In The Chronicle of Higher Education , Russell Jacoby has some reflections on the state of conservative intellectual life , which he regards as moribund. No news here. It’s long been a conceit of the Left that conservatives are dumb, and if not dumb, then deranged, or paranoid, or racist, or self-interestedtake your pick.
Jacoby’s occasion for recycling this tired truism is David Gelernter’s new book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) , which he thinks is short on arguments and full of shrill right-wing clichés about tenured radicals and rootless intellectuals. I can understand the response. America-Lite is an angry book, too bitter for my taste. But Gelernter is a intuitive, associative thinker, someone who makes striking and sometimes penetrating observations. It’s a shame that Jacoby lacks the desire or interest to search out the deeper thesis in America-Lite .
Gelernter is interested in the social formation of American elites. This is a very important topic, because elites provide political and cultural leadership, and in so doing set the direction for society as a whole. His arresting claim is that universities have become “imperial,” by which he means singularly influential in the formation of contemporary elites. Places like Harvard and Yale now credential and to a large degree define what it means to be a member of America’s elite.
It’s hard for anyone under fifty to recognize how odd this is. Up until the 1960s, it was the WASP elite that made Harvard an elite college, not Harvard itself. Harvard was very “selective” in the same way the WASP elite was selective: admission to the club required birth into what were know as “good families,” an ill-defined but once very powerful criterion for membership in any number of clubs. Yale College was the place where Connecticut gentry sent their sons. Yale was not all that selective when it came to academic aptitude, but it was very choosey about getting the “right” young men.
Gelernter, a student at Yale in the 1960s, and a longtime professor of computer science there, focuses on the change, which he thinks is decisive for elite culture today. The post-WWII years saw the separation of elite institutions like Yale from the WASP elites that had always defined and in a certain sense owned them in the past. Gelernter sees this most clearly in the fate of Jewish quotas, which were imposed in the 1920s in response to rising percentages of Jews at places like Harvard and Yale. The quotas reflected the WASP commitment to keep Ivy League and other colleges clearly in the service of their elite project. The end of those quotas came in various stages after WWII, and by the end of the 1960s elite universities embarked on a vigorous effort to recruit minority students.
Gelernter never brings things entirely into focus. America-Lite is not a sober, detailed history of higher education, nor is it a disciplined sociological treatise. But this seems to be the gist of what concerns him. As elite universities (and indeed elite institutions more broadly) separated themselves from WASP elite culture, they became unrooted and insubstantial, and therefore more ideological in the sense of being places defined by theories rather than an underlying and ongoing form of life. So, today, Yale serves . . . Well, today, Yale serves Yale. It claims the imperial right to mint elites on its own, as it were, rather than to serve as finishing schools for young men who were by birth already part of an elite, which was its former role. Today one doesn’t go to Yale because one is a member of the elite; one goes there to become a member.
Gelernter is not altogether clear about this, but as elite universities become elite-making rather than elite-serving, the intellectual life itself becomes part of the elite kit in a way it wasn’t in the past. Today one needs to have certain ideas on hand, certain political and social habits of mind, in order to be part of the in-crowd, as Whit Stillman captured so perfectly in Metropolitan , his study of the changed elite culture in New York at the end of the 1970s. As a result, ideas get freeze-dried and packaged, as it were. The intellectual life becomes an accoutrement, an outfit, a fashion statement.
Gelernter zeros in on Barack Obama as an example. By Gelernter’s reckoning, the president thinks the way he thinks not because he’s been indoctrinated, but because he’s gone through the postmodern American process of being made into a member of the elite, which no longer means being born into a “good family,” but instead means having adopted the “right” habits of mind—the usual liberal gestures and prejudices—that now makes elites elite. That’s what he means when he calls Obama and the post-sixties generation of elites “airheads.” For them ideas, especially political ones, are badges of elite membership, not notions that could be true or false, not arguments that can be made or refuted.
I don’t think Gelernter has any way to know how Obama really thinks, and, as I said, the book is marred by Gelernter’s bitter anger over what he sees as the destruction of American society. But his deep point is important. His book helped me see more clearly that elite education to take on a life of its own, independent of WASP culture, or any other culture for that matter. And it helped me see dimly that this change is related to other changes in American society, not the least of which is the quite insular and haughty and inflexible liberal mentality among elites today. Elites need ways to mark their boundaries. These have always included membership in the right clubs, living the right zip codes, vacationing in the right places, wearing the right clothes in the right ways at the right times. Now, as the hereditary markers have declined in significance (the right last name is much less important than it used to be), having the right sorts of social and political views has increased in importance. Perhaps that’s why folks like Russell Jacoby can be so snobbishly dismissive of conservatism.
P.S. For a vigorous refutation to Jacoby’s caricature of conservative intellectual life, see Mark Bauerlein’s response .