During my time at Princeton, there was no more popular insult than “tool,” an epithet hurled at anyone who tried too hard. Of course, the term was unavoidably classist. An Amazon executive’s daughter who had attended Lakeside or a banker’s son who’d gone to St. Ann’s didn’t have to strive to join the upper class. Enjoying the advantages of privilege, they could comfortably aim the word at any hardworking immigrant or farm kid who happened to pass by. But there was an anxiety behind their snobbery. They called other people “tools” because they knew that if they failed to be sufficiently useful, even they could be replaced.
The buildings where the most ambitious students gathered were called “toolsheds.” One was the Woodrow Wilson School, a high-modern Parthenon cast in white concrete. At this temple, students studied the new queen of the sciences: public policy. Here, the brightest students learned to draw on different practical disciplines—sociology, psychology, economics—as they composed policy papers. They left with one lesson: Knowledge is for use, and its most practical forms are the most prestigious.
The other toolshed was Tower, one of Princeton’s “eating clubs.” Students who had been born to privilege joined Ivy or Cottage, but Tower’s neo-Gothic clubhouse was open to those who needed to scramble into the upper class. Meritocratic rather than aristocratic, brutally selective rather than genteelly exclusive, it distilled the university’s utilitarian culture. Every year, hundreds of undergraduates hoping to join the club went through “bicker,” a rush-like process in which prospective members were weighed on the basis of their social and sexual appeal. At the end of its booze-soaked “bicker parties,” students might go home with a member who could help them get in. There was no objection to promiscuity as long as it was consensual, “protected,” and socially advantageous.
The body was a tool that could be used for any practical end. This attitude shaped not only the club’s sexual culture, but also its unusual drug culture. Late one night at the end of my senior year, I sat in the club’s dining room and listened as the people at the table revealed one by one that they had been taking amphetamines for the last four years—not to party, but to study. These clean-living kids had no qualms about drug use if it helped them land a job at McKinsey or Bain.
Tower and the Wilson School taught the same lesson. The people we meet, the things we learn, and the bodies we inhabit are to be valued insofar as they are useful. In an age of utility, everyone and everything becomes a tool.
This lesson changed the way we acted and thought. Any tool will tell you that reading Flaubert increases empathy and listening to Mozart improves long-term memory, that gay marriage increases the GDP and pornography puts a stop to rape. He believes that Roe v. Wade is responsible for the crime reduction of the 1990s, an idea he got by reading Freakonomics, the most evil book since Mein Kampf. It is the same utilitarian way of thinking Newman attacked in The Idea of a University. We should be able to study things for their own sake, and not merely ask, “Will practical objects be obtained better or worse by its cultivation? . . . How does it profit?”
Even critics of today’s universities are captive to this way of thinking. “Sexual economics” has become the latest weapon in the hands of those who attack the campus party scene. The idea comes from Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, who view us all as living in a sex market. “Transactions” occur only when both parties feel they benefit from an exchange. Usually this means women demand commitment and care, and men demand . . . well, sex. A promiscuous hookup culture emerges when the price of sex becomes too “cheap”—either because there are too many women and not enough men (supply is greater than demand) or because women are just bad at business. As Vohs and Baumeister put it, “Economic principles suggest that the price of sex will depend on supply and demand, competition among sellers, variations in product, collusion among sellers, and other factors.” If women want men to treat them decently, they simply need to raise the price of sex.
These days, I live in a neighborhood of New York that replicates the demographic profile and sexual dynamics of a college campus. Sometimes a peer will complain to me that women are wrongly rejecting him. There could be no more natural or perennial complaint, but the way in which these men frame it is telling. Instead of speaking about his particular merits and a woman’s particular allurements, the man performs an econometric analysis of the local sex market. Doesn’t she know that in the four lower zip codes of Manhattan, 60 percent of people between the ages of twenty and thirty are female? Why can’t she see how bad her odds are in this tight market of finding another man with his enviable qualities?
This is freakonomic logic, the language of utility. Only if we view each other in the way Chicago traders view pork futures is it possible to complain in this way. The problem is not that the price of sex is too high or low; it is that we speak of sex having a price at all, for nothing sacred can be bought or sold.
Confucius once said, “A gentleman is not a pot.” If he were alive now, he would say, “A gentleman is not a tool.” Confucius believed that knowledge and virtue had to be pursued for their own sake, and anyone who truly sought them was a gentleman, regardless of his wealth or birth. To seek these higher things for lower reasons made one a pot, a tool. This idea vexed one of Confucius’s more practically minded disciples, a man named Zigong. He asked his master, “What do you think of me?” Confucius said, “You are a pot.” Hoping to soften this dismissal, Zigong asked, “What kind of pot?” and Confucius answered, “A precious ritual vase.”
Today our universities are turning out precious ritual vases, tools to whom great prestige has been imparted. We study in selective schools with impressive professors . . . who teach the piddling details of public policy. We cast ourselves into Dionysian revels . . . but hook up in the most hygienic way possible. We live by a utilitarian logic, however well-intentioned or elaborately justified. A ritual vase—however finely wrought—is still a pot.
After graduating, these exquisite vessels go on to work in government agencies, conduct research in the social sciences, and write for publications like Vox. They pass laws allowing assisted suicide while calculating its budgetary benefits. They justify the abortions of children who would otherwise grow up to be violent or unemployed. They scorn any woman who does not enter the workforce but instead stays home to raise her child. Because they doubt the value of anyone who is less useful than they are, the society they form in their image is oblivious and cruel. As the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi once said, “People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of what is useless.”
If people sometimes seem useless, it is because they are made for a higher use than any actuarial table can comprehend. There is a realm where old and young and shiftless all have their place. They should have their place on this earth, too. Giving it to them will require us to challenge a utilitarian age with a fundamental truth. We are not pots, we are not tools, but men and women made in the image of God.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.