Friday, April 9, 2021

The Woke Academic Idiotocracy

If students are not admitted to America’s greatest academic institutions on the basis of standardized test scores, what are the criteria? As a coda to the prior post, we turn to the University of Chicago, surely as good as any Ivy League school, and a professor by the name of Blake Smith.

We should not be surprised that the gold standard for college applicants is-- to tell stories about yourself. A candidate for admissions must be able to narrate his or life, and to make it fulfill the terms of everyone’s favorite oppression narrative.

You can’t make this stuff up? 

It’s therapy culture run amok. Perhaps it does not apply to today’s therapy mavens, most of whom are blissfully ignorant of such matters, but anyone who knows, for instance, the work of one Carl Jung will recognize the challenge. 

In fact, one Jacques Lacan, upon founding his very own school of psychoanalysis in 1965 created a ritual whereby a candidate who wished to ascend to the highest rank in the school-- that would have been, being a teacher-- was obliged to narrate his life in a manner that showed his complete and total understanding of and commitment to the theory. And yes, I do know that there was more to the process, but that was its basis.

Blake Smith states the challenge with frightening clarity. Life is about social justice, about overcoming oppression or about coming to terms with one’s white privilege. Your being, your very identity must fulfill the terms of the narrative:

The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.

My students are experts at performing this kind of self, and their stories of overcoming are almost all about “identity”—stereotyped racial dramas. I realized this when I organized a series of lessons on the theories of Michel Foucault. I had asked students to explain how institutions like the university elicit us to speak ’the truth’ about ourselves, and in doing so reshape who we are. They told me about their college admissions essays, narratives about themselves that both reflected a cunning sense of what their audience wanted to hear, and reached, more deeply than I think students know, into their own souls.

Students of color, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, wrote about the psychic suffering that had been inflicted on them by the dominant white culture. They had stories about having to learn to love their curly hair, their “unusual” names—in short, themselves. College applicants—and Americans generally—are increasingly asked to recount how through great difficulty they have succeeded in taking the self as the object of their love, a stage of narcissism that for earlier generations of psychoanalysts appeared not as a challenging achievement too often thwarted by an oppressive culture, but as a falling back into an infantile condition.

One wonders what will happen to the academic fawning over Michel Foucault when the professor class has to deal with the fact that Foucault was a notable pedophile. Does that make him more or less of a culture hero?

In one sense the students are going through the motions. And yet, going through the motions does have a notably negative effect on a growing psyche. Indoctrination and brain washing do not produce supple minds, to say the least.

A number of Asian American students, for example, told me that they had written their admissions essays to demonstrate that they weren’t “like other Asians,” with narratives of how they had to challenge their strict parents and limited cultural horizons to develop passions for, as one wrote, beat-boxing and hip-hop.

Naturally, these students are in it for the credential. They imagine that their ability to tell stories about themselves will make them valued employees in the world of technology or finance. One suspects that they are deluding themselves, and that they are going to learn eventually that storytelling has very little real use value:

Narratives of triumph over oppression similarly position the subject as winning for herself—this time against a hostile and unfair system—the just rewards of her work. The teller of such a story does not need to—and perhaps, telling such stories so often, loses the ability to—understand herself as the beneficiary of several kinds of privilege or good fortune.

What they have instead are stories, in meritocratic and woke versions, about how their own efforts and talents lead them as far as my class, and will lead them, after it, to high-paying jobs at the commanding heights of our economy.

By the way, Smith has discovered that his students, at the University of Chicago, cannot read or write. Products of the best high schools in the country, they are barely literate. That should cast a shadow on your optimism about America’s future:

Students’ absence of an internal locus of control—a core self whose values they know to be their own, and against which they can measure, and sometimes refuse, the demands of the world—appears even in what may seem to be simple questions of learning and skill, such as their ability to write. After my first year of teaching, troubled by the unclear, disorganized, and utterly unaesthetic papers written by students who had, in theory, received the best (and certainly the most expensive) educations in the country, I tried a new method to inspire them to improve their writing. In my office hours, after confronting a student with the revisions they would have to make to whichever assignment, I would ask them to tell me the last book they had enjoyed reading. My naive expectation was that in response to their answer I could send them off to analyze what had made its author’s writing style seem so effective.

