now under notice; for I know no more of it than what I could learn from the public exercises of this day, and a few printed addresses and poems. I am speaking of the tone and doctrine of the orator of the day, who might be no faithful organ of the society, but whose ways of thinking and expressing himself were but too like those of many literary and professional men whom I met in New England society.
…in China this time.
Last year, Chinese unemployment for those between the ages of 16 and 24 reached 20%—a record high and more than double what it was in 2018. The job shortage is particularly acute for graduates with advanced degrees, people who had expected the most from the job market because their families had sunk up to a third of their income into their education. During last autumn’s hiring season, around 45% of recent college graduates in China received no job offers, according to one published survey.
The manufacturing sector in China is experiencing a severe labor shortage: Four out of five Chinese manufacturers report that their workforces are falling 10% to 30% short of their needs, and the education ministry forecasts a shortage of 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025.
Diplomas, it turns out, have not necessarily translated into the skills sought by the high-tech sector or the smart-manufacturing companies that China aims to promote. The Chinese education system was designed during a period when most students would go on to work for state-owned enterprises. Today, their skills at standardized test-taking and their homogenous-looking CVs rarely meet the market economy’s demand for real-world experience, mental flexibility and individual passion.
The consequences of reduced expectations among unemployed youth are profound. Members of the young generation increasingly are putting off getting married and starting a family, breaking the traditions of a Confucian society. In 2021, there were only 7.6 million new marriages registered, a 38% drop from 2015. Meanwhile the birthrate has fallen to the lowest the country has ever seen.
Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”
Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time, rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote). It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it. One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview. I do not get the impression that it actually does so.
In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:
One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.
to which someone responded:
that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!
…a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US. Changing the narratives on heroes and villains, selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”
I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology. For more on this, see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.
And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students. Maybe not. And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.