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Education: 2010: U. Topia

by Jonah Goldberg

Liberals envision a perfect world, and it looks a lot like campus

Making the perfect the enemy of the good has ignited fires in the minds of men since before togas were the hot new fashion. The word we generally ascribe to this practice, “utopianism,” is actually of fairly recent coinage. Thomas More created the word “utopia” by combining the Greek words for “no” and “place” in his satirical tale of that name in 1516. The title was part of the joke, in that the perfect society does not — cannot — exist, at least not in this life.

Alas, lots of people never got it. From Plato’s republic to Homer Simpson’s “Land of Chocolate” — where everything from the fire hydrants to the dogs is made of chocolate, and the chocolate stores sell chocolate at half price — the delusion of perfectibility has endured, mostly as harmless fantasy. But in politics, utopianism has been far from benign, with its worst incarnations — chiefly various species of Marxism — responsible for killing millions. Since the red tide of Marxism and the brown tide of 1960s radicalism have receded, it has become fashionable to say that utopianism is dead, or at least in retreat. But that isn’t entirely true. The Left has not given up on utopia so much as it has lost its ability to talk about it honestly and intelligently — or even to see it for what it is.

Utopian thinking hangs on in the environmental movement, notably, but also in electoral politics. The messianic and utopian currents driving the Obama movement in 2008 were hard to miss. The promises to “transform” America, the creepy religiosity of “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” the devotional songs, the promise to turn back the rising oceans, the investment of magical properties in Obama’s rhetoric (“just words”? is abracadabra just a word?), Michelle Obama’s claim that her husband would heal our “broken souls.” Meanwhile, Oprah dubbed Obama the One. George Lucas suggested he was a Jedi knight. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle claimed he was a “lightworker” — whatever that is — and Deepak Chopra insisted that Obama’s campaign amounted to a “quantum leap in American consciousness.” Clearly, such widespread absurdities drew on deep wells of utopian asininity.

And the deepest of those wells are drilled on American college campuses, the home of Obama-style utopianism. It’s not that professors simply fill their students’ heads with utopian blather, though some certainly do. It’s not what students are taught on campus that inspires these new utopians — it’s the campus itself.

There’s a certain kind of elite student who takes himself very, very seriously. Raised on a suite of educational TV shows and books that insist he is the most special person in the world — studies confirm that Generation Y is the most egocentric and self-regarding generation in our history — he is away from home for the first time, enjoying his first experience of freedom from his parents. Those same parents are paying for his education, which he considers his birthright. Shelter is provided for him. Janitors and maids clean up after him. Security guards protect him. Cooks shop for him and prepare his food. The health center provides him medical care and condoms aplenty. Administrators slave away at finding new ways for him to have fun in his free time. He drinks with abandon when he wants to, and the consequences of his bacchanalia are usually somewhere between mild and nonexistent. Sex is as abundant as it is varied. If he does not espouse any noticeably conservative or Christian attitudes, his every utterance in the classroom is celebrated as a “valuable perspective.” All that is demanded of him is that he pursue his interests and, perhaps, “find himself” along the way. His ethical training amounts to a prohibition on bruising the overripe self-esteem of another person, particularly a person in good standing with the Coalition of the Oppressed (blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, et al.). Such offenses are dubbed hate crimes and are punished in a style perfected in Lenin’s utopia: through the politicized psychiatry known as “sensitivity training.”

But even as this sensitivity is being cultivated, the student is stuffed to the gills with cant about the corruption of “the system,” i.e., the real world just outside the gates of his educational Shangri-La. He is taught that it is brave to be “subversive” and cowardly to be “conformist.” Administrators encourage kitschy reenactments of 1960s radicalism by celebrating protest as part of a well-rounded education — so long as the students are protesting approved targets, those being the iniquities of “the system.” There is much Orwellian muchness to it all, since these play-acting protests and purportedly rebellious denunciations of the status quo are in fact the height of conformity.

But it is a comfortable conformity, and this student — who in all likelihood will go into a profession at the pinnacle of the commanding heights of our culture — looks at this Potemkin world and thinks it is the way things are supposed to be. He feels freer than he ever has or ever will again, but that freedom is illusory. He is, in fact, a dependent: All his fundamental needs are met and paid for by others. This is what the political theorists call positive liberty — when someone else gives you a whole pile of stuff so you can be “free” to do whatever you want.

I concede that this particular scenario hardly reflects the full reality of campus life. Vast numbers of students work their way through school or take out crippling student loans. But for a certain type of elite student, the campus provides the illusion of an ideal life — one divided between having fun and doing good, all on somebody’s else’s dime — a model that he carries with him after graduation.  He may be able to put off the real world for a long time — the five-year plan, grad school — but once he earns his Ph.D. in social work and enters a career in which he makes less money than your neighborhood barista, he is inclined to look for the same kind of support he enjoyed in college, with government grants replacing the allowance his parents gave him.

