Every year brings a raft of articles on the stars of the NFL and other professional leagues run amok; Terrell Owens and his did-he-or-didn’t-he-suicide attempt is merely the latest and most high-profile. How much is college to blame for not preparing young men by infusing them with sufficient character to survive the high-pressure world of professional sports? Probably quite a bit, if the fictitious campus of Tom Wolfe’s Dupont University is anything like reality:
Charlotte’s experiences at the fictional Dupont University shed light on these questions, as the ambitious girl from backwater North Carolina is transformed by her sophisticated and salacious surroundings. Far from being the path to higher civilization and refinement of character, Dupont is a toxic impediment to the yearning for higher things, built on a dogmatic denial that higher civilization and refinement of character are even possible. Where, in a former age, the impressionable young student might have aspired to religious salvation or genuine wisdom, today’s typical college student lives more for entertainment, sensation, and release, all the while demanding and largely getting immediate gratification. The individual still seeks status and recognition. But the marks of distinction are all too often inebriation, “hooking up,” expertise at sarcasm (“sarc one,” “sarc two,” and “sarc three”), and insouciance toward matters intellectual and moral. As students learn about and fall into this new ethic, the university not only fails to stand in opposition, it accelerates the process. Dupont, that composite of Duke, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Michigan, corrupts the promising young Charlotte. For revealing this disturbing truth, the author has been reviled by those who are thereby revealed.More importantly, the teaching of Dupont University is precisely that the soul and the moral dimension of being are illusions. In the past, the university (at its best and in principle) sought to cultivate the human soul toward completion or excellence. The modern university, as Wolfe portrays it, denies that there are truthful distinctions between higher and lower; it teaches that the soul is not real, and that perfection of the soul is thus a thing of the past.
The setting of I Am Charlotte Simmons is truly “postmodern”—a world dominated by Nietzsche and neuroscience, a world which has jettisoned the moral imagination of the past. Not only is God dead, but so is reason, once understood as the characteristic that distinguishes man from the rest of nature. We now understand ourselves by studying the behavior of other animals, rather than understanding the behavior of other animals in light of human reason and human difference. We learn that it is embarrassing for any educated person to be considered religious or even moral. Darwin’s key insight that man is just another animal, now updated with the tools and discoveries of modern biology, has liberated us from two Kingdoms of Darkness. Post-faith and post-reason, we can now turn to neuroscience to understand the human condition, a path that leads to or simply ratifies the governing nihilism of the students, both the ambitious and apathetic alike.
* * *I Am Charlotte Simmons is an indictment of the primary centers of higher education in America today. These institutions do not well serve the real longings and earnest ambitions of the young people who flock to them, at great cost and with great expectations, year after year. Instead of pointing students to a world that is higher than where they came from, the university reinforces and expands the nihilism and political correctness that they are taught in public schools, imbibe from popular culture, and bring with them as routine common sense when they arrive on campus. Of course, these two ideologies are largely incompatible: nihilism celebrates strength (or apathy) without illusion; political correctness promulgates illusions in the name of sensitivity. But both ideologies are the result of collapsing and rejecting any distinction between higher and lower, between nobility and ignobility, between the higher learning and the flight from reason.
Read the rest. Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman has a column today about the problems of superstar athletes such as Owens, and bipolar former NFL players Barret Robbins, Dimitrius Underwood and Alonzo Spellman. While Zimmerman is clearly saddened by the self-inflicted tortures of these high-profile athletes, his prescription for preventing them in future players is as clinical as the white labcoat world that Wolfe depicted in his earlier “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” essay on neuroscience. He seems to think that if only the right medicine were available, troubled athletes would enjoy perfect living through chemistry. But it seems a safe bet that substantive preparation for the emotional rigors of their chosen professions from their alma maters would help as well.
Is it really any wonder that institutions that combine nihilism and narcissism produce athletes that exhibit the exact same traits when put under pressure?