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The Campuses Lost in the Clouds

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Some jokes take a long time to set up, and there seems to be a connection between the length of time one must wait for the punchline and the number of groans produced. Based on the events of last semester, are American colleges and universities the butt of the longest set-up in comedy history?

The fall semester on America’s campuses was more eventful than usual. All the normal activities took place: move-in day, football, roommate troubles, perhaps even some education. What made headlines outside of the student papers were the protests and the response by all but a handful of administrators. The causes of protest were various. At Missouri State, for instance, students sought redress for both what they claim is a culture of racism and a dispute over benefits for graduate students. At Yale, they had the great Halloween costume controversy. A website, thedemands.org, currently lists 76 formal sets of demands from student protesters from across the Unites States and Canada. Students at Missouri achieved one of their eight specific demands, that the University of Missouri System president be removed. As of this writing I do not know if students from Guilford College have convinced the faculty there to engage in weekly acts of self-denunciation.

The merits of each particular case are impossible to address at a distance. How could one prove that there is no racism in Missouri, for instance? On the other hand, what is one to make of the complaints out of Oberlin over “the gross manipulation of traditional recipes”? Nevertheless, patterns are visible. The first is that the students are undoubtedly sincere. For all the talk of a post-modern irony, there is none in evidence at these protests or in their demands. Those Guilford students really do want a different faculty member each week to write a confession in the student newspaper. The second is that few people outside of the campus culture are taking the complaints seriously. For example, in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called the protestors “sanctimonious bullies.” The third pattern is that administrators, except for a few notable exceptions, agree with the student protestors and have given in to their demands, resigned, or both. The only bright spot is that the students and administrators are acting out their parts in a play from fifth-century Greece. Of course, most of them do not know this.

Aristophanes’ play, “The Clouds,” begins with a father, Strepsiades, so wracked with debts that he seeks to study with Socrates so he can talk his way out of them. He proves to be a poor student so he sends his athletic and spendthrift son, Pheidippides, in his place. Pheidippides is such a good student that he not only adopts the characteristics of Socrates’ students, he is able to convince his father that it is just for children to beat their parents. This is the only thing the two can agree on in the whole play. Yet, in despair at what he has done, Strepsiades burns down Socrates’ school. Orchestrating all of this, the chorus of the Clouds first encouraged Strepsiades to seek out Socrates and pushed forward his son then, at the end, blamed him for his bad behavior and supported his burning of The Thinkery.

We can have some fun imagining each group in their various roles, but the exercise is even more instructive than it is amusing. If we think of the students as Pheidippides and college administrators as his father, we can assign the role of Socrates to the faculty and that of the chorus to the general public. When we do this we can see that this ancient play is being performed right before our eyes.

Taking our anti-hero first, the administrators follow the role of Strepseides exactly. Set aside as undignified the ad hominem charge that administrators are failed academics just as Strepseides was a failure at Socrates’ school. Instead, consider the similarities between the assurances that sophistry and the ability to get out of debt the father gives his son and the promises of “critical thinking skills” and future earnings that are used to justify the expense of an undergraduate education. As for the son, like so many undergraduates he goes off to receive an education he neither wants nor understands. And yet Phieidippides becomes, in contemporary parlance, “radicalized” by a faculty completely at odds with the wider culture as represented by the Chorus.

He does not speak of micro-aggressions or structural racism, but his understanding of what justice entails is as foreign to his father as is that of the student protesters. And when he claims a right to beat his father and mother, how far from that is the Yale undergraduate who screamed at her house master for defending his wife’s comment that the faculty and administration of the university have no place policing the Halloween costuming of the students? Having seen the video, he took as close to a verbal beating as one could get. Yet, like Strepsiades, the master of Yale’s Silliman Hall, Nicholas Christakis, agreed that he deserved the beating. According to the Washington Post, the told students “I care so much about the same issues you care about. I’ve spent my life taking care of these issues of injustice, of poverty, of racism. I have the same beliefs that you do … I’m genuinely sorry, and to have disappointed you. I’ve disappointed myself.”

Are American colleges and universities the cauldrons of injustice that the students claim, the administrators concede, and the faculty seem to teach? As Jonathan V. Last of The Weekly Standard has asked, if campus life is so bad, why would most of the student demands result in bringing more minority students, faculty and administrators onto those same campuses?

No less interesting are the faculty at both the fictional Thinkery and our increasingly unbelievable colleges and universities. Aristophanes thought he was making great fun of Socrates by portraying the ridiculous things he was teaching. Even he would have a hard time outdoing the reality of what is now on offer, such as the University of Kentucky’s course on “Taco Literacy.” Meanwhile, the Chorus colludes with Socrates to promote the value of an education, essentially underwriting his Thinkery as do state legislatures, alumni, and trusting parents footing the bills. But, just like so many of these groups who now claim to be shocked by mismanagement, high fees and useless courses of study, the Chorus tells Strepsiades that he had it all coming to him.

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. At least in the case of higher education he had it backwards. What was written as a comedy is playing itself out as a tragedy. Billions of dollars of private and public money have been spent on a remarkable infrastructure throughout the country. At least a trillion dollars of debt has been acquired by young people and their parents. For what? A growing chorus of voices wants to burn it all down, replace it all with online learning and competency credits.

Systematic study of a culture’s great achievements is itself one of the greatest achievements of any culture. Few have developed anything close to what we have in our colleges and universities, and we are now squandering it all. How did we get to this point? Much like Strepsiades and his son, education has been sold to Americans as a means to get rich, or at least make a comfortable living. But apart from some obvious cases such as engineering and nursing, most college courses do not lay out a direct path to gainful employment. Add to this that large parts of the academy seem downright hostile to the very notion of gainful employment and to the idea that there are cultural achievements that might be studied, and the question is not “how did this happen” but “what took so long?”

Higher education in America is in a perilous state. Like The Thinkery in “The Clouds” it is being assailed from without while those within seem incapable of defending it. And while there is much to apologize for, losing the modern academy would be a great blow to civilization, if only because no one has developed an even passable alternative. Can we save it in its present form? Yes, if we can first learn to laugh with Aristophanes. Higher education is not only too expensive and of dubious worth. It has become a parody of itself. It is the butt of a joke. And as all graceless victims of comedy it seems to have no sense of humor.

Socrates reconciled with Aristophanes, if Plato’s Symposium is to be believed, and we know from his own Apology that he changed his ways from the caricature presented in “The Clouds”. But he never laughed at injustice. He laughed with people who laughed at themselves for telling the truth about themselves (see Xenophon’s Symposium 4.45). We must—as students, faculty, administrators, and society as a whole—be able to laugh at the academy. If we can’t get the joke, we will never be able to fix the problem.

Geoffrey M. Vaughan is associate professor of political science at Assumption College.

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