Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.
“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting . . . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”
This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a “shuck,” as Mamet called it.
When I was an undergrad, I took a course in Science Fiction. From this I learned one thing quickly: never take a course in which you know the topic better than the instructor.
I also learned one thing very slowly — slowly enough that I took the course four times before I managed to pass it. (I may not be smart, but I’m stubborn.) That lesson is one the Mamet talks about: actual original thinking and argument are not always rewarded in The Academy. There was a particular story, Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, that was supposed to be demonstrating the unfeeling evil of masculine, corporate, military thought. I thought it was clearly showing something very different: that no matter how compassionate people might be, the laws of nature win out in the end.
In my fourth try, the professor and I finally agreed that I wouldn’t have to discuss “The Cold Equations”, and I finally passed the course.
Now, I should say that the professor and I actually got to be good friends; it wasn’t that she was an evil ideologue, it was that she literally could not see there was another interpretation.
Of course, this is mirrored many other places. Even here.
Every so often, it’s worth asking: do I really think this? Or have I been trained to push the lever and get my reward?