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Today the American universities not only form the best system of higher education in the world, but are morally impressive institutions. They are not incoherent, nor are they in crisis.

Well, I guess this ain’t Allan Bloom.

No, it’s UD‘s hero, Richard Rorty.

She likes Bloom, but she likes Rorty more.

Her other heroes? The two Christophers: Christopher Lasch and Christopher Hitchens.

Albert Camus. George Orwell. Philip Rieff. Tony Judt.

Can we derive some coherence from these dead white males? Can we say why the same human being would swoon reading both hyper-righties and hyper-lefties? (And weren’t Lasch and Hitchens sort of both?) Why the same human being would applaud when Rorty says universities aren’t in crisis, and when Bloom says they are?

Do we want simply to say, with Gwendolyn, that ‘In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.’? Because all of these men wrote well (Rieff wrote like a jerk, yes, but not all the time. Not in his earlier days.), and some of them (Orwell) wrote insanely well.

No. Surely we want to grant UD a tad more depth than this. It’s not merely about writing style. Yet writing style is part of it. These men are all impassioned moralists, impassioned social justice warriors, and their prose shows it. Their prose has the sort of kick you get when you actually care about what you’re saying, when you believe that language is politics and that politics is how you decrease human suffering. It’s very much like what George Saunders says in an appreciation of E.L. Doctorow:

What I found particularly inspiring about Doctorow was the way he would tweak form to produce moral-ethical effect — the way that he seemed not to see these two things as separate. Reading his great “Ragtime,” for example, I can feel that all of that technical verve is there necessarily — to serve and escalate meaning and emotion. But as important — the verve serves and escalates the fun, the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them. The work exudes fascination with the human, and a wry confidence in it, and inspires these feelings in us as we read. Doctorow, we might say, role-models a hopeful stance toward what can be a terrifying world.


In the same remarks of his I quote from at the beginning of this post, Rorty says:

If I were writing a history of the American university, I would tell an upbeat story about the gradual replacement of the churches by the universities as the conscience of the nation. One of the most important things that happened in the U.S. in the twentieth century was that the universities became the places where movements for the relief of human suffering found privileged sanctuaries and power bases. The universities came to play a social role that they had not played in the nineteenth century.

An impassioned atheist, Rorty reveres the American university as the place where arts- and sciences-inspired free and democratic discourse about the world and how to improve it, and about humanity and how to know and love it, thrives. The university is where we gather to read and talk about morally charged language, like Doctorow’s.


Remember what Bartlett Giamatti called the university: a free and ordered space. When Rorty calls the university “not incoherent,” he doesn’t mean it’s coherent, as in fully pulled together, fully ordered and organized around some shared principle or faith. (And as readers of this blog know, once a university decides to organize itself around Joe Paterno, forfuckinggetit.) He means it’s coherent enough – it’s ordered enough to be free enough to generate the sorts of conversations, readings, and experiences that tend to make people (students, professors, readers of the research professors and students generate) more lucid and more compassionate. And more free, rather in the way of, as Saunders puts it, having fun — being part of a classroom where people are experiencing “the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them.” That mind, in the university setting, is a collective one, made up of the free and at the same time ordered synergy between a professor and her students.


All of this is by way of background for a few comments on this intriguing opinion piece in today’s New York Times.

Kevin Carey is clearly on Bloom’s side. This is his opening paragraph:

To understand the failures of the modern American college system — from admissions marketing to graduation rates — you can begin with a notorious university football scandal.

So we’re going to talk about Chapel Hill as emblematic of what has made American universities a failure. Not just a failure – a nothing. An illusion. Carey’s title: The Fundamental Way that Universities are an Illusion. Later in the piece he will talk about them as Easter eggs – beautiful on the outside, dead on the inside.

The Nyang’oro fraud went on as long as it did because

U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.” … The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”… When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning… The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. [And the problem for faculty is that this] kind of profound dissonance can knock askew the moral compasses of people who have ostensibly dedicated their professional lives to education. How else to explain the many people at Chapel Hill — including, incredibly, the director of a center on ethics — who abetted or ignored rampant fraud?

It’s the free and ordered thing again. Carey believes the freedom Rorty identifies in the American university has dissipated into disorder, so that anything goes in terms of pedagogical content, which makes the world safe for the endemic cheating we know goes on at virtually all big-time sports schools. At such schools – the cutting edge, Carey seems to argue, of the frayed American university – even faculty – even ethics faculty – are cheaters. And why? Because they recognize “no shared values,” no “shared sense of educational excellence,” that would give existential identity, much less academic integrity, to the place where they happen to work.

