The Impersonal University

For this discussion: Mike Rice, the administration and Rutgers faculty | Preserving class at Princeton

When I first started in political philosophy, I wondered about the French “liberty, equality, fraternity” versus the whole of American history. All of American history is the tension between liberty and equality, with we the people at various times emphasizing one to the detriment of the other and, in the end, both. Missing, in my experience, is any serious sloganeering on behalf of fraternity. We get plenty about factions fighting each other as the inevitable consequence of liberty from Madison, but not a lot about how we are bound together in a positive way as Americans. I always thought the key issue was this: fraternity is nice and definitely worth having – any political order worth a damn will foster it – but the nepotism and cronyism it can lead to can be a real problem for a republic, especially one that is taking in a diversity of peoples and interests.

In any case, I’ve linked to two pieces above which got me thinking about fraternity and the university. The latter is fairly straightforward. Ross Douthat argues that elite universities exist to preserve an elite class, that the diversity they say they’re striving for is a sham. He talks about the Ivies and others of this status being a social club for rich kids with powerful connections to meet other rich kids. Granted, this is all implicit in the term “meritocracy” – I am reading a bit into Douthat’s critique. It isn’t that our rich, powerful elites fail to work hard or eschew education. They do work hard and take their education seriously. This may make the advantages they have that much more powerful. It becomes that much harder to have class mobility.

I don’t know how much I care for Douthat’s column as a prescription for anything. (The general complaint is noted.) To me, the issue is whether everyone can live comfortably, be educated well, and “rule and rule in turn.” I’ve always been less ticked off at Harvard and Yale’s privileges and more concerned that other schools don’t treat their students well at all (i.e. there are plenty of elites at select fraternities and sororities in state schools, who have an entirely different experience at college than the guy sitting in the library reading all the Kant he can). A major reason I write is that those of us who are being educated owe it to everyone else to explain what we’re doing in school. Equality can come about through a lot of small, positive things. There’s no need for class warfare unless one has identified some awful, terrible corruption that shows no sign of going away.

The other article, though, points to an awful, terrible corruption being perpetrated on everyone in the United States of America. What I’ve been complaining about to friends regarding Mike Rice has mostly been this: how many people covered for this clown’s abuse and tolerated it for how long because of money? Of course, what goes on in college sports – whether we’re talking about coaches or administrators or boosters or whatever – is so mercenary that one would be hard pressed to use the term “fraternal” to describe any aspect of it. The primary reason for Mike Rice’s “rehab” was to secure getting into the Big Ten, which as we all know involves money with lots of tax breaks because we’re talking college here, and thus is far more important than curing cancer or teaching Shakespeare or the million and one other things a university is supposed to do.

Still, “so mercenary” is the key phrase from my rant. Both Princeton and Rutgers show how exploitative the university as a whole is. Either it is working to help perpetuate the Future Oligarchs of America (I believe that is a registered trademark) or it has a crass notion of school/local pride that it uses to generate advertising revenue (you will all not be surprised that ESPN is not very popular on campus). Either we claw our way to the top or emphasize mindlessness as the key to solidarity. There has to be something else worth aiming for here.

After all, it’s difficult to learn things and working together is a necessity. My Greek sucks and I do need help translating things in Xenophon. And hearing from people who know better on different topics than me is always useful. At the least, it’s a reminder that one always has to work for an education and that work never stops. It has to be continual and one does depend on what others have worked on carefully because we can’t fact check everything. We depend on each other to know. There is a basis for real fraternity in this Enlightenment country. One day, we may discover that.

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