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The Worst of Both Worlds

State of the Union: Claudine Gay is the epitome of the current American higher education system.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The fact that Claudine Gay is a serial plagiarist isn’t the main issue—it’s that she’s a mediocrity. Gay has managed to do the American version of the Eton-OxBridge elite social-climbing while having fewer than twenty solo peer reviewed papers, mostly on topics of race that no one will remember in a decade—and several of which have incited charges of plagiarism. She has written no books. In sum, she has made no original or profound contribution to human knowledge, yet still manages to be the head of a premier higher-education institute of the republic. 

This is not the cause but rather the symptom of the deeper malaise. Theodore Roosevelt, an elite from another era, in comparison, managed to write a book on the War of 1812 only a year after graduating from Harvard, all while getting married, attending Columbia to study law, and planning to run for office. And, the book was one of the most significant of his generation.


It is not difficult to see why Gay’s Harvard (or any of the Ivies, for that matter) is so determinedly antagonistic to the very idea of merit or quality. What else would you expect from a quasi-subaltern gynarchy with a massive chip on its shoulder? At least Liz Magill resigned. Yet Gay is the epitome of the current American higher education system and has proven herself untouchable. Firing her would be a desecration, a sacrilege. 

Every society needs an elite ruling class. The premier institutions need to nurture and manage that elite. This is especially important in a republic, where an informed and rational citizenry is often the key, and where the structure is opposed to a natural imperial meritocracy. Eccentricity was tolerated in Victorian Britain, where the system was hierarchical and compartmentalized, and, therefore, naturally deferential to merit. If you have quality (say, a Charles Darwin or John Atkinson Grimshaw), you prove it, and you get patronage from the time’s social elite and the institutions they promote. A somewhat similar arrangement existed during the Gilded Age in America, if only for a brief moment. 

The current American system and the political class (from both sides), while nominally opposed to aristocracy, is simultaneously disdainful of true merit, and phobic towards those who think differently. Therefore, it has the worst of both worlds. 

Now, no one wants Harvard to be populated by neurotic autists who are great at calculus and can play note-perfect Chopin, but cannot carry a normal conversation. Harvard is still there to nurture the nation’s elites. Yet now it is also designed to elevate those like Claudine Gay: the Ivies are still elevating an elite, but the quality of that elite is not the same.

Part of that is purely due to the democratization of higher education. Adding more people to a system that is, by definition, supposed to be hierarchical, detached, and exclusive has failed to make everyone an Einstein; it has instead resulted in arch-bureaucrats filling the ranks and dumbing things down. The current Ivy deans with their sorry performances are purely due to the democratization of higher education; they are the perfect bureaucrats, deferential to the norms of their times, fearful of shadowy financial powers, spinelessly appeasing petulant mindless mobs, amplifying the socially-liberal acceptable catchphrases, completely bereft of any original thought. They could not answer anything in Congress satisfactorily, simply because they don’t face any genuine scrutiny in their own echo chambers.

Yet it is also in part the fault of a peculiar anti-intellectual currents within the American right, who mistake hyper-inflated midwit-fueled credentialism for true meritocracy. A truly meritocratic society would not accept a teen into a premier institution just because he scribbled “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on a piece of paper. 

And that is a tragedy. It is the tragedy of Claudine Gay. She has been elevated to this position by the flawed system, and if anything, it is the system that is at fault. It is also the tragedy of Harvard, which is doing what it has been doing for centuries: nurturing American elites, albeit with the hand it has been dealt. And it is ultimately the tragedy of the republic, as society has given up on quality and originality for the sake of the masses.