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• George Scialabba thinks William Deresiewicz is exactly right about today’s deformed university culture. In a review essay (“Class and the Classroom,” Foreign Affairs), he recounts and endorses Deresiewicz’s ­account in Excellent Sheep of the soul-­destroying meritocratic competition that dominates the experience of the young people who now populate elite universities. The solution, Deresiewicz thinks (and Scialabba agrees), is a genuinely liberal education, which means one that encourages students to step off the great ladder of accomplishment and entertain deep questions about the purpose of life.

• Count me in as well, both about the way in which meritocratic competition now defines elite colleges and universities (and not just among students) and the liberal solution (liberal in the educational sense). But how do we get there? Here I find myself perplexed. Like Deresiewicz, Scialabba shifts from the problem of soullessness to that of inequality. And so we get a progressive politics of education: Promote affirmative action based on class rather than race and ethnicity, adjust SAT scores according to ­socioeconomic factors, eliminate tuition for higher education, and increase and equalize funding of primary and secondary education in order to equalize outcomes.

• Maybe these are good ideas, but I’m skeptical. But of this I’m sure: These policy proposals are very odd ones, given the greater concern about meritocratic soullessness, which is entirely different from equality of opportunity. Something of what irks me in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids is in operation here. Deresiewicz and ­Scialabba’s proposals amount to a claim that the culture of higher education isn’t bad because of meritocratic competition; it’s bad because rich kids have an advantage. What we need are egalitarian policies to make it a real meritocracy. That’s going to make young people less success-oriented and more disposed to contemplate the larger question of what life is for?

• Scialabba and Deresiewicz remind me that progressivism always seems to end up an enemy of culture. The truth they ignore is that we can think about higher things, things greater than ourselves, only insofar as we participate in a tradition. It’s the ongoing conversation that takes us outside of ourselves and redirects our attention away from what we can achieve toward what we can know and love. One problem with progressivism is its distrust of the past, which must be progressed beyond. A pure meritocracy requires that no one have inherited advantages or disadvantages, which in practice means eliminating the possibility of any inheritance at all. Only when we’re all stripped down to our bare humanity, neither shaped nor formed by a living past, is equality achieved. (That’s my one-sentence summary of Roger Scruton’s rich reflections on the postmodern university in “The End of the University,” published in last month’s issue.)

• Furthermore: Liberal education seeks higher things, higher loyalties, something more than worldly success. That’s what makes it “liberal,” which is to say, free to pursue truth wherever it leads, rather than bound to whatever the world tells us is necessary to get ahead. But “higher” suggests “hierarchy,” which is forbidden in the progressive’s egalitarian dream. A thoroughgoing progressivism ends up an enemy of liberal education.

• When I taught theology, I often assigned Martin Luther’s works. Students liked him, not because they were Lutherans (most weren’t) but because what he wrote has a biblical immediacy that makes it contemporary. If you’re scripturally literate, Luther’s open to you in a way that a Reformation-era legal or philosophical treatise isn’t. The accessibility of Christian Liberty and The Bondage of the Will flows from the fact that the Church makes the Bible a living reality. As long as Easter is celebrated, Jesus is not a man in whom people once believed, long ago. The Tomb is empty even now.

• The Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, an affiliate of the Lutheran World Federation, wants to encourage readers to engage Luther’s perennial voice. It has launched an online reading community, the Luther Reading Challenge. You can join by visiting

• David Brooks is singing out of the right songbook these days. Last month I noted his call for noble ideals to counter the dark convictions that lead young men to join ISIS. More recently, commenting on Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, he wrote about the social cost of moral relativism. He recounts the difficulties facing young people growing up in the dysfunctional family cultures of poor and working-class America. We need to respond to their hard circumstances with sympathy. “But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” This loss of social capital didn’t just happen. Norms for decent behavior “were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another.” Care about the poor and vulnerable in America? Step one is to combat the plague of nonjudgmentalism.

• As I mention in this month’s Public Square, I was recently invited to Ottawa by Augustine College. This micro-­institution is extraordinary. Most of the students go in order to get a solid basis for subsequent study as undergraduates elsewhere, though while visiting I met a medical student from Finland who is taking time out to answer the metaphysical questions his secular education wasn’t even asking, much less answering. Classes are taught by Christian professors from different church backgrounds. They teach pro bono, a remarkable testimony to their commitment to students, one all the more powerful today, when so many well-paid professors do everything they can to avoid the classroom. I left thinking ­Augustine College a small but powerful sign of our changing role. A century ago, socialists and ­communists often banded together to create small, para-academic communities of learning and solidarity. Now it’s the ­Christians.

• Socialism seemed realistic to me for about a month when I was an undergraduate. But I never lost my respect for the fact that many old-style American socialists were not just concerned about the little guy but often involved and engaged. There was a time when being a community organizer wasn’t a Ford Foundation–funded stop on the résumé-building trajectory of today’s progressive technocrats.

• Blessed are the meritocrats, for they shall inherit the earth. Or at least that’s how it seems now that David Petraeus has escaped any significant legal consequences for giving classified information to his then-lover and biographer, Paula Broadwell. This stands in sharp contrast to leakers like Stephen Kim, who is much lower down on the status food chain. He’s serving time for leaking classified information about North Korea.

• The meritocracy is also unfazed by Petraeus’s extramarital affair. But the powerful have always felt free to exempt themselves from the moral law.

