The End of the University

From the April 2015 Print Edition

Universities exist to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and culture that will prepare them for life, while enhancing the intellectual capital upon which we all depend. Evidently the two purposes are distinct. One concerns the growth of the individual, the other our shared need for knowledge. But they are also intertwined, so that damage to the one purpose is damage to the other. That is what we are now seeing, as our universities increasingly turn against the culture that created them, withholding it from the young.The years spent at university belong with the rites of initiation studied by the Victorian anthropologists, in which those born into the tribe assume the burden of perpetuating it. If we lose sight of this, it seems to me, then we are in danger of detaching the university from its social and moral purpose, which is that of handing on both a store of knowledge and the culture that makes sense of it.

That purpose has been central to the educational tradition that created Western civilization. Greek paideia regarded the cultivation of citizenship as the core of the curriculum. Religious practice and moral education remained a fundamental part of university studies throughout the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance ideal of the virtuoso was the inspiration for the emerging curriculum of the studia humaniores. The university that emerged from the Enlightenment did not relax the moral reins but regarded scholarship as a disciplined way of life, whose rules and procedures set it apart from everyday affairs. However, it provided those everyday affairs with the long-term perspective without which no human activity makes proper sense. Even the boisterous student life of the German universities during the nineteenth century, when dueling became part of the university culture, was contained within formal uniform codes of behavior and collegiate domesticity and devoted to that ¬≠peculiar synthesis of moral discipline, factual knowledge, and cultural competence that the Germans know as Bildung. Continue Reading »

Is Sex Necessary?

From the December 2014 Print Edition

E. B. White and James Thurber’s prescient satire of the sexual revolution in America, Is Sex Necessary?, was published in 1929, just before things really got going. It reminds us that sex was already understood as an arena of contest between the individual and society. Social order meant channeling and concealing our sexual emotions, and adhering to the unspoken agreement not to talk about them, at least not directly and in explicit terms. People might do unconventional things in private; but going public was taboo. Of course, Freud and the Freudians had upset things, but they discussed the matter in medical language that neutralized the appeal of the things they described. Apart from a few rude novelists like Henry Miller, Americans believed that decency forbade us from making a show of our inclinations and that the norms of middle-­class society should continue undisturbed.That was as true on the left as on the right, and it remained true during the rise of the baby boomers after the Second World War. The liberal causes of the sixties and seventies were enshrined in the civil-rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. They were protests on behalf of social justice at home and peace in the world. The idea that politics was really about sex, and about the liberation of the individual from the constraints of the bourgeois family, was a European import, which had little or no bearing on the issues of the day. The protesting voices of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the American people as a society of families still unsure “what to tell parents” about sex. Continue Reading »

The Good of Government

From the June/July 2014 Print Edition

In his first inaugural address, President Reagan announced that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and his remark struck a chord in the hearts of his conservative supporters. American conservatives, called upon to define their position, reiterate the message that there is “too much government.” The seemingly unstoppable expansion of regulations; the increasing control over what happens in the workplace, in the public square, and even in the family; the constant manufacturing of new crimes and misdemeanors, aimed at controlling how we associate and with whom; the attempts to limit First and Second Amendment rights—these developments are viewed by many conservatives with alarm. They seem to be taking America in a new direction, away from the free association of self-governing individuals envisaged by the founders, toward a society of obedient dependents, who exchange their freedom and their responsibilities for a perpetual lien on the public purse. And you only have to look at Europe to see the result.The European countries are governed by a political class that can escape from accountability behind the closed doors of the European institutions. Those institutions deliver an unending flow of laws and regulations covering all aspects of life, from the hours of work to the rights of sexual minorities. Everywhere in the European Union a regime of political correctness makes it difficult either to maintain, or to live by, precepts that violate the state-imposed orthodoxies. Non-discrimination laws force many religious people to go against the teachings of their faith in the matters of homosexuality, public preaching, and the display of religious symbols. Activists in the European Parliament seek to impose on all states of the Union, regardless of culture, faith, or sovereignty, an unqualified right to abortion, together with forms of “sex education” calculated to prepare young people as commodities in the sexual market, rather than as responsible adults seeking commitment and love.A kind of hysteria of repudiation rages in European opinion-forming circles, picking one by one on the old and settled customs of a two-thousand-year-old civilization, and forbidding them or distorting them into some barely recognizable caricature. And all this goes with a gradual transfer of economic life from private enterprise to central government, so that in France and Italy more than half of citizens are net recipients of income from the state while small businesses struggle to comply with a regime of regulations that seems designed on purpose to suppress them. Continue Reading »

Pop Imperialism

From the April 2014 Print Edition

Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad
by martha bayles
yale, 336 pages, $30

During the Cold War the United States government made important attempts to manage America’s image in the world. Besides the radio stations—Voice of America and Radio Free Europe—and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, there was the U.S. Information ­Agency, whose aim was to ensure that an upbeat and truthful image of ­America would prevail against the adverse propaganda of the Soviet Union. The USIA was closed down in 1999, and the scope of the radio networks has been curtailed.One consequence of this—lamen­ted at length by Martha ­Bayles—is that the image of America in the world is now entirely the product of American popular culture, which has succeeded in giving a worse name to America than anything that could conceivably have been implanted by the Soviet propaganda machine. The Muslim peasant in his village has only to turn on the television to witness the Great Satan in flagrante delicto, and even if he is not immediately prompted to join al-Qaeda he is likely to be glad that others are doing so, with a view to punishing the blasphemies and obscenities that pour out across the screen.Martha Bayles is an intelligent, learned, and sensitive person who has spent a long time studying the world of morons, apparently without going mad in the process. Her earlier book, Hole in Our Soul, described the loss of beauty in American popular music, and drew attention to a singular fact, which is that the music of modern life, which was born in America, has also died there. And the same has happened to the drama of modern life. Just as the life-affirming melodies of jazz have declined into the tuneless aggression of rap, so have the innocent romances of Hollywood morphed into movies in which explicit sex and manic violence are almost the only points of interest.It is this second transformation that concerns Martha Bayles in her latest book, and the reader quickly learns why. Continue Reading »