This essay appears in the symposium “Assault on Higher Education: Reports from the Front,” in the Summer 2017 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
If you’re not a liberal or a progressive but spend your time in a humanities department attending faculty meetings and extracurricular events, perusing course descriptions and hiring plans, and listening to what colleagues say about their profession, you know that leftist biases and taboos run through the fields from beginning to end. But left-of-center tendencies don’t fully explain the current climate of thought and deed in academia. Another factor in the condition of the faculty complicates their liberalism. It assumes a simple form: on one side, yes, we have a stated belief in progressivist aims; on the other side, however, we have actual conduct by the professors and administrators that consistently belies them. Academics say one thing and do another. They profess progressive thoughts about Man and Society and Education, then act contrary to them.
It isn’t hypocrisy, though. The clash is so blatant and systematic that it must run deeper than an individual’s duplicity. When the president of Yale University writes an op-ed hailing the virtues of inclusion at his campus (the word appears seven times), we have to overlook a fact so obvious that it almost takes a pathological blindness not to see it: Yale is one of the most exclusive little acres on God’s earth. It accepts only 6 or 7 percent of applicants, and because higher selectivity means a higher ranking, it wants to get that rate even lower.
This neat illustration of the word/deed divergence is more than flat denial. If you recalled the president to that exclusive reality, he would acknowledge it . . . and proceed to explain Yale’s special version of inclusivity. He can’t do otherwise, because if he did then the entire image of Yale as an open and welcoming zone would collapse. Yale would not be progressive.
This resistance to evidence perpetually frustrates conservative critics of higher education. We can refute this policy and that contention (as the Sokal hoax did), point to one bad outcome after another (as in the Mismatch Effect), show that professors upholding rigorous academic standards cannot sustain egalitarian ideals—and it makes no difference. The male college dean who loudly regrets the dearth of females in upper administration, yet won’t himself resign, is a walking contradiction. But he just keeps on walking. The full professor who teaches senior seminars on social justice while adjuncts handle freshman comp at $3,500 per course doesn’t alter his politics one bit even when confronted with the inequities.
It is important for conservatives to understand this syndrome. Liberals face exigencies every day that push them away from their radically egalitarian faith. This is especially true in the humanities, where ideological commitments are not curbed by scientific method and the very foundations of the disciplines in greatness, beauty, and sublimity run against the indiscriminate practices of social justice. The conservative critique of this incoherence has proceeded for forty years, and though it won every intellectual skirmish, the progressive transformation of the fields has crept forward without pause.
Conservatives must do better in detailing the irreducible conflict between progressive principle and humanities discipline, demonstrating that our colleagues are hurting their fields and compromising themselves when they embrace above all things the equality of cultures and traditions.
A “robust civic consciousness”?
A concise example appeared in late June 2016 when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the decay of U.S. history in higher education. The source for it was a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) showing that history departments at many schools don’t require their majors to take a traditional course telling the story of our country. In a prior report entitled What Will They Learn?, an annual survey by the organization, ACTA found that only 18 percent of the 1,100 four-year schools profiled in the report included a broad U.S. history or government course in the general education curriculum that all students must complete. At the rest of the schools, students can earn a degree without any sustained study of the heritage of their country. Even at schools that do have some kind of requirement, students often can meet it with narrow, specialized offerings that have little to do with the self-understanding of citizens
In this new study by ACTA, we find that a large number of programs let students earn a BA in history itself without proving that they have some acquaintance with Colonial America, the Founding, and Reconstruction. Of the top twenty-five liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, only seven require a course of “reasonable chronological and thematic breadth.” Only four of the top national universities and fourteen of the top twenty-five public institutions do so (UCLA and Berkeley fall into both categories). Eleven of these twenty-three schools allow niche courses such as “Hip-Hop, Politics, and Youth Culture in America” (University of Connecticut), “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl” (Bowdoin College), and “Jews in American Entertainment” (University of Texas-Austin) to count. ACTA judged this lightening of U.S. history instruction a sorry trend.
To which the chairman of the Department of History at Carleton College replied, “We are committed to the idea that all histories are important and valuable in the cultivation of a robust civic consciousness,” explaining why Carleton lets history students skip U.S. history courses. It’s one of those statements that make you pause as Thoreau does when, in Walden, he enters a shop in Concord to have a coat made in a certain cut and fabric and the tailoress tells him, “They do not make them so now.” It leaves him “absorbed in thought, emphasizing each word separately that I may come at the meaning of it.” You feel the same way when hearing this solemn declaration that every history is important. It sounds so earnest and indubitable, but something about it is fuzzy and deflecting as well. You feel the conviction of the speaker, but the words don’t have a specific concrete meaning, not one that I can discern. Certainly it’s impossible to tell what he means by “robust civic consciousness.”
