The Infantilizing of the Academy

In any event, the “decadence” my interviewer was referring to obviously began a long time ago—when exactly is another question. One thinks of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s theory of receding origins, the elusiveness or “eclipsing structure” of all beginnings. On the American historical scene, one could go back to the slave plantations and the Civil War, to the Salem witch trials, or to the bitter duels inherent in the very founding of the Republic between central-government Federalists and states-rights Republicans, a dispute that remains a political fracture to this day. Differing understandings of the Greek and Roman classics regarding the nature of enlightened rule and the proper relation between the governing and the governed were also a locus of contention. As Ron Chernow writes in Alexander Hamilton, commenting on the discrepancy between intention and result that has never been fully resolved, “Today we cherish the two-party system as a cornerstone of American democracy. The founders, however, viewed parties as monarchical vestiges that had no legitimate place in a true republic.” But why stop there? If one wishes, one can go back to the Mayflower and the Arbella and before. A prior “originary” point of decay can always be found.

To focus on the contemporary, certainly John Dewey’s left-oriented “progressivist” and “child-centered” education program, developed mainly in Democracy and Education, which took root in the 1920s, is a reasonable place to start our investigations. Briefly, Dewey believed the child should never be “forced” to learn but rather encouraged to follow his own natal interests—a theory earlier elaborated in the Romantic school of poetry, for example, William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode where we read that the youth “trailing clouds of glory” is “nature’s priest,” possessing an innate apprehension of the divine. Wordsworth’s exaltation of the child melded seamlessly with his revolutionary belief as a young man in the re-pristinizing of society. It comes as no surprise that the Movement’s enfant terrible, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who espoused similar sentiments, particularly in poems like Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound, earned the praise of Karl Marx. Shelley yearned for the day, as he wrote in Mab, when the “hands/which little children stretch in friendly sport” would become the emblem of a renewed social contract. Dewey’s oeuvre was clearly influenced by the rejuvenative assumptions of his nineteenth century Romantic precursors.

Unfortunately, a return to origins or the projection of initial states isn’t how the world works. It escaped Dewey’s proselytizing ardor that prior learning and hard study, guided by erudite masters, are necessary for a young person to discover what it is in the world that genuinely interests him and what his condign aptitudes really are. This is the only route to maturity, competence and achievement. “Nature’s priest” has no future unless he is a prince of learning. Failing to understand the need for pedagogical and curricular discipline, for a wide-ranging and classically imposed syllabus, and opting instead for catering benignity in both the formative and later stages of education is a surefire recipe for producing the moral narcissist who is his only truth. The casualties of this retrograde approach, in Peter Wood’s succinct articulation from his online essay The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, are “men and women capable of wise and responsible stewardship of a free society.”

Dewey’s ideas percolated slowly through American culture and took off in the incendiary '60s, with the free speech movement at Berkeley, the psychedelic dumbing down of the youth population, the takeover of the universities by student radicals, and the insidious inroads made by the destabilizing emigré Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse of “repressive tolerance” fame, who, in essence, popularized the Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács. The world had to be purified by the exploited masses and remade in the image of youthful innocence, a revisionary project that inspired the young, the callow and the doctrinaire. These notions captured the American seminary and poisoned the minds of generations of students. After that, the die was cast, and America was on the road to becoming a European failure.

“Are we not witnessing,” asks John Agresto in Academic Questions (Vol.29, No.2), “something that looks to be the…purposeful eradication of what it has historically meant to be educated?” The mission of the university is now the inculcation of intellectual conformity, a duplicitous “inclusiveness” that banishes dissenting voices, “social justice,” and discursive closure, coddling students into a condition of protracted puberty as the academy devolves into “separate programs of grievance and outrage.” In this way, students, stunted in their development, become the shock troops of the new world order as they have been taught to see it. And as we know, and as university policies have made glaringly public, children throw tantrums and don’t like to be contradicted.

What we see today, then, universities as centers of leftist indoctrination, the shutting down of intellectual debate (cf. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), a generation of “snowflake” students who are preoccupied with frivolities like trigger warnings, microaggresssons, transgender bathrooms, and “safe spaces” where they will never be exposed to an unfamiliar or conflicting idea, and the sniveling infantilization of the entire academic cohort—flows directly from Dewey and his followers. These pedagogical dissidents prepared the ground for the subversive agenda of the Frankfurters by engaging in an act of cerebral softening, that is, promoting the student over the teacher, the child over the man (or woman), and feeling over thought—hence the continuing prominence of the “self-esteem” movement that slashed-and-burned its way through the educational landscape.

One also recalls the baneful influence of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his immensely popular The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who argued against the “banking model” of education—students as vessels to be filled, like piggy banks with coins—and insisted that teachers have little to actually teach their students. Their job was to help them to understand their need for liberation from the engines of oppression—a more incendiary version of Dewey’s contestation. Adapting the theories of postcolonialist Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Freire’s Manichean paradigm saw traditional teachers as the colonizers, students as the colonized. The student proletariat was to rise up and seize the means of academic production and, ultimately, the machinery of culture and state.