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The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff
Posted on Dec 8, 2008
By Chris Hedges
The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.
The nation’s 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 that are designed to produce certain 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 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 defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. 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.
“Political silence, total silence,” said Chris Hebdon, a Berkeley undergraduate. He went on to describe how various student groups gather at Sproul Plaza, the center of student activity at the University of California, Berkeley. These groups set up tables to recruit and inform other students, a practice know as “tabling.”
“Students table for Darfur, no one tables for Iraq. Tables on Sproul Plaza are ethnically fragmented, explicitly pre-professional (The Asian American Pre-Law or Business or Pre-Medicine Association). Never have I seen a table on globalization or corporatization. Students are as distracted and specialized and atomized as most of their professors. It’s vertical integration gone cultural. And never, never is it cutting-edge. Berkeley loves the slogan ‘excellence through diversity,’ which is a farce of course if one checks our admissions stats (most years we have only one or two entering Native Americans), but few recognize multiculturalism’s silent partner—fragmentation into little markets. Our Sproul Plaza shows that so well—the same place Mario Savio once stood on top a police car is filled with tens of tables for the pre-corporate, the ethnic, the useless cynics, the recreational groups, etc.”
I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department 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. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question and looks down on the rest of us with thinly veiled contempt.
I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. By the time I had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate and Harvard, I had a pretty good understanding of the game. I have also taught at Columbia, New York University and Princeton. These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with “Scooter” Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools—to perpetuate their own.
“There’s a certain kind of student at these schools who falls in love with the mystique and prestige of his own education,” said Elyse Graham, whom I taught at Princeton and who is now doing graduate work at Yale. “This is the guy who treats his time at Princeton as a scavenger hunt for Princetoniana and Princeton nostalgia: How many famous professors can I collect? And so on. And he comes away not only with all these props for his sense of being elect, but also with the smoothness that seems to indicate wide learning; college socializes you, so you learn to present even trite ideas well.”
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