On going to college

Dear H,

The way to spot a man of genuine intelligence isn't to look at his brains, but to look at his stomach.  I don't care if you have a degree.  What do you feed on?  Can you stop reading?  Can you stop talking about and chewing on tough ideas?  Does new information scare you, or do you take it as a challenge?  

The man of middle-rank intelligence is already full and has already "arrived": he has an ideology set up and impervious to all assaults, a shelf of books that rarely grows, a fascination with one or two pet subjects and little else -- above all a belief that he's already gotten "an education."  He looks not for what's beautifully stated, not for what's well put-together, not for the slap-in-the-face things we need to hear, but for what already confirms his beliefs.  He may only be 30, but his mind is a museum.

A really intelligent man doesn't want confirmation all the time -- he wants a fight.  He wants to fight because he loves to express himself and to grow.  He can never really lose a fight, and he knows it.  To be contradicted and beaten is to become wiser.  The ego takes a beating, not the man; and the more a man he is, the less his ego takes a beating.

The growing usually begins after boring-ass professors stop giving you badly-written books and asking you their questions.  Churchill said I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college.  At this point, when you can find what you love or hate and dive deeply into each, your passions open your mind and spill out your soul; fertility and virility in one vibrant package.  Then your professors aren't the middling sort but the geniuses -- the greatest of your age or, if you're really smart, the ones who made it out of their own.  Brilliant men who found the most brilliant things about men and became interesting to men they'd never have a chance to meet.  The deader the authors, the better the bookshelf.

And this of course is up to you, not anyone else.  The quality of your education is determined by your appetite to know how and why, your ear for a good sentence, your taking something said five-hundred years ago and making it fit today.  To the healthy mind everything and everyone is a lesson* -- but some things are better lessons than others, and your ability to chase them, to chew them, to sift them defines how smart you are: not your profession or your degree.        

This being said, I regret dropping out of college not because I could have learned something, but because I could have met somebody.  Not a single professor of mine inspired me, or taught me anything useful -- except maybe that professors are mostly blowhards.  But what I realize now is that what college failed to do for me, aside from giving me a middle-class profession, was what college is actually intended to do for me.  And that is to give me a middle-class flavor**.

The courses themselves are a large part of the whole process, but as I get older I doubt they're the main part.  The big thing that comes out of a college education is a college socialization -- the rubbing of shoulders with intellectuals and on-the-way-ups; the widening of a horizon; the witnessing of people reaching for and getting the possibilities of life; the laying of middle-class women before they become mothers; the smoothing of rough edges, the polishing of manners.  The knowing the cues, the body language, the lingo of the well-to-do, and the making of connections of all kinds.   Things that make for "success" in life.  Not taking Psych 201 but knowing the psychology of the winners and makers and movers.  Not just the bachelor's degree but the carriage, the dignity, the whole spirit of entitlement, of being above.  We leave college and we put on a job; but before we can really rise to some jobs, we have to put on the college.  Rarely do we meet a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist who doesn't have an air about him.  The confidence goes hand-in-hand with the know-how (and many times without it), and for everything it gives in charm, it has a tendency to make the learned obnoxious.  Not all of them, but many of them.

This marketing is both blatant and secret.  The wealth-ridden, stately, mansionesque palaces of the university aren't a novelty but a feature -- to instill a sense of its greatness in the pupils, and reinforce a sense of worship.  Colleges have done for us what the Catholics have mastered and the Protestants have mangled: to make our senses teach us what the lectures don't.  It impresses on us a sense of smallness in the shadow of towers (sometimes built to look ancient), and steeples, and columns, and cobblestone or red-tiled streets, and well-manicured groves.  We have no choice but to accept the superiority of the faculty, in their robes and hats, like our ancestors used to bow to the cardinal.  We look at our own homes, especially here in America, where the Old World grandeur exists almost nowhere but Wall Street and the state and the college and occasionally the church, and we assume that where we came from is vulgar, and that we've entered the presence not only of the wealthy, but of the superior.

But this is mostly showbiz.  The chance that your professor is genuinely intelligent is low, and the chance that he's manly or useful or charming or virtuous is even lower.  His ideas are accepted as truth often before we've had the chance to really process other ideas.  We haven't had a chance because we're too young.  Education is thus always kind of a swindle -- not because teaching is always wrong, but because most students never have a chance to size it up.  At least not like a 40 year-old man would.  

The students who do try to question it and digest it properly, the brave, the intelligent, the considerate and the skeptical, only show their youth by challenging the status quo.  College isn't a place for finding truth but for transmission, and in the student's case, for reception.  In a well-run state it's a place to churn out "our" kind of people -- the kind of people we need to keep this society well-run, and prosperous.  Each people has its own particular flavor to better spice up the national recipe.  In a collapsing state colleges manufacture new snake-oils, and churn out the resentful.  A really intelligent student, one who knows what a college does, answers the questions the "right way," gets his A+, and talks shit behind the professor's back.  