Of course, for anyone with a little experience in the humanities, the pragmatics of the statement aren’t hard to gather. A regulation follows directly from it: thou shalt not favor any national history over any other. U.S. history is important, but it is not particularly important. Let’s not force inordinate attention upon it by raising it into a requirement.
But the semantics of the statement are not so clear. What does it mean to say “all histories are important”? It’s a multiculturalist premise, yes, and I’ve heard variants of it in countless faculty meetings and conferences, English Language Arts standards projects, and informal conversations with colleagues. Many years ago at a summer institute in American Studies at Dartmouth, after hearing papers on so many different topics that the field seemed to me incoherent, I asked the professor sitting next to me what was the core subject matter or method of the discipline. She paused and replied, “Against American Exceptionalism.” Her bluntness was refreshing, though I didn’t see how that motive could serve as an epistemological standard for the field and subfields. Still, reiterations of it continue today, as in a December 6, 2016, story in The Nation by an NYU professor bearing the title “The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism,” which suggests that what distinguishes our country is Jim Crow or racial segregation.
But this antiexceptionalism raises more questions than it answers. In one basic sense, to be sure, every history is important to somebody somewhere. Anyone affected by what happened in the past judges that past significant. But the point is an empty one. It flattens all distinctions between histories and inflates “importance” into an airy universal. We don’t have any indication of how this history may be important one way, that history another way, nor do we have any measure of relative degrees of importance. If we were to ask the history professor for clarifications, he would beg off—and wisely so. Once we start talking about different kinds of importance and different degrees of impact, the equality he wishes to sustain would begin to crumble.
U.S. History as a résumé builder
It takes only a little experience working in a humanities department, however, for people to realize that this all-histories-are-important principle cannot guide them in their operations. A set of institutional demands inevitably frustrates the leveling impulse. First of all, a history department can hire only so many teachers. Funding is limited; tenure-track lines are granted sparingly. The people brought into the department right out of graduate school may stick around for thirty or forty years. They will have expertise in some histories and not others, and they will mark the department as having a particular profile. Given the limits of the personnel that make up a department, it must offer a fairly regular range of courses. Their very presence is an admission of the unequal importance of histories. Some histories win representation in the Course Atlas, others don’t.
Departments must take student interest into account as well. Low enrollments and declining majors meet the disapproval of the dean, who has to divvy up money between a few dozen departments each year, each one of which clamors for more. If one department has a lot of overenrolled courses and another a lot of underenrolled courses, he goes with the first one, the winners not the losers. On the variable of student interest, then, all histories are most certainly not equally important. I don’t know what histories are the most popular with undergraduates at Carleton, but we may be sure that the sophomores drift more toward some courses than others. Voting with their feet, they set up a discriminating scale of value that ranks courses by occupied seats.
Finally, to the inegalitarian factors we should add employers who hire history majors and expect them to know something about certain histories and not others. Even those human-resource managers who select history majors mainly because of their verbal skills generally assume that an applicant has acquired some knowledge of the American story. If during an interview someone looks blank when the interviewer brings up the Broadway hit Hamilton, he wonders what the applicant learned in her forty units of history coursework. Ignorance of African history and the Crimean War won’t raise any doubts, but ignorance of the Depression and the Cold War will. The multiculturalist conviction that all histories are equally valuable may be a prevailing dogma on college campuses, but off campus a preference for U.S. history over other histories is commonplace.
That favoritism runs across the political spectrum, too. Historical relativism may be central to the academic left, but it’s not to the off-campus activist left. To erect a moral basis for its initiatives, the activist left relies heavily on the history of American slavery and Jim Crow, Wounded Knee and Manzanar, the civil rights movement and women’s liberation, Cesar Chavez and Stonewall. It has built its existence on a history of American guilt. In a debate over social policy between a patriotic conservative and a multiculturalist liberal, it never takes long for the latter to recall segregation and other identity-based crimes. The American people need constant reminders of them, leftists believe, in order to form “a robust civic consciousness.”
