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American education’s new dark age Colleges have abandoned real learning for wokeism

Students learn to skip and skim. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty


March 21, 2022   10 mins

Some years ago, I taught a course in public writing at the Claremont colleges, the consortium of elite liberal arts institutions in Southern California. My students were juniors or seniors, mostly humanities or social science majors, almost all smart, a couple genuinely brilliant. All, needless to say, were expensively educated and impressively credentialed. I assumed that they’d arrive with a fairly good idea of how to make an argument with an academic context and that I would be teaching them how to apply those skills to a very different set of rhetorical occasions.

What I soon discovered was that none of them had much idea how to make an argument in any context. Nor were they particularly skilled at analysing the arguments of others. They didn’t know how to read; they didn’t know how to write; and they didn’t know how to think.

What do I mean? The syllabus consisted, for the most part, of short exemplary texts: a column by David Brooks, a blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and so forth. But whenever I assigned them anything a little more complex or sophisticated, it flew over their heads. These were students who were used to the idea that reading meant skipping and skimming.

Their writing was not much better. Most were competent at a basic level, but none had had any real guidance or instruction. One week, we did an exercise designed to help them make their prose more vivid and energetic. I had them read a short piece of writing pedagogy, then handed out a sheet on which I’d reproduced a single sentence from each of their most recent pieces that needed that kind of attention.

We set to work on the first, dissecting, pruning, and rewriting. After about ten minutes, we had it in decent shape; it wasn’t graceful yet, but at least it was concise. And then I said, “Okay, it’s taken thirteen of the finest minds in Claremont ten minutes to rewrite that sentence. This is what you need to do with every sentence you write.” They looked at me with horror and amazement. It wasn’t just the scale of the task that was rising before them. It was also the fact that no one had bothered to tell them that before.

It was then I finally understood something that my students had told me the first day of class. I had asked them to introduce themselves and talk about their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Many had said some version of “I’m good at writing naturally” or “I’m good at writing conversationally,” “but I’m not good at revising” or “I’m not good at editing”. What they had been telling me, I realised that day in the middle of the semester, was that they thought of writing as something that just happens, that they had never been asked to pay attention to their sentences as conscious constructions.

As for their thinking, they had the same relationship to their arguments as they had to their prose. They just made them; they didn’t and really couldn’t think about them in a metacognitive way. They couldn’t recognise contradictions, anticipate objections, entertain alternative interpretations, make essential distinctions, or delineate the limits of their propositions. Remember, this wasn’t freshman composition. This was an advanced writing seminar at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

These problems weren’t confined to Claremont. Later that same year, in a piece about the differences between the way his students read Shakespeare and the way that students used to, Stephen Greenblatt wrote this:

“Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility… In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid.”

A little later Greenblatt writes, “When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden.”

Note how similar his observations are to mine. Note especially that sentence in the middle: “In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual.” As my students were at Claremont, Greenblatt’s at Harvard are able to write “naturally,” to write “conversationally”, but are at a loss when it comes to writing formally, or to reading complex texts in ways that are more than “shallow or tepid”, or to making arguments that are better than “wooden” (which sounds like a euphemism for “bad”). That they “write with ease” despite having a “shallow or tepid” engagement with their own language is part of the problem.

Greenblatt offers the familiar explanations for these generational differences: the rise of the internet, the emergence of social media, and so forth. But he neglects to address the fact that Harvard undergraduates are supposed to be among the exceptions. The students in his Shakespeare class undoubtedly boast a median verbal SAT score in the upper 700s (out of 800). The large majority probably received a perfect score of 5 on the AP (Advanced Placement) English exam. If any group of college students should be capable of deciphering complex texts, writing incisive expository prose, and constructing compelling analytic arguments, it is they. But apparently they’re not.

To understand how this predicament came to pass, one needs to understand how students manage to get into places like Harvard or the Claremont colleges in the first place. It is not by learning how to read, write, or think. It is by jumping through the endless series of hoops that elite college admissions offices have developed over the decades to winnow down their skyscraper stacks of application folders.

To win a place at such a school, students most receive top grades in a broad range of AP courses, show evidence of participation in a dozen or more extracurricular activities—sports, arts, student government, et al.—demonstrate “leadership”, engage in “service”, and gather experiences, often through purpose-built programs, to write about on their personal essays, statements designed to convince the admissions officer of the existence of an actual human being beneath the credentials. To do all this, they will work without cease for years on end, sleeping little and foregoing the freedoms of adolescence.