A college is a hill to die on -- for everyone except the students.  If a riot needs to happen, the people who should be burning the college down are the parents***.  



*Montaigne wrote, in his essay On The Art of Discussion,

A bad way of speaking reforms mine better than a good one. Every day the stupid bearing of another warns and admonishes me. What stings, touches and arouses us better than what pleases. These times are fit for improving us only backward, by disagreement more than by agreement, by difference more than by similarity. Being little taught by good examples, I make use of the bad ones, whose lessons are common. I have tried to make myself as agreeable as I saw others unpleasant, as firm as I saw others lax, as mild as I saw others violent.

To learn from books is good, but the real sport for intelligent men is talking.  When we put ideas together on the fly, when one man's library collides with another's, when one man's perspective merges into another's, when we're forced to consider others into our dreams, then we learn whether we really know things or just think we know them.  On our own, in our rooms, we plan, we tinker, we dream about how things are and how they ought to be.  When we talk to others, we learn how far we're willing to push these thoughts -- and what we're willing to give up in order to fit in.  

**Am I saying that I lack charm, or manners, or the capability to socialize with the well-to-do?  Absolutely not.  I just don't know many intellectuals -- and my lack of connections to public intellectuals has buried my whole writing career.  

An unconnected intellectual has to be an exceptional self-marketer, which I'm not.  My essays, being an unholy mix between history and philosophy and personal reflection and polemics and footnotes, are bad fits for most (no -- all) magazines.  Who***** you know in academia and in the public sphere is almost always more important than what you know.  A good word from a mediocre pundit can sell even a bad book.  But who can save these letters?  They'll probably get buried when I do.  

***These days the colleges are funded by the people, but the people aren't in control of the colleges.  "Democracy" and "equality" are  preached and the practice is totally subverted.  

But here we have some questions.  Yes we're mad at the colleges right now.  But have colleges ever been of, by, and for the people -- or are they a tool of the elites?  Have the lay-people, and especially the lower classes, ever really had control of the college system?  Could they?  Would you trust Joe Plumber to know what makes a great professor of anything but plumbing? And if the average man really did take control of it, would it be worth sending your kid to?  

I submit that when the elites are rotten and state-funded, control has to be taken back****.  If the elites are rotten and self-funded, Mao had the right idea in The Cultural Revolution -- that the teachers had to be beaten up, and worse.  But just like an anarchist takeover of a factory, you had better be prepared, at least for a while, for things to go sideways.  The public can destroy an evil here, and perhaps get rid of a cancer, but they're incapable of making a really great college. 

This of course is in line with democracy anyway.  There was never a time, even in the most democratic environments, where "the people" were able to run things.  The function of anything requires a power structure comprised of a few people and their connections, and the battle of any election isn't between peoples, but between cabals.  The majority fights over which minority will rule them, and how far the minority can go.  Thus the main point of a democracy isn't positive, but negative.  It was never for the people to rule things.  It was so they could stop them.

C.S. Lewis put it better, in his much overlooked Present Concerns,

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters. 

****Why is it that our colleges are so rotten?  For the simple reason that colleges are about business.  It might be easy to say, here, that the college is the business and the students are the customers, but this is only half true.  The college is the customer and the professor is the business.  As always, the question to be asked is, who's selling, and who's buying?  

It all comes down to advertising.  How does a would-be professor market himself?  He could do what he's supposed to do, which is to teach tried-and-true things in an interesting way.  But being interesting is hard, and what's interesting to the quasi-intellectual snobs who run the college?  Simply put, new spins on old things.  

But there's only so much spin you can put on an old thing, and at some point you have to start saying new things, writing new books,  whipping up a frenzy for a moral fad, or a new classification of learning, or a counter-take on a hero or a nation.  Whatever gets people's attention and makes your college stand out.  

Novelty and genius, being products of the imagination, are easily confused -- and in the world of academia, where social theories can be churned out en-masse without testing, and a lack of fresh ideas is taken for a lack of genius, the college has to pick between boring people to death and killing them with snake oils.  The former saves society at the expense of the schools.  The latter boosts the schools but ends us killing the society.  

Thus I posit that a dynamic society, a liberal society, an open society will always have a tendency to kill itself -- not out of a suicidal tendency, but out of its intellectuals' need to feel alive.

*****I know I’m supposed to use the word Whom. I know when to use Whom and when to not use it. It’s just that every time I use Whom I feel like I’m pretending to be somebody else, and that the somebody else I’m trying to be is a giant tool.  

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