Note, for instance, how many Democratic voices appealed to the unknown history of the Electoral College after last year’s election, not to mention to the historical benightedness of Trump supporters. The Boston Globe ran an op-ed by a writing teacher at NYU entitled “Yes, There Is Shame in Not Knowing.” Here’s the alleged shame: those stupid Trump voters don’t get the Constitution, and they know nothing about the history of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the United States. Their historical know-nothingism is essential to their sin, and evidence of the emptiness of their claims as citizens.
All these exigencies and exhortations recast the history professor’s statement as something other than factual or conceptual. It is, instead, symbolic. The history department at Carleton (and everywhere else) cannot act upon the equality it professes. The conditions of academic life prevent it, and so does political life in the United States. On one side, we have a “commitment” to a multicultural outlook that renounces American exceptionalism, Great Books, Western civilization, and other formations that grant a special status to a particular nation, continent, religion, or tradition. On the other side, however, professors must answer internal and external pressures, making selections and discriminations that signal a situated outlook and training, not a universal perspective. They have spent many years in graduate school and in the library and archives writing articles and conference papers. The process has made them more specialized, not more catholic. They fill a slot in the department, which still defines professors most often by nation, region, and time period. No department can cover everything, which means that the affirmation of all histories and culture is a gesture, not a pledge.
Humanities professors try to get around this unreality by additive actions that follow from their faith. They insert into general education requirements a course in non-Western history or culture; or they ask the dean for an expert in a non-Western history or culture (tempting the administration with the prospect of hiring a new faculty member of color); or they apply for an award from programs such as the Russell Sage Foundation’s “Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration” initiative, which focuses on the “changing racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population.” But these actions are supplemental and never adequate. They merely push the challenge to the next stage, which is, Why those non-Western, non-white courses, fields, and grants? What about this non-Western culture and that non-Western region? Multiculturalism is an ever-elusive imperative that drives incessant reform. It proposes an impossible parity that is belied by every decision the egalitarian supervisors must make. There always remains “so much more to do.” That reform works less by affirmation than by stigmatization. It also allows the professors to rationalize this very discrepancy between theory and practice. “Yes, I teach Chaucer,” the Medievalist confesses, “but I don’t say that Chaucer is better than Toni Morrison.” The history department runs U.S. history courses every semester and only occasional offerings in Latin American history, but it makes sure to speak of them with equal respect. The relativist rhetoric proceeds even as the behaviors contradict it.
Bad faith as self-deceit
There is a name for this condition: bad faith. The term comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, whose vicious anti-Americanism after the Second World War has, perhaps, led conservative thinkers to overlook his genuine insights into the machinations of the modern ego. As Sartre expounds it in Being and Nothingness (1943), mauvaise foi is a style of living characterized by self-deceit. People of bad faith lie to themselves, and the lies serve a strategic purpose: they enable people to absorb and work through contradictions that can’t be otherwise resolved.
Sartre’s example is the proper young woman on a date with a man for the first time. She realizes what his ultimate intentions are and that sooner or later she will have to encourage or discourage him. But for now, she needn’t think about that decisive moment. All that matters is the present, the two of them sitting at a table, friendly and (in her eyes) nonsexual. If he tells her how attractive she is, Sartre says, “she disarms this phrasing of its sexual background,” taking it only as an objective statement. She knows he desires her and she likes it, but she opts not to treat it seriously. She doesn’t want to welcome or reject it, not yet. She has to suspend it, to pretend that sexuality hasn’t become active in their exchange. His further expressions of desire she translates into esteem or “the more refined forms” of respect.
In effect, like our professors, she refuses to recognize the dynamic for what it is. Moreover, she won’t acknowledge her role in creating the fake, nonsexual version of it. When he moves too quickly and takes her hand, it calls for a response, but she’s not ready to make one. “The aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible,” Sartre says. And so she takes a third way out, the way of bad faith. To pull away would end the suspension, and so would a squeeze of his hand in return. Instead, she leaves her hand in his, but “she does not notice that she is leaving it” (Sartre’s italics). It doesn’t stop his desire, but it delays her from having to accept or reject it. But she has, nonetheless, done something. Her hand has become an object separate from herself. In Sartre’s words, a “divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished.” He has drawn her hand into his desire, and she has let him have it because it is no longer hers. She may continue to operate in the abstract even if she must dissociate herself from her physical existence.
