Social commentator/reactionary mediocrity Roger Kimball recently wrote one of those wonderfully masturbatory fap rags designed to appeal to that reified oxymoron, the “conservative intellectual.” Kimball takes the old decline and fall route in his analysis of the university, arguing:
“Once upon a time, universities were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization. Today, most are dedicated to the destruction of those values.”
Sentimentalist claptrap is cheap, and bullshit is more palatable if swallowed in the elixir of lofty ideals. The land of mass incarceration and children in cages doesn’t quite tickle the ear like the land of the free. Ah, how that last phrase rolls off of the tongue and into the heart, stanching any meaningful reflection. Any claim which begins with once upon a time is likely to be a total fabrication, just like the fairy tales which so consistently feature that phrase. Some people artfully conceal their ignorance, but in the space of one short sentence, Kimball makes it clear that he knows nothing about the history of the university as an institution.
Europe’s original universities, such as those in Bologna and Paris, were formal institutions for vocational training in law, medicine, and divinity. Education and intellectual activity predated the invention of the university by well over a thousand years, and one might see schools like Plato’s Academy or the Alexandrian and Pergamene libraries as embodying something closer to the apparent ideal of purely intellectual devotion. But the university as we know it was founded as a credentialing office for the trade guild of intellectuals. The very idea of the university is so thoroughly Medieval that American universities, which did not possess the same meaningful ties to the historical moment which Bologna, Paris, and Oxford enjoyed, had to artificially create the semblance of Medieval respectability with Gothic architecture and the absurd (but no doubt lucrative) ceremonial use of the cap and gown at graduation. It was fashionable a few years ago to discourage students from pursuing a PhD in the humanities by informing them that graduate school was not about “the life of the mind,” but rather, a form of professional certification for a career in academia. It may surprise some to learn that the life of the mind must be sought elsewhere, but the university has always been a professional guild which certifies members for entrance into that guild. This means that it has never been a wholly disinterested or purely objective haven for the pursuit of ethereal Platonic ideals.
Kimball and other “conservative intellectuals” find the PC culture on campus particularly galling because they see it as a threat to free speech. There is something singularly disingenuous about a victimhood narrative told by a faction which has its hands on the levers of political power in this country. Moreover, the university was never historically a bastion of free inquiry or free speech. Through much of their history, universities were propaganda machines in bitter theological controversies. Edward Gibbon was unable to finish his education at Oxford because he flirted for some time with Catholicism, and in the following century, Newman had to resign his post at Oxford following his conversion. Forcing students to subscribe the 39 Articles does not seem to represent the spirit of truth and dispassionate free inquiry at one of the world’s premiere universities.
When people like Kimball begin to wax nostalgic about ideas like Enlightenment Values, they are simply signaling membership in a club to other people who have read the same few authors of whom they particularly approve. What they mean to say is something like, “I support the promotion of values which I, an enlightened person, already hold.” Men like Kimball use the fashionable term grievance studies to include a whole range of cultural, philosophical, and historical thought which they find wholly unpalatable. Curiously enough, Kimball complains that PC lefties have ruined free speech in the university by shouting down conservative thinkers, and responds by suggesting that the university as a whole should be abolished. The way to increase free expression in academia is, naturally, to prevent anyone from ever saying anything in academia again.
In addition to his wide-ranging ignorance in other fields, Kimball seems wholly unaware that the “pursuit of truth” and the “transmission of values” are inconsistent aims, and the subject of a bitter controversy in 19th century Oxford between Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison. Jowett was a towering figure at the university less because of his scholarship and more because of his hobnobbing with gentlemen and his general air of “a man of learning and good taste.” His aim was to ensure that Oxford served as a finishing school for gentlemen: to make sure that all of its students who went on to civil service or clerical sinecures had an appropriate store of ornamental classical quotations at their fingertips, and could recognize each other as members of an elite and exclusive club. This is of course what Kimball means by “transmission of values” – an expensive set of disgusting prejudices coated over with a veneer of classical respectability. Mark Pattison, on the other hand, was the scholar’s scholar. He was a withdrawn and reclusive man, who proudly announced in his memoirs that he had lived the last several decades of his life entirely devoted to study. Pattison worried that Oxford had become too much of a school, and that devotion to teaching was the surest way to impede the intellectual pursuit of truth. In many ways, this debate is still central to the cognitive dissonance of the university: promotion and tenure require publication, but meaningful scholarly work requires countless years of unexciting drudgery in the library. The public, however, still maintain the memory of the Medieval university as trade guild, and expect that its primary function should be teaching. Only those who are entirely unfamiliar with the real work of either teaching or of research can idly spout off codswallop about the “pursuit of truth” and “transmission of values” as though they were the same thing.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. The Past is not a discreet entity, but a construct based either upon your memory of your own limited phenomenological perspective of previous time in your own life, seen dimly through the mist of subsequent experience and mental revisionism; or upon your understanding of a more distant past built by sifting isolated (and often curated) fragments from an era which you never experienced. Neither of these is particularly reliable. (Our understanding of the present is no better, so please don’t read this as a slander upon the study of history.)
If Kimball and the conservatives are hurt about the apparent left-tilt of the university, they have only themselves to blame. During the culture wars beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, conservatives ceded education entirely to the left, not only because they embraced instead the worst vices of the military-industrial complex, but because they allied themselves with the religious right of villains like Jerry Falwell, who required an audience of ignorant dupes to whom they could peddle their horseshit. The most cynical expression of this recognized alliance is Rupert Murdoch’s intention, when creating Fox News, to attract the NFL and NASCAR crowd. He intentionally eschewed a mainstream but fickle audience in favor of the cult-like devotion of reactionary idiots. For decades, conservatives have doubled down on their assault against education, but express surprise when the stewards of that educational system oppose their reactionary agenda. Of course, a man like Kimball, who endorsed Donald Trump as a modern Pericles, cares neither about intelligence nor about history. His conservatism is no more than a cocktail of reactionary hatreds and nostalgic yearning for a world that never was.