Sunday, August 22, 2004

A University Problem

David Brooks is often at his best talking about "resume-building" and the professionalization of childhood. He has his finger on the pulse of today's upper middle-class achievement-oriented kids -- and the parents who drive them. Brooks doesn't discuss liberal education in this piece. But it occurs to me that these little achievement machines populate our better universities; and, as Allan Bloom once wrote about pre-law students, they are merely tourists in the liberal arts. Their eros crippled, they are incapable of deep, life-altering attachments to books; and, despite their off-the-charts S.A.T. scores, they basically just take up space in the dorms for four years. They know a little of this and a little of that -- or enough of this and that to score well on their exams and impress their flattering elders who also have no deep attachments to books.

Of course, parents (even and especially good parents) have not typically wanted their kids to study philosophy or literature, or make these things their life's work. Anyone who has read Aristophanes knows that. So it's somewhat pointless to blame them, as Brooks might. The university itself is much more blameworthy because it has lost its way and doesn't know what it stands for anymore. Of course the university will always be responsible for producing doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers, but this is not its essence. This is only what makes it attractive to the rest of society that doesn't understand or doesn't agree with its real purpose. Traditionally, the university performed some of the functions of parents as indicated by the phrase in loco parentis, but it also existed in some serious tension with the typical projects parents have for their children. Now the parents' projects are everyone's projects; the university is not distinctive anymore. As a result, students have no other vision of how to lead their lives than the professions their parents have in mind for them.

So David Brooks indeed writes beautifully about the professionalization of childhood. But in some form or another, this has always been the case; parents always have projects for their kids. And if Brooks thinks this situation has intensified recently, this is a somewhat "normal" or predictable response of parents in an age of meritocracy, where it isn't the case anymore that a few wealthy families control politics and commerce. (In his Bobos book, Brooks also writes brilliantly about how American society has become more meritocratic in the last half century.) This is why the real issue is whether the university can continue to maintain its purpose of liberal education, of standing for something distinct and separate from the typical professions that parents want for their kids. More than ever, the university is the only chance for "culture" (for lack of a better word) or for a serious relationship to books and thinking as a way of life to get to kids; and it is failing in its purpose.


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