This is not a system that’s designed to foster intellectual engagement. Students learn to skip and skim, not just their assigned readings, but everything. Everything is done at maximum speed and with the least possible effort. Curiosity and passion must be actively suppressed. Students become experts, not so much in subjects as in working the system. There is simply no time to do anything else.

This is not to say that things are better below the level of the elite. For many years, public education in the United States has been dominated by high-stakes assessment regimes. Schools, accordingly, “teach to the test”, foregoing the development of holistic understanding in favour of the grinding repetition of isolated skills (a practice known as “drill and kill”). And since the tests cover math and reading only, many subjects have been stripped from the curriculum, along with any opportunity for students to follow the wayward path of their own interests. The system might almost have been devised for the express purpose of destroying the love of learning.

If that’s the kind of education students have received by the time they get to college, do things get better once they arrive? Not usually. Old habits die hard. Elite students, already competing for the next prize, continue to conduct their lives at the same frenetic pace. At the large mass of institutions below the level of the elite, the problem is less apt to be misdirected zeal than sheer indifference. Courses are a bother; campus culture runs to sports and beer.

Nor will students get much help from their professors. As I’ve travelled to colleges and universities around the country over the last 14 years, I’ve been stunned by the sheer laziness of so much undergraduate instruction. Professors on the tenure track have no incentive to care about their teaching, and a great deal of incentive not to. The adjuncts and other contingent instructors who make up the vast majority of the American faculty — underpaid, overworked, and sometimes teaching well outside their field — simply don’t have time to do a proper job.

The whole creaking machine is lubricated by the magic grease of grade inflation. As of the early Sixties, 15% of grades at American colleges and universities fell within the A range. By 2013, the proportion had reached 45%. To paraphrase the joke from the old Soviet Union, students pretend to work, and professors pretend to grade them.

It is within the context of these forms of collegiate stupidity that we can understand the one that is now the most salient: wokeism. Wokeism can be thought of as the opportunistic infection of a host with an already weakened intellectual immune system. Students haven’t learned to think, so they lack the means to spot its inconsistencies, its hypocrisies, its absurdities. They haven’t learned to read, so they uncritically absorb its empty language. They know little of history, so they accept whatever tendentious version wokeism hands them.

Wokeism also satisfies important psychic needs, of the kind that education ought to address but does not. It provides students with an interpretive framework with which to understand the world. For earlier generations of young adults, that function would have been performed by Marxism or Freudianism or feminism or liberal progressivism or American patriotism. All have long since been discredited except for feminism, which had itself been in abeyance and has now been absorbed by, and subordinated to, the new intersectional identitarianism.

Indeed, after decades of postmodernism, with its assault on the very idea of grand interpretive narratives, wokeism represents a return of the repressed — the repressed in this case being the ineluctable human hunger for meaning. For wokeism, like those earlier belief systems, offers a framework that is not only cognitive and historical, but also moral and existential. It tells you not only where you come in, but also who you are and how you are to orient yourself toward others and the world. In other words, it offers purpose and direction.

I am not suggesting colleges should play that role. They should play a better one: instead of telling students what to think and how to live, equipping them to work those questions through for themselves. But that’s a mission institutions long ago abandoned. It’s too hard; it requires professors to see themselves as mentors, with all the commitment of time and energy and feeling that entails; and it implies a level of self-confidence, a willingness to confront students with the idea that their education ought to be about something more than becoming as wealthy as possible, that colleges and universities no longer have.

In the absence left by that delinquency has flourished the careerism that has come to dominate the American collegiate experience. For many years now, students have told me how empty, how meaningless, their education feels. Which means that wokeism fills a void that’s ethical as well as intellectual. Under its ascendancy, campuses are once again alive with moral zeal.

In telling students what to think, wokeism also provides them with something to say. The value of this should not be underestimated, particularly in the age of social media. Having opinions — easily, instantly, on everything — is essential to the contemporary presentation of the self. The process of forming them is aided immensely if you already know where you’re supposed to stand on every subject, including ones you haven’t heard of yet.

Of course, college students have always been champion spouters. But there are some crucial differences today. The most important fact about the alternative intellectual frameworks I enumerated earlier — Marxism, Freudianism, and so forth — is that they existed not in series but simultaneously. They were ideologies, but they were competing ideologies. Indeed, they each represented a menagerie of mutually competing sub-ideologies: Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Marxist humanism; the schools of Jung and Reich as well as Freud; the rival strains of second-wave feminism.

