In my forty years as a student and teacher in higher education, I have seen the humanities, especially English and foreign languages, go from the center of academia to the margins. In 1980, people in other departments and the administration were genuinely curious about what the deconstructionists and feminists and historicists of various kinds were up to. Now, people shrug at the latest iteration of intersectional theory. Meanwhile, the number of undergraduates who choose a humanities major keeps dropping.
And yet, in this era of collapse, the people most responsible for the humanities, the professors and scholars and deans, haven’t offered any explanations that turn upon themselves. As far as I know, none of the top professors and institutional heavyweights have said publicly, “Boy, we have really blown it!” They distribute the blame widely—student careerism, the price of tuition, a tough job market, a public sphere hostile to critical thinking—but don’t include themselves among the culprits. They had the helm of the ship, the damage happened on their watch, but it’s not their fault.
The professors aren’t unique in this. When the financial meltdown happened in 2008, how many financiers confessed, “We did this—we must go”? How many church leaders, observing the decline of weekly attendance, wondered, “Maybe I am the problem”? After the letdown of the Mueller Report, in which the Russia collusion thesis exploded (not to mention the Covington boys affair, the Jussie Smollett case, and numerous outrages that turned out to be hoaxes), it was clear that many, many journalists at top newspapers and magazines had failed 100 percent to do their investigative job. Instead, they accepted outlandish claims as facts to be reported. Few of them in the aftermath have admitted, “I was a fool, I let the ‘narrative’ cloud my judgment, I should go back to journalism school.”
We are surrounded by professionals who aren’t that professional, experts who aren’t very competent, leaders who can’t lead but won’t step down. It’s one reason for the populist fervor and the election of Mr. Trump. People highlight the condescension of the elites as a reason for the revolt of the unwashed, but in truth the lower orders are willing to take a little superior attitude from the white-collar, advanced-degree crowd if they believe that crowd is competent. It’s when elite condescension is paired with elite ineptitude that people without any college degrees gain the confidence to rise up in protest. Anti-intellectualism is spreading because of an old American strain of mistrusting the eggheads. It's spreading for the simple reason that the intellectuals are unimpressive and negligent and self-involved.
Example: The House Democrats pressing for impeachment called Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan as an expert witness testifying to the necessity of condemning the president. She had all the trappings of accomplishment, but her presentation was irritating and off-key. Soon afterward, evidence surfaced of her mocking the Crucifixion, denouncing straight white men, and choosing to cross Pennsylvania Avenue in order to avoid Trump Hotel. One has to ask: How in the world did leaders of the Democratic part of Congress believe that this partisan child would come off as a voice of reason and persuade anybody uncertain about Mr. Trump’s guilt to join the accusers?
Another example: In 2015, the journal Science published the results of an attempt to reproduce one hundred psychological experiments that were published in three distinguished journals in 2008. The results were abysmal. Less than half of the experiments were “reproducible.” In areas of social psychology, the rate was less than one-quarter. (Read Andrew Ferguson’s summary of the project here.) Social science results reach the press and are reported as discoveries all the time, but at this point they are as likely to get an eye roll as they are a nod.
People of the elite (many of them conservatives), who despise hoi polloi for their populist anger, need to remember the concrete, specific, documented failings of the upper crust in America. The old institutions of authority have lost their credibility not because of lower-class resentments. They have lost it because their leaders have proven disappointing and unworthy. Walter Cronkite gave way to Dan Rather, Johnny Carson to Stephen Colbert, Robert Maynard Hutchins to the blathering PC-college provost of today, Jim Brown and Dr. J to Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe . . .
I have seen books and essays proposing to analyze the populist phenomenon in the usual terms of race and xenophobia, economic insecurity and social dysfunction, “paranoid styles” and Know-Nothings, but let’s give some credit to less-educated Americans for recognizing accurately the false claims of the elite to . . . eliteness.
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.
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