Her bad faith is what allows her to maintain contrary thoughts: that he desires her and that he doesn’t (yet) desire her. She is a sex object and not a sex object. She can keep her self-image as a rational and moral being “above” sexuality, though he pulls her down into it. (Keep in mind that Sartre is writing two decades before the Sexual Revolution, when chastity was still a prized virtue.) Her ideal self and her sexual body—Sartre terms them “transcendence” and “facticity”—can coexist. She sustains this delicate balance by “various procedures” that amount to a denial. When he clasps her hand, she thinks, all he’s doing is clasping her hand. When he tells her she’s lovely, he’s only stating a fact, nothing more. Her bad faith cuts short the meaning of his actions. They have no implications in her mind, no future, only a present, and so she needn’t answer them, only undergo them, passive and innocent.
The parallel with liberal humanities professors is obvious. They are egalitarians in word but aristocrats in deed. They appreciate all cultures and histories, all peoples, but they maintain an intensely hierarchical zone. They mouth “inclusivity” repeatedly, but the schools in which they labor strive to be ever more exclusive, the pursuit of selectivity in admissions never stopping at the top two hundred to three hundred colleges (U.S. News & World Report rates Carleton College “most selective”—only 23 percent of regular fall applicants are admitted). They won’t privilege canonical authors, they say, but Shakespeare typically chalks up nine hundred items of scholarship annually, while Audre Lorde earns only twenty-five and August Wilson a mere seven, according to the Modern Language Association International Bibliography (numbers for 2015). They create a Women’s Studies Department but ignore the fact that a microscopic number of undergraduates major in it (in 2006, the National Women’s Studies Association counted only 1,474 of them in the entire country). They support affirmative action in college admissions but blink at the tensions this causes, especially for recipients of it who have to compete with students with stronger preparation.
Bad faith is the way in which humanities professors live with these contradictions. It lets them have it both ways. They can be academics meeting the practical demands of large and wealthy institutions and idealists remaining true to the egalitarian vision. They enjoy the One Percent–like prestige of tenure and support spread-the-wealth causes. They believe it is a crime for governors to cut back on public education funding, yet keep producing many more PhDs than will ever win tenure-track posts. They teach and research exceptional cases of beauty and sublimity while nodding knowingly at mass culture products such as Blade Runner and hip-hop. They have undergone a psychological transformation that makes the inner conflict go away. When my colleagues say things such as “We are committed to the idea that all histories are valuable and important in the cultivation of a robust civic consciousness,” they really believe it.
Progressivism demands authentic commitment, and as Sartre notes, you can’t really lie to yourself. You have to believe the lies, even if it means you must close off the facts of your own existence. I saw it transpire a few years ago in a department meeting on a problem we were presumed to have with hiring and retaining senior women professors. One female colleague had written up a statement detailing how we were male-heavy in the full-professor and endowed-chair ranks. She asked from the department a resolution acknowledging the fact and a determination to remedy it. It wasn’t anything official or formal, just a vague promise to do better in the future. Others in the meeting conceded her points and endorsed the idea.
I didn’t disagree with the facts, nor did I want to argue over the plan. I was going to vote against it, but I expected to be the only one to do so. What was fascinating about the meeting was the behavior of the senior men in the room. A few of them, I recall, spoke up in modest admission that we had some senior female colleagues in the past and should have found a way to keep them. Others stayed quiet until it came time to vote for the proposal and show their support, which they all did.
It wasn’t a significant episode in the life of the department, but it fit a long-standing pattern common throughout academia. Some individuals were asked to recognize that the university would be a better place if people different from them were in the chairs—and they nodded yes. The high principle was this: “We need to support and encourage senior females,” a faculty version of the glass ceiling issue. Who could object to that? But the immediate reality was this: “Oh, if only five of the older men in this room were women.” In concurring with the resolution, the senior men had to admit their own questionable existence. And we had to assume some guilt, too. After all, senior professors do their own hiring and promotion, and they create the climate that makes the department a pleasant or unpleasant place to work. If we didn’t have more senior women, it was our fault.
In fact, in the previous year, we had hired a distinguished professor from a top 10 university. He was a leading literary scholar and theorist who was also a superb teacher with former graduate students in university positions all across the country. I liked him. But the whole meeting was, by implication, a judgment of his recruitment. Here we had had a woman problem for several years, and when we had a chance to start fixing it, well, we failed again.
