In a WSJ article, Peggy Noonan writes of the sadness the political season provokes in her soul. Me too! Something seems awfully wrong.
The historian in me says that it is nothing new. Nations go through long periods of ineffective, bad, even tragically horrible leadership. It is not uncommon. Sicilians have been ruled by all kinds of people, but Sicilians are still around, still Sicilian.
Nonetheless, things are not pretty today. Candidates today represent impractical, unreasonable approaches to policies; a casual attitude toward morals, even crime; and a lack of serious intellectual heft on the right. It is sad to see the country I grew up in devolve to such a low stature in its political conversation. Kicking around in my head for causes, I encountered one that hits quite close to home, uncomfortably so: I fear that universities are partly to blame for all this.
In 1950, the American university was a place of learning that people around the world respected. The GI Bill which encouraged higher education was received by common people as a gift, a truly good thing. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that what happened at universities – whatever it was – was good for a person. It made a person better. Going through a university education was a sure way to rise up in your life. Universities were respected that way.
No longer. If you talk to the average person outside a university today, they are quite skeptical about us professors and the job we do. It is certainly not assumed that we have anything valuable to teach. Indeed, more often than not, the concern of a parent is not what kind of positive effect we will have, but rather, how to protect their child from us. People “out there” have come to see universities as having three basic kinds of experiences: Drunken orgies; radical indoctrination; and training for a job. They generally want their kids to get the latter and avoid the first two. When I say I am a professor, the line of questions and conversations seems to develop around which of these three experiences I represent. People seem to wonder, is this guy one of those crazy critical theory nuts, or does he teach those huge, meaningless, easy courses whose purpose is to clear time for more drinking? Or does he teach anything useful? The idea that I might be a model for their child, a pursuer of great and good ideas, abstract ideas that are unquestionably good to know, is not part of the thinking. Something has been lost.
These attitudes may or may not be very accurate, but they are not illusions. The culture of the campus has changed over the last 50 years. No one can deny that. And I fear that these changes have played a role in creating our current politics.
Here’s the connection I am seeing this morning: Over the last half-century, the American university lost touch with the American people. On the Humanities side, every college tried to become a little Paris, populated by sullen bohemians criticizing everything the world considers normal. On the Science side, a little Frankenstein lab, populated by geeky obsessives too immersed in their work to be involved in anything that, again, the world might consider normal. Between manic nerdiness and moody criticism, the American university lost touch with important strands of many folkways.
One lost connection is to the American Thinker. By this I mean, purveyors of homespun wisdom, of which America has produced many fine examples in the past.Ben Franklin, Flannery O’Connor. Mark Twain. The Spencer Tracy character in Judgment at Nuremberg. Ernie Pyle. Laura Ingalls Wilder. You might call it farm-bred wisdom with an intellectual punch. Will Rogers: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.” Humble, honest, pragmatic, with lines best delivered with your hat tipped back and a stick of grass hanging out your mouth. Committed to ideals but incapable of being riled up to do anything nutty. Placid and skeptical, but warm and forgiving.
True, people like this were usually self-taught, and not produced by the university system. Yet this mode of being used to be such an important part of our culture, and one might hope that our universities would be places where this kind of calm pragmatism might be honored, respected, and emulated to some extent, but they are nowhere to be found on American campuses today. Instead, haven’t we all become awfully strident? (Me too, of course.)
A second connection is to historical American conservatism. I’m not talking about the “conservatism” of contemporary politics, but rather, the core ideas of down-home American ways of being. These would include a commitment to self-reliance, limited government, and small institutions of the family, religion, and locally-owned business. I think of it as a small-town farmer’s approach to policy. These ideas have traditionally been voiced by the right, but they are also represented to some degree in the folk movement and other rural Americans who try to live in a simpler way.
Think about it: For 50 years, these ideas have had no voice at all on American campuses. On the contrary, it is well-documented that the American university is dominated by the left side of the political spectrum. The domination is so total that we now have a counter-movement that argues for “viewpoint diversity.” The argument by these admittedly left-of-center academics is that whatever we may think of the right, surely its message of limited government and self-reliance, of simple virtues of family and church, has a place in the conversation. We are all better off if that place is occupied by well-formed, honest thinkers. By denying this quintessentially American way of thinking its place on the campus, for decades, we have guaranteed that it presents a raw even savage voice in our politics, rather than a refined and sober one.
And so here we are. One party seems enamored of a European model that probably doesn’t fit America as a whole (although there are parts of America where it would be great). That same party’s institutions, however, have the feel of corrupt bureaucracies: FIFA for government. The other party has terribly weak leadership, both practically and intellectually.
This combination of radical Europhilia and oppressive bureaucracy is quite familiar to those of us who work at universities, as is the complete absence of reasonable conservative voices. But it is not familiar to America. America’s culture is not like that. Our roots do have a strong conservative tone: Families, religion, hard-work, limited government, humility, pragmatism. That way of thinking is still around in large parts of the population. But our elites, following our campuses, have gone off in a different direction. While lots of people like that direction, the result has been an estrangement between the people who run the country and many of the people who live in it. Estrangement brings sorrow; and so it is a sad time.