Which meant that students couldn’t just believe: they had to debate, had to read the sources, had to know what they were talking about. Debate and contention were pretty much what it meant to be a college student, at least at the schools and in the circles that took themselves seriously. So while wokeism represents a reemergence, after many years of intellectual prostration (on campus as in public life), of ideas and ideology, it does so on very different terms. With wokeism, there is no debate. There are no competing ideologies or rival schools. There isn’t even much of any reading, from what I can tell. There is only assent.

Another thing is different now, as well. Professors are different. No longer do they see their role as challenging students’ unexamined convictions — of scraping the stupid off their brains, as the documentarian Rob Montz has put it. The old salutary adversarialism has been replaced by an insidious alignment of views. Students and professors now are social justice warriors together, marching in lockstep, wreathed in clouds of self-congratulation, for the one true cause.

But this is really no surprise. Wokeism, as a bundle of intellectual tendencies, began in the academy. Decades on — academics being great conformists — dissent has largely been bred out. Meanwhile, leftist professors (that is, most of them), ensconced in bureaucratic institutions and the upper middle-class, are desperate to hold onto their self-image as subversives, speaking truth to power (in their monographs), doing battle with the system (that pays their salaries).

Besides, as parents themselves, in most cases — parents in the modern mold — they are allergic to authority, uncomfortable with negativity, and eager to be seen as friends. The degree of student ass-kissing that I’ve observed among professors now is something to behold. The situation, in many respects, is reminiscent of the Sixties: an era of social upheaval, a feeling by the grown-ups that they’re being left behind, a compensatory worship of the young (“these kids are going to save the world”), all tending to stifle the impulse to question or challenge. If you can’t teach ‘em, join ‘em.

Finally, the schools are different, too. Having searched for decades for a rationale for their existence that is more respectable than training workers for the labour force, they’ve embraced the cause of wokeism as the new institutional mission. We have entered the era of the social-justice college. Schools now bill themselves as places to learn, not to understand the roots of contemporary society or contribute to the stock of human knowledge, but to “change the world.”

And everybody understands that the world means only in one direction. I was speaking with an old friend who works at Columbia. She asked me why we shouldn’t teach our students how to “instrumentalise” the things they learn from us. I said, fine, as long as you’re okay if a student instrumentalises what they learn from you to try to overturn Roe v. Wade. She looked at me in horror; the possibility had clearly never crossed her mind.

I spent some time a couple of years ago at the University of San Diego, a private institution. The campus was adorned with banners bearing slogans such as “Be — The — Change” and “Shape — a better — World”. One young man I met there, one of the few students who seemed intellectually alive, likened them to prayer flags. The faculty member who brought me to campus remarked that schools were in danger of turning themselves into madrassas. The New School university in New York, founded as the New School for Social Research in 1919 at the height of the Red Scare, as a bastion of free intellectual inquiry, now employs a Senior Vice President for Social Justice. From social research to social justice: that pretty much sums up the trajectory.

Is there any real learning still happening at American colleges and universities? Of course there is: in the interstices, the institutional cracks, where it can evade the surveillance of the diversity deanlets and the persecutions of the PC police. It survives behind the doors of the classrooms and in the quiet of the offices of the dwindling minority of true teachers who remember what it looks like and are committed, come what may, to keeping it alive. It persists inside the dorm rooms and the brains of the few recalcitrant students — the real campus subversives — who insist on being individuals, on thinking things through for themselves. May it live to see the end of this new dark age.

A longer version of this essay appeared in the Dutch-English journal Nexus. Permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged by the author.


William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and A Jane Austen Education. The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society will be out in August.

WDeresiewicz

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Excellent article Thank you for telling us so eloquently and with so many facts what we know already. This article should be shared widely.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
2 years ago

A deeply disturbing article. One wonders how far British academia is down this Orwellian rabbit hole?

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Proverbs 4:7 says it best, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; Yet, with thy getting get understanding.”

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago

Thanks for a great essay. What the author does not mention is the mind bending amounts of money involved in American universities, assisted by generous tax breaks. The big boys might have endowments of 40 billion dollars to supplement the fees of 250,000+ bucks for a four year degree. Even less prestigious outfits like Notre Dame in Indiana have eleven billion in endowments, as well as 250,000 fees. I gather that ND had ideas above its station, like getting an academic and research reputation on a par with Harvard.

I have elsewhere noted my visit to ND in 1999. The first thing you see on entering the campus is not the library or lecture halls. It is the football stadium.

At one time, students could work their way through such second division colleges, paying the modest fees as they went. Now, even with scholarships, you are looking at massive student debts, which promise to provide another future financial crisis by themselves as ex-students default on a large scale.