Nobody said anything about him, of course. To get that explicit would make everyone uncomfortable. It would also do something that would undermine the very process I’ve been writing about, the earnest expression of an abstract commitment in the face of behaviors and circumstances opposite to that commitment. And that’s precisely what happened; I could see it in the men’s faces. They supported the idea, smoothly and soberly. They held steady at the level of principle—let’s hire and maintain more senior women—and suspended thoughts of actual practices of hiring and promotion in the future and in the past, including the practices that put them in their current positions. They could vote “Aye” without facing what the resolution said about them. As I observed them in the meeting and at its conclusion, they didn’t look or act differently from the women in the room. In their minds at that moment, they were no different from the women around them. In other words, they were in bad faith. They had managed to ignore the very sexual reality that others in the meeting highlighted. To escape the implied accusation of sexism, they unsexed themselves.
This episode is another piece of evidence for why it is a mistake to judge academics as cynical or canny or simply dishonest when they rehearse the progressive axioms of diversity and inclusion. They have done it too many times and for too long for the egalitarian claim to be merely a lie or shtick. Few people can pretend so adroitly for months and years in professional spheres, turning on the fakery when they have to and dropping it as soon as they leave the room. It is cognitively arduous, not just morally discomfiting, to playact day in and day out. It fosters an internal conflict as well as the external one. Conformity is easier. All that the professors need is a self-deluding way to make the progressive wish-list true, to utter diversity and inclusion and tolerance and equality and believe in them at the instant of utterance. Something goes “click” in their heads and they become sincere. It doesn’t matter that the utterance has no referent in the real world. It doesn’t have to, not when it receives certain approval from colleagues and higher-ups, not to mention nonstop reinforcement from progressive media and the administrative state. Campus realities don’t reflect those words, but if the thought-world of liberalism is firm and comforting enough, individuals can work their minds around the disconfirming facts and express liberal nostrums as if they were a personal pledge. This is bad faith that has taken over an entire guild.
When a spurious outlook has seized an institution and become an instrument of security, a factor in who gets hired, published, and promoted, it often takes an outsider to recognize and expose it. Graduate students, junior professors, adjuncts, and others seeking tenure-track posts aren’t going to open their mouths. If they remark upon the absurdity of, say, academics who have spent their entire lives in elite private schools opining about injustice in the inner cities, they will blow the job interview, or jeopardize their promotion, or ensure a hostile audience at the conference session. They have learned the etiquette of professional life, and they know the costs of critical thinking about it.
People who have no professional aspirations in the humanities, however, have no such worries. They feel no pressure to conform, no incentive to adopt the blindness at the root of bad faith. One group is particularly significant: undergraduates. They are, of course, crucial to the maintenance of humanities departments. If they don’t enroll in courses and sign up as majors, departments wither and die. But few of them look at literary studies as a career. They are a way to law school, publishing, creative or technical writing, or any other field in which verbal communication is important. Students with those careers in mind could just as well take the path of political science, history, journalism, or communications.
Fields of English, history, philosophy, Classics, art history, and foreign languages rely upon a population of students who study them because, most of all, they like them. They major in English because a high school teacher or a parent turned them on to Jane Austen and Hemingway. This student identified with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, that one with Elizabeth Bennett or Nick Adams. The reflections of Hegel on masters and slaves and of Marx on commodity fetishism hit them as truths to absorb as life lessons. Some of them have confusions and doubts about God and mortality and sex, and they find those apprehensions best addressed by novels and poems and plays, as well as treatises. Only a powerful curriculum and teachers with conviction can respond to those passions. Nineteen-year-olds who are drawn to Prufrock and Anna Karenina and the Apology of Socrates want from their teachers inspiration and insight, a pedagogy equal to the characters and actions and words that draw them to the class.
The mindless egalitarianism that is the dogma of the professors, a flattening that runs across the humanities, objects to headings such as “Great Books” because they imply that other books aren’t great (yes, I’ve heard that point stated in just those words). Our professor may begin merely by saying what he believes other professors want him to say, and after many years of hearing others say it, he assumes its propriety.
But how do nineteen-year-olds hear it? I can think of only one group that finds it appealing, the students who already resent the dominance of Western civilization, American exceptionalism, and dead-white-male authors. They enjoy the silent takedown of our traditional heritage that runs beneath every positive expression of multiculturalism. But there aren’t enough of them to keep the fields vibrant and prosperous. If there were, we wouldn’t see the drop in enrollments and majors that has been happening in recent years. The humanities mostly need the undergraduates who have no resentment, who sign up for courses in anticipation of learning what they think they most need to know. And what those kids hear in expressions of equality and diversity is weakness and mediocrity. It’s disappointing. The humanities have King Lear and Madame Butterfly, the Will to Power and the Acropolis. These are momentous creations that rise above the ordinary flow of human affairs. Students expect teachers to present and recognize their greatness. They want the professors to display the depth and passion and wit of the best that has been thought and said. They don’t want tepid egalitarian formulae. They want guidance into the sublime and the beautiful, the wise and the talented. When a teacher introduces students to The Waste Land and runs across the opening verses of Tristan und Isolde quoted just a few lines into the poem, he doesn’t think of the opera as just another musical composition. No, he ties Wagner’s story to the degraded desires of the poem, then he plays for them the final consummation of the Liebestod so his students might experience a genuine expression of sublime love and distinguish it from both the squalid eros of the Waste Land and the everything-is-awesome ideology of contemporary culture. The instruction is twofold. First, it explicates Eliot’s poem and one source for it; second, it induces a taste for supreme human expression.
