The Corner

U.S.

Views of America

At Harvard University, November 16, 2012 (Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters)

Often, when you read something, or hear something, it reminds you of something else. So it was when I read Kevin’s essay today, “American Universities Are the Envy of the World.” The subtitle is “There is much that is in need of reform on campus. But there also is much that is wonderful, inspiring, and enriching.”

Near the end of his essay, Kevin writes,

The United States is the world’s financial capital (sorry, London), the world’s technology capital, and the world’s cultural capital, but conservatives detest Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, along with the Ivy League and other elite universities, Broadway, publishing, the media industry, the fashion industry, the architecture and design industry, New York City, Los Angeles . . .

I thought of Michael Gove, the British writer and politician, whom I went to see in 2014. He was then the secretary of education; he has held other cabinet posts since and is now the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (don’t ask me).

In 2014, I was pretty gloomy about America. Obama had been president forever, it seemed. I am prone to gloom about America (though I should learn). When Bill Clinton was elected over George Bush in 1992, I thought that was pretty much . . . The End.

Anyway, I wrote up my conversation with Gove when I got back home, and here is the bit that Kevin has brought to mind today:

I speak with Michael Gove about America — a country he knows well, and admires highly. I say, “Are we going down the tubes?” “No!” he says. “Are we ‘fundamentally transformed’?” “No!” “Is it curtains for us?” “No!” “Lights out?” “No!” He then says he would not criticize President Obama or his administration, being a member of a government allied to America. But he does discuss America.

At different times, he says, Americans have asked themselves, “Is this a period of decline?” He guesses that this began not long after the founding of the Republic. Twenty or thirty years in, Americans most likely said, “Republican virtue is slipping away, the temptations of expansion or empire are eating away at the soul of our national project.” Flash-forward to TR, who lamented the diminution of martial vigor, and, what with big-money interests, the sapping of the entrepreneurial spirit.

“If you look at America now,” Gove says, “yes, you have a fiscal problem — but then so do most developed countries. And America is the place where tomorrow happens. It’s the most innovative and exciting country in the world in terms of technological change and in terms of intellectual endeavor.”

“Still?” I say. “Yes,” he responds. “Whose magazines and books do we want to read? Whether it’s the NYRB [New York Review of Books] or National Review . . .”

I say, “It’s hard for me to tell. Maybe I am too inside. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet.” “But I can see it from the outside,” says Gove. “American writing, whether it’s journalism or fiction or non-fiction, I think, is culturally far more significant than any other nation’s. Technology is a given. America’s higher-education institutions are the best educational institutions in the world.”

And so on. Well, let me quote a little more:

He then mentions “the old Churchill cliché,” which goes (in one version), “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” Gove says, “There’s a moral sense that guides America’s leaders, which, for whatever reason, kicks in sooner or later. Even if you’ve got a bad president or a difficult time, it’s always the case that, when the crisis requires it, sooner or later America rises to the occasion.”

Hmmmm. I trust that it is so (I think).

Kevin also put me in mind of Jeff Hart, our late colleague — Professor Jeffrey Hart, the scholar of English literature and political writer. Kevin says that “top academics from around the world flock to American campuses,” and “for good reason.” He continues, “If you are among the world’s best in any significant intellectual field, chances are excellent that an American university is the place you want to be.”

In another section of his essay, Kevin mentions that “Harvard, founded 1636, is about as long-established a social institution as this country has.”

When Jeff passed away at the beginning of this year, I wrote about him at length, and quoted from some of the letters he sent me. Here are some lines about Harvard — kind of fun:

The great thing about Harvard has always been that it has never cared what a professor’s after-work opinions are, as long as he is the best in his field. He could admire Pol Pot, for whatever reason, as long as he is number one in Egyptology or something. Arthur Darby Nock was the leading 20th-century St. Paul scholar and crazy as a bedbug. . . .

Conservatives today do not understand Harvard, because they see it from the outside. Harvard always rights its ship. It could not possibly let its law school go too far left; Harvard heard from the major law firms that they could not use its graduates; Harvard brought in a tough new dean with orders to clean up the playpen. Which he did.

Hmmm. Other playpens need cleaning up, too.

One more “This reminded me of”? Okay. Kevin writes, “There is a lot that is silly, meretricious, distasteful, and genuinely destructive going on in American universities, especially at the second-rate institutions and in second-rate programs. (The thing about second-rate schools is, they’re second-rate.) But there also is much that is splendid, productive, admirable — and, indeed, the envy of the world.”

I thought of Ann Coulter. She has spent many years going to college campuses around the country — usually to considerable controversy. (She doesn’t mind.) Once, she made an observation that struck me as dead-on: The worse the school is academically, the worse it is in terms of political correctness, ideologization, an illiberal atmosphere, etc. This is probably because Muleshoe State (as Kevin might say) tries harder.

Okay, I’m done being reminded of things, for now.

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