No wonder students expect and get an insane percentage of top grades. The customer is always right. Especially when he needs a good looking result to get a good job to pay off his debt.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Murphy
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

The economics is a huge part of the problem, imho. I thought it was bleakly funny (and revealing) how the author is so good on the tragedy of the university selection system squeezing bright young minds into a hypercompetitive rat race, but completely ditched that when looking for an explanation for wokeness.
“[Students] will work without cease for years on end, sleeping little and foregoing the freedoms of adolescence.This is not a system that’s designed to foster intellectual engagement. Students learn to skip and skim, not just their assigned readings, but everything. Everything is done at maximum speed and with the least possible effort. Curiosity and passion must be actively suppressed. Students become experts, not so much in subjects as in working the system. There is simply no time to do anything else.”already competing for the next prize, continue to conduct their lives at the same frenetic pace.” Sounds terrifying. And yet the explanation of wokeness is just “the opportunistic infection of a host with an already weakened intellectual immune system”? The people who’ve been hothoused their entire lives, optimised solely for sniffing out and exploiting the tiniest competitive advantage over their peers, suddenly adopt wokeness en masse at university because they’re insufficiently intellectually robust? It’s rather flattering account to the self-conception of someone who lives the life of the mind – “the poor untutored novitiates, falling for all these bad ideas because they haven’t really had to think about anything up to now like I do” – but aside from that conflict of interest it totally fails to explain why all the students go woke, rather than randomly adopting whichever of the smorgasbord of bad ideas that are out there happens to strike them first.
Does anyone seriously think that the average elite student claws their way into a top university, forgets everything they’ve known up to that point and suddenly becomes interested in ideas for their own sake? Look at the careers page of a major bank, law firm, management consultancy or tech giant and tell me wokeness isn’t just the next arena for what these people are experts at – ruthlessly weeding out the competition.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Tom Watson says that Deresiewicz’s article “totally fails to explain why all the students go woke, rather than randomly adopting whichever of the smorgasbord of bad ideas that are out there happens to strike them first.” Good question! Deresiewicz’s explanation is “for earlier generations of young adults, that function would have been performed by Marxism or Freudianism or feminism or liberal progressivism or American patriotism.” Is it (as he suggests) that wokeism is simply now the only leading candidate offering to provide comprehensive existential coherence (in default of Marxism, Freudianism — for that matter actual religion too — etc.)? Maybe not “ALL the students go woke”? How do we know that some people do not also select from a smorgasbord of less well-publicized options — or even just drift along with something like an inarticulated “justice is the interest of the stronger”?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Very perceptive analysis.
And more scary, because what it also implies that those slimeballs adopting wokeism as a career advancement tool, are precisely the same ones who slide their way to the upper layers of management and control the culture and policies of organisations.

Kathryn Allegro
Kathryn Allegro
2 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

Louisiana State University has an even bigger stadium than Norte Dame’s; it seats more spectators than Wembley does. At LSU the library is closed on Saturdays – who wants to study when there’s a football game to go to? Having successful football and basketball teams keeps the alumni happy, and donating.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

A friend once described Harvard to me as ‘a giant investment fund that also runs a small college.’

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Gunner Myrtle

My daughter attended Harvard. One year, she stayed and took summer courses where she met a just-graduated Harvard senior – a theology major. Said senior insisted she has never met a Jew before, that being my daughter. A theology student at Harvard who had never met a Jew? She asked my daughter all sorts of questions about Judaism – very basic questions that one would have thought a Harvard, senior theology major would have known. Funny that.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Richard Powell
Richard Powell
2 years ago

“They didn’t know how to read; they didn’t know how to write; and they didn’t know how to think.” In what sense, then, can these students be described as “almost all smart, a couple genuinely brilliant”?

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Powell

I thought the same.
Then I read this: “The degree of student ass-kissing that I’ve observed among professors now is something to behold.”
Know thyself.
Good article though

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Powell

I guess, author means that education they received made them deficient in this areas.
However, based on his experience of teaching other students, he feels that their potential is higher.

Richard Powell
Richard Powell
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Yes, that’s presumably what he means. I have one friend who almost completely lacks formal education but whose intelligence shines through nonetheless. But at a university one would expect brilliant people to have worked out how to read, write and think even if their classroom education was deficient.

Graham Willis
Graham Willis
2 years ago

Meanwhile the Engineers, Physicists and Mathematicians quietly get on with building the modern world.