This is to say that the discrimination of greatness is essential to the health of the humanities. If professors do not recognize the finer tones of human creation, if they do not distinguish the tragic drama of Shiloh from the street theater of late-’60s protests, the films of Chaplin from the videos of Madonna, students naturally wonder why they should bother signing up. Yes, a course on punk rock or Harry Potter (we had one at Emory recently) will draw them in, but they won’t stick around for more. The entertainment value of the material won’t last through the semester, nor will it produce the deeper literary-critical commitment needed to convert enrollees into majors.
The ressentiment that underlies identity-based courses won’t do it either. It will turn off students who don’t share the feeling, and those who do will experience the material of the humanities negatively, as sources of revulsion. Professors who enjoy talking about Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hemingway’s sexism a little too much, caring more about taking them down than raising students up, coach their charges to adopt their adversarial relationship to the tradition. If geniuses are dragged down to our level or below by exposing their questionable opinions and reactionary attitudes, then students will be left with nothing to love or admire. The students who have been taught to think of themselves as superior in wisdom and justice to even the best of what the tradition has to offer don’t want to plunge further into it. Why should youths who abhor sexism have to listen to Milton on Eve’s proper submission to Adam? If anti-Semitism disgusts you, must you study Leni Riefenstahl and read Ezra Pound, much less Martin Heidegger? All those works from the past that impart, even ambiguously, illiberal positions on this or that form of identity surely have no place in education, regardless of their aesthetic value or what we might learn from them about love or death or friendship or citizenship or God. They are indicative only of taboo thoughts and serve only a moral purpose, namely, the negative illustration. Once they fulfill that purpose, they needn’t be addressed any further. The students pose a logical question: You’ve already taught us that racism and sexism and homophobia are bad—why must we study authors that you claim are so deformed by them? No wonder we find that humanities curricula are steadily shifting toward contemporary work and downplaying the past. According to the College Art Association, in 2015, twenty-three dissertations in twenty-first-century art and fifty-six in twentieth-century art were completed, while only seventeen on the entire ancient Greek and Roman worlds and seventeen on the four centuries of medieval art were completed.
When aesthetic and intellectual judgments lose their predominance in the humanities, their study appeals to ever fewer students. If professors do not uphold a scale of beauty and sublimity and insight that reserves the highest kind of excellence for a deserving select few, then sensitive and thoughtful twenty-year-olds won’t flow their way. Those aspiring adults want to learn about “monuments of unageing intellect,” to share in a fellowship of talent and wisdom. Are they right to want us to teach them Macbeth instead of The Terminator? Of course they are, because the one is an acute and profound dramatization of human evil, and the other is a flashy and hokey dramatization of inhuman evil. It is through exposure to such superior works that youths come to realize that the pleasure they take in youth-culture stuff is crudely one-dimensional, and that there are better things to savor, things that address the real needs of their souls. Their instinct for greatness is correct, but it needs guidance and encouragement. The more they read Tolstoy and watch Bresson, the more they develop a disposition that transcends adolescent appetites and that we call humanitas. The curriculum should be a pathway toward it, not a cafeteria line that lays out too many processed desserts.
The impulse to distinguish superior things and be drawn to them is the foundation of the humanities and the key to their success. “There is an instinct for rank,” Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil, “which more than anything else is already the sign of a very high rank.” Faith in the ladder of discrimination is the first step in the acquisition of an authentically high rank—a real form of greatness—for one’s students. If humanities departments wish to reinvigorate themselves, they must change the way they talk about what they do. Egalitarianism must give way to superiority, inclusivity to exclusivity (in the development of the syllabus, not in enrollment in classes). Instead of saying, “Here we value everything,” they must entice undergraduates with: “Here you shall encounter masterpieces of genius, and they will change you forever.” ♦
Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University and senior editor of First Things.