In response to this, I’d like to cite Rorty once again:

In one sense, [the term “morality”] is used to describe someone relatively decent, trustworthy, and honest – one who gives correct change, keeps promises, doesn’t lie much, can usually be relied upon to take an appropriate share in cooperative efforts, and so on. It seems to me if you’re not that sort of person by the time you’re eighteen, it’s probably too late. I don’t think that sociopaths who enter the university are corrigible by any measures that the academy might adopt. If the family, the community, the church, and the like, haven’t made you a relatively decent member of society, haven’t given you a conscience that stops you from cheating the customers, administering date rape drugs, or doing a lot of things we hope our eighteen year olds won’t do, the university won’t either. The academy can’t take on the job of straightening you out, of creating the conscience that the rest of the culture didn’t manage to produce during your first eighteen years.

This is the same point UD tirelessly makes about the absurdity of ethics courses in business schools – and those are older students. They’ve had four or five years past undergraduate school to acquire a sense of decency.

And how much more hopeless when you’re whatever age professors Jan Boxhill and Julius Nyang’oro were when they dedicated year after year of their lives to robbing students of an education and trashing their school’s integrity…

Carey wants us to believe that the openness of their work setting, the structural trust of faculty and students upon which the maturity and generativity of the American university rests, knocked askew the fragile moral compasses of Boxhill and Nyang’oro. But that trust did nothing to their morality because they lacked morality all by themselves; they were the sort of people who take advantage of the trust others place in them, and the openness of the American university simply made it easier for them to do the sorts of things they do because of the way they are. UD doesn’t think we should press the great free liberal arts schools of America in the direction of moral explicitness and constraint merely because some of the people there are bad actors.

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6 Responses to “The Future of an Illusion”

  1. Jack/OH Says:

    Federal money fattening up the academy and dumbing it down. Big-money sports splitting it apart. Wanker admin-, trustee-, and faculty-gamesmen spot opportunity in the moral confusion to work their own self-serving schemes. Unwilling to admit the academy’s mission has been shoplifted for dubious ends, the far more numerous true believers in higher learning are left sputtering and marginalized.

    I wish I felt differently, but I don’t.

  2. dmf Says:

    had the great pleasure of working with Rorty on my dissertation and while he certainly did value a sort of market-place of varying (even conflicting) values/styles/etc approach to higher-ed (and democracy writ large) I think he would be deeply saddened by the Scott Walkerish efforts that are turning our public schools into tax-supported job training for corporate interests, policing of content, and turning faculty into uber-esque contract workers with no protections and benefits (here at our local state school they are offering faculty a summer tutorial in Blackboard and advertising it as the “TA you don’t have to pay”) if only big money sports were the main source of decay in our academies but alas they are just a leading indicator/symptom.

  3. Jack/OH Says:

    dmf, FWIW, my impression is that in Ohio the political caste is going after education. Machete, club, steamroller. (I could be wrong.) I suppose there’ll be some curbing of excesses, but there’ll be a lot of innocents hurt, too, who’ve done nothing to incur the politicians’ wrath.

  4. dmf Says:

    very likely, there is an ALEC style nationwide movement to cut away the humanities, offer online alternatives, raise tuition/debt, destroy unions, and have curriculum/degrees shaped to suit business interests.

  5. Sean O Says:

    Good list of dead white men. I find the 2 Christophers to be original thinkers well worth exploring. Though I must admit that my learning about Lasch is 2nd hand from reading George Scialabba and Hitch I read in his articles rather than his books. Hitch was also great to listen to. He was so confident in his erudition. I loved his takedown of bigots & pompous assses like Jerry Falwell, but he didn’t fall well but rather poorly and disappointingly when he fell in line as a cheerleader for the Cheney/neocon misbegotton, foolhardy, cynical, arrogant, money driven, disastrous project in Iraq. Never could understand how hitch got on board that fiasco. Big mistake, terrible judgement.

    Which leads me to mention your last white man, British Jew, Tony Judt. Boy did he see the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy for what they were and are.
    Tony Judt was a dazzling intellect, Crystal clear expression in speech n writing and deep, insightful and comprehensive thought. Why must the world lose gems like Tony, while status quo bootlickers like David Brooks drone on into their dotage. Ah life, it ain’t easy. If I wasn’t lAughing I’d be crying. And I cry plenty. Silently of course.

  6. charlie Says:

    I can appreciate that guys mentioned in the OP were dead, or dying, when this revelation regarding how unis actually operate became apparent.

    http://www.ag.ny.gov › Media Center

    In short, many American unis were administered in much the same way a boiler room operation is conducted, i.e., they scammed naive, gullible teenagers into believing that the schools gave a damn about their mark’s education, while picking their pockets. Any essayist who refuses to address that point, imo, ain’t worth a damn….

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