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

Yes, but this article is about what they learned in college. Don’t confuse “because of” with “in spite of”.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

Perhaps, but it also might be a world that is utterly not worth “living” in. But it depends, I guess, on what one defines as “living”!

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

While Plumbers, leckies, brickies and mechanics keep it going.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

I am an avid reader. I read and read and read… I was the youngest person ever to join the adult library in my town. Reading is my life.

But I am old and very boring. Why do people need to read today? On this site I often recommend books to others. But most people recommend YouTube to me. Surely, reading is now too slow for accumulation of information?

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The problem is that you don’t just need to accumulate information. You need to understand it, as well. Video is better than reading when what you want to teach is a technique that is easier shown than described. If you want to learn how to make an omelette that doesn’t stick to the pan and comes out in one, perfect, browned piece, head to youtube. ‘when it looks like this, do that!’. However, if you want to learn the chemistry of why eggs coagulate, reading works better. A lecturer will breezily say one sentence about the thing you do not understand, and then move on to the next bit. If you happen to be attending an in person class, and are very good at noticing when you aren’t understanding something you can maybe interrupt, and get a fuller explanation. This doesn’t work for youtube at all.
The potentially dangerous thing here is that after listening to a video you can feel as if you have learned the topic well. It’s only when you need to apply the thing you thought you understood that you discover that you didn’t understand it after all.
Reading is not perfect, but by requiring your active participation it means that at some point, while you are reading something, you get the ‘and I have no clue what that means’ sensation. Maybe reading further in the written explanation is all that is required for understanding — after you have finished the thing, it will all make sense. Maybe it won’t — you will have to do some supplementary reading before you can understand it, but you will have some idea as to what that reading ought to be about. And maybe nothing on this earth will ever make it possible for this to be understood, because it is nonsense, or completely illogical, or simply wrong.
It’s easier to fool people by talking to them than by sending them letters. Mail fraud happens, but the most successful charlatans rely on ‘the gift of the gab’.
I think this is part of the problem plaguing the youth. It’s not that they don’t understand things, but that they don’t understand that they don’t understand.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
2 years ago

I agree, horses for courses.
I’m a software engineer and I actually get frustrated by how much tutorial/explanatory type content is in video form where text is far better in my opinion. Finding, and referring, to specific information in text is far easier than in video (particularly when contending with buffering issues on streaming services).
On the other hand, anything particularly visual and tangible benefits a lot from video. I enjoy painting, and video tutorials are vastly preferred over books in this regard. Not that books do not retain some place still.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Very true indeed. The most frustrating person to deal with is someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

John McKee
John McKee
2 years ago

Oh so true!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

“Reading is my life”
Mine was always more Basingstoke.

John Potts
John Potts
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Slough?

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
2 years ago
Reply to  John Potts

I’m looking forward to the next instalment of the Slough House tales of the misfit bumbling spooks.
Now, that is a non sequitur I admit, but any fan of Mick Herron’s idiosyncratic writings will get the point.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Good one. As I’m between both I suppose they both are for me, although I not sure that there is life in Basingstoke any more.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I did most of my growing up – such as it was – in a village near Kingsclere, and as a youth pulled pints in the Feathers Inn in B’stoke.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I know Kingsclere well, I used to have dear friends who lived there.They used to have a really nice Italian restaurant, sadly no more.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Harwich for the continent . . .

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Keep recommending books. I have obtained several good recommendations from the Unherd comments section including “Excellent Sheep” by the current author. I am a cheapskate, though, and only read a recommendation if I can find it in my public library. Youtube is also great. There’s a lot of high quality content on youtube if you dig around.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Youtube is also great you say.
But at what depth?
I looked at some videos “explaining” Ukraine situation in context of Russian history.
But even those at 60min plus length barely touch the subject.
What is the equivalent of 60 min video in print?
15 pages?
I am not a speed reader but I can definitely do better than that.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

People (esp teachers and academics) have been peddling a myth: that reading a lot, or ‘reading for pleasure’ is a ‘good thing’. It (usually) isn’t.
If you want to learn anything you have to go through the process of creating long-term memories which means applying the knowledge – and repeating the process over an extended period.
If you just read the next thing, you will end up knowing almost nothing.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

But it is always the problem.
Do you go for depth or width?
What is the purpose of your reading?
General knowledge or career in certain subject?
If your goal is to be CTO, your reading will be wider but at less depth than if you want to become best computer programmer.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

This gets at the heart of the problem. It shouldn’t be about being the best, it should be about making a meaningful contribution. How can I move my field forward while doing something rewarding? Where can I add value? I found the author’s contention that students who have spent their early academic careers in empty competition are seduced by the sense of meaningfulness offered by wokeism compelling.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You might be right, to a degree.
I spent years in IT and while Google and YouTube are great in getting some superficial knowledge of the subject, you need to read to get any depth.
I hope that humanities require more reading?