• I recently attended a seminar led by poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch. He’s a youngish man of letters. I’ve admired his essays on literature, as well as his book on Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling Matters. He’s a discerning reader who does not seem to feel the need to impose his own voice on authors. He illuminates and instructs without grinding many axes. Among the essays he assigned was “Rocket and Lightship,” a series of fragments drawn together into an argument. It’s the final essay in his collection of the same name, Rocket and Lightship. Against the background of the other readings I came to see that Kirsch toggles back and forth between a postmodern worry that, at best, language hovers over the void and the traditional view that language can in some way draw us into communion with the real and the true. The latter, traditional view perhaps explains why he’s a faithful reader. We should use our own words as critics to do justice to what others have tried to say. Meanwhile, the former, postmodern worry encourages humility. There are no truths that can justify slashing away at the work of others. It’s an ambivalence that I don’t share, but in him I found it appealing because existentially earnest rather than a posture.

• Here’s Kirsch in “Rocket and Lightship” on the future of culture: “Literature operates on the premise that humanity can be transcendent. But it now looks increasingly likely that humanity can only be transcended, that is, left behind. Like all culture, literature is a matter of directing the will inward, to create an inner life; this was a necessity for most of human history, when the conditions of outer life could not be changed. But the future is going to be defined by the ever-more-successful direction of the will outward, in the form of technology and power, which are now genuinely able to transform the conditions of life. In this sense, culture is an ­obsolete technology, a sunk cost that we keep adding to only because we lack the courage to write it off.”

• There’s a lot to this dark thought about the obsolescence of culture. From time immemorial human beings have sought to serve something higher, and to do so we’ve taken up innumerable moral and spiritual disciplines to turn our souls upward. Today we tend to think our souls are good enough, thank you, and we direct our minds toward developing technologies to bend all things toward our service. As a consequence, it makes no sense to read old books when there’s work to be done in brain science—or better, when there’s a startup that promises to change everything.

• We should not underestimate the trend toward a world without culture. It’s not just technology’s promise of redemption through technique. If pursued with zeal, the ideal of equality must weaken traditional forms of life. That’s because, as Kirsch suggests, all cultures are hierarchical. They’re ordered toward something higher, encouraging us to ascend. Some people will be higher on the path to transcendence and rightly assume the role of teachers and guides. They interpret and guard the canon, the body of cultural artifacts that express the rule of life demanding our allegiance. Of course, this sins against the idea of equality. Nobody is permitted to be “above.” Nobody has a right to “impose” his “values” on others. Thus multiculturalism, a technology of ­cultures.

• The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) crossed the progressive threshold of hope when a majority of presbyteries approved a redefinition of marriage. What was once defined as the union of a man and a woman is now the union of “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Applying this principle to the resurrection, we can say that Jesus rose from one state of Being to another, traditionally from the dead.

• I noticed two small, charming classified ads in a back issue of Harper’s Magazine: “ Free personal ads for thoughtful people” and “ Connect with singles who care about social issues.” Check out ­thoughfulPersonals. Though the site seems inactive now, some wonderful examples of cleverly ironic self-promotion are preserved. QuakerSingles is no longer a website. Perhaps there aren’t enough singles who care about social issues.

• The latest issue of the European Conservative features a brief interview with Roger Scruton. He’s asked if Islamic terrorism has vindicated Samuel Huntington’s thesis that civilizational clashes are the defining global realities. His answer: “There is certainly some kind of clash of civilisations occurring. However, Islam seems to have forgotten its civilisation, and it is rare now to meet a Muslim who has ever heard of enlightened Islamic scholars like Ibn Sinna, or Rumi, or Hafiz, or who is even aware that a great civilisation once existed, built upon the revelation of the Koran. Western civilisation, too, is losing the memory of its religious inheritance. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s ‘On Dover Beach’ in which he expresses his fear for a future in which ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. So yes, there is a clash—not of two civilisations but of two competing forms of stupidity: one given to violence and the other to self-indulgence.”

• The European Conservative describes itself as extending “a ‘latitudianarian welcome’ to all of the many varieties of ‘respectable conservatism’, whether anti-statists, constitutional monarchists, free-market enthusiasts, or traditionalists.” It’s an outgrowth of the Vanenburg Society (now called the Center for European Renewal), which was founded nearly a decade ago along the lines of the Philadelphia Society in the United States. You can sign up for free electronic delivery of the European Conservative by going to ­

• We have a big stack of 2014 annual reports. If you’d like to see a snapshot of what we’re doing here at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, publisher of First Things and, get in touch ( and we’ll send you a copy.

• One of the new things we’re doing in 2015 is offering readers an intellectual retreat. On August 7, 8, and 9, we’ll have a weekend of lectures and tutorials (complete with assigned readings!). The details are still being worked out, but the consensus here at the office is that we should focus on freedom. Getting freedom right is one of the biggest challenges we face in the West, and lately we’ve been getting it mostly wrong.

• This, the twenty-fifth anniversary year for First Things, is a fitting time to remember the Institute on Religion and Public Life in your will. If you designate the Institute as a beneficiary, let us know and we’ll enroll you in the Richard John Neuhaus Society, a newly created way to recognize those who wish to ensure the long-term success of our mission.

while we’re at it sources: Scialabba & Deresiewicz:, March/April 2015. Relativism’s cost:, March 10, 2015. Interviewing Scruton:, Winter 2015.