The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service–economic, political and social–come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with a highly specialized vocabulary.
This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions.
Those who critique the system itself–people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader–are marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter.
In 1967, Theodor Adorno wrote an essay titled “Education After Auschwitz.” He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained “largely unchanged” and that “the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds” must be uncovered, examined and critiqued through education.
Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.
“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again,” he wrote:
“This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology; that is, it must teach about the societal place of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”
If we do not grasp the “societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms,” we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society, and wields power through naked repression.
“This educational ideal of hardness, in which many may believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong,” Adorno wrote. “The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism.
“The political and economic wars fueling such crimes against humanity–whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation, and disease or genocidal acts–are always mediated by educational forces,” Henry Giroux says. “Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self-reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place.”
But we do not name them. We accept the system handed to us and seek to find a comfortable place within it. We retreat into the narrow, confined ghettos created for us and shut our eyes to the deadly superstructure of the corporate state.
I sat with a classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of arcane academic jargon. I had no idea, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about.
You can see this retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every academic department and discipline across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist who uses obscure code words as a way to avoid communication. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question. Specialists look down on the rest of us, who do not understand what they are talking and writing about, with thinly veiled contempt.
By any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, as John Ralston Saul points out, these people are illiterate. They cannot recognize the vital relationship between power and morality. They have forgotten, or never knew, that moral traditions are the product of civilization. They have little or no knowledge of their own civilization and do not know, therefore, how to maintain it.
“One of the signs of a decaying civilization,” Saul writes, “is that its language breaks down into exclusive dialects which prevent communication. A growing, healthy civilization uses language as a daily tool to keep the machinery of society moving. The role of responsible, literate elites is to aid and abet that communication.”
The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities. The neglect of the humanities has allowed elites to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions. Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed.
But those in charge, because they are educated only in specializations designed to maintain these economic and political structures, have run out of ideas. They have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.
For Socrates, all virtues were forms of knowledge. To train someone to manage an account for Goldman Sachs is to educate him or her in a skill. To train them to debate stoic, existential, theological and humanist ways of grappling with reality is to educate them in values and morals. A culture that does not grasp the ital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.
Morality is the product of a civilization, but the elites know little of these traditions. They are products of a moral void. They lack clarity about themselves and their culture. They can fathom only their own personal troubles. They do not see their own biases or the causes of their own frustrations. They are blind to the gaping inadequacies in our economic, social and political structures and do not grasp that these structures, which they have been taught to serve, must be radically modified or even abolished to stave off disaster. They have been rendered mute and ineffectual.
“What we cannot speak about,” Ludwig Wittgenstein warned, “we must pass over in silence.”
“The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic,” wrote William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar. Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale, writes that:
“While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite.”
Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the exploitation of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces.
But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions do, then examining and reforming social and political systems is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system.
Most of these students are so conditioned to success that they become afraid to take risks. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. T hey are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous.
The point is to get ahead, and getting ahead means deference to authority. Challenging authority is never a career advancer. The student becomes adept, as Richard Hoggart wrote, at
“a technique of apparent learning, of acquiring facts. He learns how to receive a purely literate education, one using only a small part of his personality and challenging only a limited area of his being. He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage. He becomes an expert imbiber and doler-out; his competence will vary but will rarely be accompanied by genuine enthusiasm.
He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his own pulses; he rarely discovered an author for himself and on his own. In this half of his life he can respond only if there is a direct connection with the system of training. He has something of the blinkered pony about him; sometimes he is trained by those who have been through the same regimen, who are hardly unblinkered themselves, and who praise him in the degree to which he takes comfortably to their blinders.
Though there is a powerful, unidealistic, unwarmed realism about his attitude at bottom, that is his chief form of initiative; of other forms–the freely-ranged mind, the bold flying of mental kites, the courage to reject some ‘lines’ eve n though they are officially as important as all the rest–of these he probably has very little, and his training does not often encourage them.”
The very qualities and intellectual inquiries that sustain an open society are often crushed by elite institutions. The elite school, as Saul writes,
“actively seeks students who suffer from the appropriate imbalance and then sets out to exaggerate it. Imagination, creativity, moral balance, knowledge, common sense, a social view–all these things wither. Competitiveness, having an ever-ready answer, a talent for manipulating situations–all these things are encouraged to grow. As a result amorality also grows; as does extreme aggressivity when they are questioned by outsiders; as does a confusion between the nature of good versus having a ready answer to all questions. Above all, what is encouraged is the growth of an undisciplined form of self-interest, in which winning is what counts.
The single most important quality needed to resist evil is moral autonomy. As Immanuel Kant wrote, moral autonomy is possible only through reflection, self-determination and the courage not to cooperate. Moral autonomy is what the corporate state, with all its coded attacks on liberal institutions and “leftist” professors, have really set out to destroy. The corporate state holds up as our ideal what Adorno called “the manipulative character.” The manipulative character is a systems manager. He or she is exclusively trained to sustain the corporate structure, which is why our elites wasted mind-blowing amounts of our money on corporations like Goldman Sachs and AIG.
“He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person,” Adorno wrote of this personality type.
Ironically, the universities have trained hundreds of thousands of graduates for jobs that soon will not exist. They have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained. The elite as well as those equipped with narrow, specialized vocational skills, know only how to feed the beast until it dies. Once it is dead they will be helpless.
Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. They do not even know how to ask the questions. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, the power elite will be exposed as being helpless, and as self-deluded, as the rest of us.