Somehow or other, all of this indoctrination has turned them off to reading books. Or perhaps it’s all the techno gadgets that they carry around with them like sacred talismans.

Funnily enough, telling stories that fulfill the terms of an oppression narrative does not require good writing. One wonders, in today's academy, where instructors are hired to fulfill diversity quotas, how many of them know the difference.

Becoming good writers would require them to have an individual ideal of good writing (a pantheon of admired authors and turns of phrase), which they had made for themselves out of their own self-directed reading. An ideal gives leverage by which the demands of others can be relativized—one can recognize, for example, that although an essay assignment requires a five-point structure, this is not a requirement for good writing as such.

Smith would improve his own writing if he could find out what the word “ideal” means and not misuse it. As though to prove my point, he also misuses it in the first sentence of the following text. I hate to say it, but this sentence is anything but an example of good writing. It more closely resembles a word salad.

The power to articulate and follow an ideal of one’s own, and the perspicacity to see how one’s pleasures and work contain implicit invitations to consider the nature of the good, are moral capacities that students’ educations have degraded.

Then Smith tries to explain why students write poorly, though, yet again, his explanation is not very clearly expressed:

Students write poorly because they have been stripped of agency. What they have instead of an internal locus of control, the ability to form their own personal standards and adhere to them, are stories, usually written by other people on their behalf, about how by dint of hard work and personal talent they have surmounted powerful and malevolent social structures. Such images of themselves, whether expressed in terms of the older meritocratic ideal or its new woke competitor, are a kind of camera obscura in which the students’ real powerlessness, their lack of even the most basic components of private life such as leisure time and personal taste, their total beholdenness to hegemonic social norms, are inverted.

Does he honestly believe that more leisure time and more effort to cultivate personal taste will make these students into good writers. What makes people into writers is writing. What improves writing is reading. Nowadays we might ask whether Smith is simply seeing what happens when schools dumb down curricula, when they no longer teach the classics, when children are not exposed to great writers and great thinkers.

If you spend your time reading idiots, you are going to write like an idiot and to think like an idiot. Nothing about it should surprise anyone.

Aside from that, the problem is that these young people are not allowed to think outside of the dominant narrative. They are not allowed to share heretical ideas and are certainly not allowed to dispute the conventional wisdom.

He concludes, in a not-very-coherent paragraph. 

Young people whose self-understandings are organized by narratives about their heroic resistance against racism and sexism, and excellence in the face of adversity, are rewarded by the university—and will be rewarded by employers, media, and other sources of legitimation—for their deft combination of meritocratic and woke discourses. They will have no reason to notice that they are kicking down open doors—that, far from racism and sexism holding back their access to elite spaces, they are being invited in on the basis of their ability to perform triumph over oppression. Given this sort of legitimation, which combines the thrill of transgression with the self-righteousness of moralism, future elites who make sense of themselves and the world through a combination of meritocracy and wokeness likewise have little reason to ask the kinds of questions about what they really want and what is really good that are absent from my students’ relationship to writing.

Good luck.


Sam L. said...

Makes me glad that my college years are long, looooonnnnt ago.

Anonymous said...

Having worked for many years in the federal contracting industry, I can say with utmost confidence that most young people who graduate with post-BA degrees, Master's, cannot write.(Forget about those with mere BAs.) Most barely understand what they have to read on the job. A big problem when they are tasked to communicate relatively simple messages to government customers and management.

A favorite interview question I always asked: what was the last book that you read or reading now? In 100% of the cases, usually after a long pause, they said a Harry Potter or vampire romance novel. Never anything else. One I asked this question to graduated as a journalism major and won some writing award at their college. This person seemed to think of he/herself as a real hotshot, and they were the relatively brightest of interviewees for a very good entry level position we were looking to fill. Even he or she could do no better than a Potter novel.

Do you think I believe the US has a future? Take a guess.

Mark Matis said...

Merely the way of the filthy maggot tribe swill who yearn for the "good old days" of their Messiahs - Lenin and Stalin - who they helped murder FIFTY MILLION across Russia and Eastern Europe. But those surely do not count, since they were mostly only Goyim.

The tribe maggots run the education system in the West. And the Media as well!!!

Anonymous said...

I have 1 outdoor cat.

n.n said...

Woke and drowsy. That said, diversity of individuals, minority of one. #HateLovesAbortion