Here’s a lesson I don’t think enough people keep in mind while assessing the future of the economy or the ecology: Nature, human beings, and job markets all adjust. The current state of affairs is not eternal. This applies to higher education and to the wokeness of institutions of higher education.
This bit of unexpected optimism follows a reading of Erika Sanzi’s thoughts on Harvard’s defenestration of Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv after he was found to have joked around with the n-word in private communications with friends when he was 16:
None of us can know Kyle’s heart. While some say he has only apologized because he got caught, others believe his contrition to be sincere. But none of that is the point. The larger question is whether or not we as a society are ready for the standard that Harvard has set with this decision when it applies to someone other than Kyle Kashuv. Where will we land when the offensive writings do not contain the ‘n-word’ or any racism at all but are still indefensible and out of step with what the university requires in terms of “maturity” and “moral character”? Are we comfortable with people sending all of our private communications from the past to colleges, universities, potential employers or current employers? If every person reflects on all of the things they have typed in anger, jest, the heat of competition, and frustration from their youth until today, it is hard to imagine that the answer for anyone is a resounding yes.
Actually that isn’t all that hard to imagine. Many people don’t understand that the specifics of what is verboten can change and shift on short notice, and many more expect always to be on the side of those doing the judging and therefore to be forgiven. This is the strategic advantage of wokeness and outrage mobs: They provide incentive for everybody to stay on the right side of the issues, as dictated by the people who direct them, even if only for protection against punishment for past transgressions that may not have been transgressions when they were done.
Even beyond the lunacy of taking the wager of that whipsawing tightrope, though, institutions that play this game, whether universities or businesses that take sides in the culture war, don’t seem to appreciate something: Every incident depreciates their standing in the eyes of the country. Progressives won’t like them any more than they already do, because they consider this to be baseline behavior for acceptance, and everybody else will downgrade their reverence for the institutions to some degree. For colleges and universities especially, once mythical status is lost, it will never be regained.
For example, with a child nearing the age of college applications, I’ve actually been surprised at how little I think of Yale after the debacle faced by the Christakises.
As a general principle, one can divide colleges into three tiers:
- Fewer than 20 universities will produce a “wow, good school” reaction across a broad segment of our population.
- Another couple hundred will reliably be recognized and add to the value of degrees with their names on them, particularly in areas of specialty.
- For most colleges and universities, the names don’t add anything to the value of a degree and graduates will be judged on their own, unassisted merits.
As a rational matter of investment, I know that Yale is in the first group no matter how I might feel about it. After all, my father is an alumnus, and he is a man of impressive intellect whose degree has always prompted the predictable response when people found out about it. But surveying my feelings now, I find I’d put it in the third group. I wouldn’t want to pay for any of my children to attend, and anybody under 30 who presents that credential to me will gain no advantage. In fact, recent Yale alumni might have a little deficit in expectations to overcome, if I’m being honest, as will graduates of Oberlin, now.
To be sure, no academic institution should be but so concerned about the opinion of one Rhode Island father, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. Once the mystique of the name has faded, the damage is done, and attempts to recreate it may only accelerate its demise.
The respect that these institutions command has mainly to do with the sense that they prepare students to deal with the world, to lead it reasonably and fairly. In his must-read 1948 classic, Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver suggests that we consider education to be crucial to democracy because “only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values.” Even back then, Weaver questioned whether the trend of education toward the teaching of specialties undermined its exalted place in society, but now we’re seeing almost an inversion. We send our children to college hoping they’ll gather up some useful knowledge and collect degrees that will open doors while praying the institution doesn’t do too much intellectual and emotional damage to them.
That seems like a safer bet the more we and our children see a particular college or university simply as a sort of high-end trade-school rather than a quasi-mystical place in which to be formed and defined as an adult for the rest of their lives. The very thing that made elite universities worthwhile could spin on its axis to become a liability. Whereas once young scholars looked forward to lifelong status as Harvard or Yale graduates, their progeny must increasingly wonder whether they will be stained throughout their lives with a suspicion of immaturity, prejudice, and an inability to cope with others who are not precisely like them where it counts, between the ears.