In his 1944 lecture “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis made a profound observation about social exclusivity, one applicable to today’s institutions of higher learning. Exclusion, Lewis explained, is not an evil in and of itself; it can be “accidental” to groups dedicated to substantive activity. But a problem arises when an exclusive dynamic exists for its own sake, when elitism develops in the absence of substance. “Your genuine inner ring,” Lewis stated, “exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion [for the inner ring] is no accident: it is the essence.”
One of the defining features of this inner ring is the shifting and shifty nature of its parlance: “A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation are the marks. But it is not constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside.” The inner ring, then, is really a society of virtue-signaling—with no attachment to substantive truth or reliable social construct. Entry is entirely the gift of those already in power.
This is precisely the ethos of the modern academy and its regnant leftist ideology. We watch as institution after institution dismantles canonical curricula. Traditional subjects of inquiry, from Renaissance art to Shakespeare to the American founding, are critiqued, demeaned, and then discarded. All of this is done in the name of “decolonization.” According to this logic, the old, white European patriarchies must be overthrown; their legion victims must take their place. The real point, though, is to destroy standards of knowledge altogether, and to replace them with the egos and interests of the insiders—to supplant the power of truth with power itself.
Alongside this ego-driven effort—an effort not to add to the canon but to burn it down—we find just the sort of ever-shifting vocabulary Lewis described. It is a technical nomenclature, a jargon of the initiated. Terms such as “microaggression” and “cisgendered” join a plethora of linguistic signaling devices. If you don’t understand or employ the new terms and signals—the sudden capitalization of some racial labels but not others, the announcement of one’s chosen pronouns, etc.—then the academic elite will identify you as an outsider. You will be seen as the contemptible common man—maybe a Wal-Mart shopper, or someone who clings to guns and religion, or even a Trump supporter. In order to maintain their special status, the denizens of the inner ring demand that you be excluded.
The modern academy hates traditional knowledge and received wisdom because its newfound power depends upon the ability to manipulate, control, and approve—to set and change the intellectual climate as it alone sees fit. For much the same reason, the modern academy disdains the common man: Not only because it needs some who are “out” so that others may be “in,” but also because actual human beings, like the best art and literature, do not fit within neat, ideological frameworks. In other words, the academy increasingly disdains humanity itself, just as it disdains the humanities in their traditional forms.
The evidence is clear. The academy rewards narrow, trendy agendas that impose upon human experience the procrustean narratives of anger, grievance, and division. Gone are grand surveys showcasing human knowledge in the round; in their stead emerge myopic courses on the politically-approved topics of the day. The academy disdains its own students, too. It sets them on a never-ending course of virtue-signaling and inner-ring chasing—that is, on the path of ignorance. At the same time, it encumbers them with enormous financial debt that only ensures their ideological fealty to anything or anyone promising easy deliverance. The elites of the left-dominated academy thus pull a double trick: They replicate their ideology in the next generation while also ensuring that generation is effectively disempowered, and thus that the exclusivity of the inner ring remains.
In this way, the modern academy actually does one better on Lewis’s inner ring. It wants more than to exclude others and bask in its specialness; it seeks, instead, to exclude and conquer. Like a particularly hostile virus, it hijacks the healthy and functioning “cells” around it—be they in politics, media, business, or popular culture—and turns them into subordinate forms of itself. Perhaps this is because, as Milton understood, misery loves company. And the average modern academy is a miserable place. Every scholarly publication may one day offend future woke sensibilities. Every professional association, like every ostensible friendship, may be broken on the basis of some transgression against shifting norms. Lives lived under such constant threat cannot help but be lives of uncertainty and dread.
Offense is thus perceived to be the best defense. In a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the curve and within the inner ring, and to keep their respective heads off the chopping block, academics attempt to claim more and more territory from surrounding society. They introduce the language of grievance where there is none; they target for destruction anything that speaks of the permanent or transcendent. The systematic goal of such intellectual expansionism is not an empire of equality; on the contrary, the goal is an authoritarian state of intellectual conformity in which the conquerors alone rule. Everyone outside of this rule—those who answer to values beyond its strictures—must be co-opted or destroyed. Left to itself, this process will not stop until everyone and everything is, in effect, inside the academy—subject to the inner ring that keeps careful watch from its guard tower of ivory.
Augustus Howard writes from Florida.
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