[Marxism] The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 9 07:21:19 MST 2008

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, 

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.”

These institutions cater to their students like high-end resorts. My 
prep school—remember this is a high school—recently built a $26-million 
gym. Not that it didn’t have a gym. It had a fine one with an Olympic 
pool. But it needed to upgrade its facilities to compete for the elite 
boys and girls being wooed by other schools. While public schools 
crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these 
elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the 
privileged retreat further into their opulent gated communities. Harvard 
lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises 
the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 
billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. 
Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than 
others. Most believe it.

The people I loved most, my working-class family in Maine, did not go to 
college. They were plumbers, post office clerks and mill workers. Most 
of the men were military veterans. They lived frugal and hard lives. 
They were indulgent of my incessant book reading and incompetence with 
tools, even my distaste for deer hunting, and they were a steady 
reminder that just because I had been blessed with an opportunity that 
was denied to them, I was not better or more intelligent. If you are 
poor you have to work after high school or, in the case of my 
grandfather, before you are able to finish high school. College is not 
an option. No one takes care of you. You have to do that for yourself. 
This is the most important difference between them and the elites.

The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on 
race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as 
the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working 
class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised 
to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. 
He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did 
what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive 
tutor from The Princeton Review who taught him the tricks and techniques 
of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like “stop 
thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time 
thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you.” His 
reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better 
reader? Did he become more intelligent?  Is reading and answering 
multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even 
an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do 
not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have?

These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized 
tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with 
large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who 
used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the 
big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But 
they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of 
their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate 
firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious 
amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received 
perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not 
that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and 
salient details of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but they were 
unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, 
fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions 
of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such 
institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American 
empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to 
examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of 
liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void.

“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,” William Deresiewicz, 
who taught English at Yale, wrote in “The American Scholar.” “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 rape 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 invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently 
devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as 
much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents 
are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual 
integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and 
trusteeships on hedge fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives 
are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message 
to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin 
said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your 
brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before 
authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, 
schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and 
success. They 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. Challenging authority is not a career 
advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their 
way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs 
and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate they 
are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day electronically 
moving large sums of money around.

“The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige 
admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements 
can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name,” Deresiewicz wrote. 
“It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not 

“Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger 
intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a 
pilgrim soul,” he went on. “These few have tended to feel like freaks, 
not least because they get so little support from the university itself. 
Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to 
searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask 
the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of 
intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century 
students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised 
in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that 
flourished on campus.”

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his 
degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley 
and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall 
Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. 
They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of 
privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an 
unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and 
financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the 
country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained 
to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and 
financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until 
it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. 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, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the 
rest of us.

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