Schools transform students. A recent UCLA study found that students become less religious but more “spiritual” and more liberal on a host of social issues between their freshman and junior years. One reason for that might be initiatives such as the University of Delaware’s infamous residence-hall program, which required students to demonstrate that they recognized that “systemic oppression exists in our society,” acknowledge “the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression,” and “utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.” Internally, the school officially referred to these indoctrination sessions as “treatments.” The sad truth is that most students don’t feel oppressed by such indoctrination, which is only a more intense and immersive version of what most of them have been getting since kindergarten.

Once you’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid, there’s much to recommend the campus lifestyle, not least that it often produces people who make remarkable contributions to American life. Michelle Obama is one such person. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she lectured a small group of no doubt bewildered working-class women at a Zanesville, Ohio, day-care center, explaining that they should turn their backs on the world of high finance. “You know, become teachers,” she said. “Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. . . . Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry.”

Put aside the modern-day Hull House noblesse oblige of a wealthy lawyer and senator’s wife who pulls down six figures exhorting women who struggle to pay for day care not to sell out to Goldman Sachs. Mrs. Obama was surely right about the honor and satisfaction that can come from a career in the “helping industry.” But the first lady gives no indication of appreciating the fact that if everyone goes into the helping industry, there’ll be no one left to work in plain old industry, and hence no one left to pay the helpers. Her husband’s administration and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have been proposing a raft of new programs and policies that will encourage college students to live the campus lifestyle for as long as possible. And if you go to work in the public sector — defined as government plus the helping industry — you now get your student loans erased after ten years: utopia on the installment plan.

Science is lending its luster to this utopian vision, too. Apparently, your brain doesn’t work out all of its kinks until you’re around 25 — a fact that seems to have eluded everyone in history except our Founding Fathers and the people who run car-rental companies. The New York Times Magazine recently did one of its lavish write-ups on the question of young adults and their half-baked brains; naturally, it included a slew of proposals for new government programs that will keep the campus lifestyle going until your brain finally sets in its cranial Jell-O mold at the end of your “emerging adulthood” metamorphosis. Among them is the idea of providing federal support for  what the Times calls a

socially sanctioned “rumspringa,” the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities some Amish offer their young people to allow them to experiment before settling down. It requires only a bit of ingenuity — as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment — to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people.

It should go without saying that a society suffering from “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” as the Times habitually puts it, and in a constant panic over its decline in competitiveness, is at least feeling the gravitational pull of utopianism when its newspaper of record is arguing that the young, who should be our hardest workers, need to be sent away on a secular rumspringa. Can you imagine the laughter such a proposal would invite in Beijing?

But maybe not in Paris. American college campuses have been islands of European thought for generations. Our campuses are outposts of what Charles Murray dubs “the European syndrome,” a term he introduced in a 2009 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, arguing that social planners here are trying to follow the European passion for “taking the trouble out of life” by providing citizens with lavish benefits, interminable vacations, early retirements, subsidized entertainments, and only a loose commitment to classical notions of individual liberty. Few of the protesters in the streets of Paris or Athens today would suggest that they live in a utopia. But one does get the sense they believe their indulgent lifestyles are irrevocable entitlements, settled issues at the End of History.

It’s fun to blame the Europeans, but much of the trouble is home grown. David Brooks recently suggested that we are suffering from our equivalent of the “British disease,” a turning away from the competitive, productive, self-confident America of previous generations toward a more nurturing, introspective, touchy-feely “Genteel Nation.” That’s an argument Michael Barone laid out at great length in his Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future. No surprise that America’s elite colleges are, according to Barone, incubators of the ideology of coddling.

Regardless of its intellectual origin, what makes the utopianism of the campus lifestyle so pernicious is that it goes largely unarticulated and acknowledged by the very people who subscribe to it. Liberals emerge from campus under the illusion that this utopia was a real place, and, as time passes and life gets harder, they grow nostalgic for it. But the college campus is not a real place: I’m not suggesting that it is a hologram, but it cannot be a model for actual life, not least because someone has to clean up the bathrooms on Seis de Mayo (the ugly day after Cinco de Mayo). Those who try to export campus values to the larger society are in much the same situation as the Europeans and Canadians who think they’ve transcended international conflict when really they are enjoying their posh welfare benefits under the security of America’s cape, subsidized by the billions we spend on a credible military deterrent so they don’t have to.

And like European societies increasingly beholden to the distant and ever more intrusive powers in Brussels, our campuses are in many ways authoritarian, ruled by administrators who are accountable only to distant boards and who act with the guidance of faculty immunized by lifetime tenure. Students are not citizens but subjects — often pampered subjects, but subjects nonetheless. 

With this in mind, a lot of liberal policymaking starts to make more sense. Michael Bloomberg doesn’t think he’s infringing on individual rights; he sees himself as an administrator making the responsible decisions to offer more healthy food in the cafeteria and ban smoking in the dorm. Barack Obama’s “beer summit” was idiotic from a normal adult’s perspective, but entirely normal from the campus perspective. Don’t think of Nancy Pelosi as a wide-eyed, aging hippie, but as the maternal dean of students for all of the American people. The End of History for liberals is not, as Francis Fukuyama had it, liberal democracy, but a vast college campus, where all are nurtured, encouraged, supported, educated — and told what to do, for their own good. In other words, Canada with a better meal plan.

– Mr. Goldberg is the editor of the new anthology Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation.

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