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

There are numerous examples of long essays, many on the Web, which develop a well thought out argument over thousands of words. The Anglican theologian Alastair Roberts provides some great examples of knotty moral problems which cannot be properly considered in a few hundred words. His 6,000 word essays require serious attention, but most lay people could understand them.

And it would be far more difficult to follow the full development of his thinking if you listened to him reading the same text. It would be far more awkward to backtrack from para 11 to para 3 to see if he was being consistent.

There is plenty of room for YouTube as well. The 2,000+ Gresham College lectures are worth exploring. Professor Alex Ryrie of Durham University reminds you how interesting a good teacher can make any topic. For a combination of serious history with wickedly funny human follies, I suggest his talk on the religious and political chaos of England from 1640 to 1660 – “The republic of King Jesus”. Religious nuttery was seldom so entertaining. Though, as Prof Ryrie points out, all religions make totalising demands and the nutters are usually the really consistent followers.

Alan Groff
Alan Groff
2 years ago

The madrassas metaphor is interesting in light of the information revolution that enables all of us to learn anything and find contradicting arguments for everything. The university is the new church, the kids will rebel, and knowledge will emerge in new forms from surprising places. If it does not, the conflict between civilizations will bring change from outside our borders.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Groff
R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

A superb essay.

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago

I teach clinical reasoning to medical students. This captures my experience exactly. Pass the multiple choice question exam, check the box “completed”, move on.

Jim Davis
Jim Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

Even the American Medical Association is now pushing “woke.” https://www.ocregister.com/2022/02/23/the-woke-hypocrites-at-the-american-medical-association/

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

I have been sitting on two repeat unpublished studies for 8 years that looked at critical thinking skills in medics versus monkeys with a pencil. The monkeys were statistically superior in both studies. Obviously, we buried it and most medics do with their mistakes.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

I am getting older and I am now even more worried.
So “Planet of the Apes” movie was based on your research?

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

I am getting old and you got me worried.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

What did well-off and educated young Americans do when vacationing in Europe in the 1980s and 90s? They were having the time of their lives, I imagine, unbothered by the ridiculously tiny tyrannical screens, as these devices had not yet arrived (look at episodes of the Friends tv series for the protagonists’ utter lack of interest in technology). They probably had stronger neck muscles as they held their chins up to gaze out at the fields of sunflowers passing by their train window, while chatting away to their friends. They could well have had a good old travel guide in their backpack, postcards to write, and a copy of Don Quixote near to hand. In those days, the phenomenon of “endless summer days” was still the feeling of many, many people, watching the sun dip as they wondered what to eat or do after dark.
Before technology clouded the senses, the world held a sense of wonder. Not anymore. The idea of “endless summer days” has been rendered obsolete by technology. People used to be gladly bored. Now they are unbothered by being constantly distracted. Passivity and egoism are the fruits of all this technology obsession.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

Great comment.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

There is much more to your thoughts than just the travel aspect. Exposure to a variety of people, customs and cultures places your ego in context of a broader humanity. I’m not sure the students today seek that knowledge. As I observe those who imagine America as a very flawed nation in the larger context America has a unique culture that is not shared everywhere. Not to suggest one culture over another, they simply are cultures and adaptations to society. But not understanding the opportunities and limitations of various ways of societies is quite limiting. Travel build empathy for a broader view of our shared humanity.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
2 years ago

This article is very good if not entirely groundbreaking; but it fails to highlight a key problem resulting from decades of test-teaching, ass-kissing and now wokism, which is that the teachers themselves are almost as ill-equipped as their students. Education departments in American higher education have lowered their standards and accommodated their programs to wokery since at least the 90’s. This of course applies to all levels of our educational system. Prior to my son’s graduation last year from high school, we’d amuse ourselves while reading his English teacher’s messages to parents, counting-out the many grammatical errors. “Mrs. Jones and myself will assist students with this project.”

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago

Alas this is not so new. My great-aunt used to tell about a man-on-the-street interview by Eye’mWitlessNews in a major American metro area in the 1960’s; the interviewee declared, “I teaches English.” Or just read Abraham Flexner, Universities: American, English, German (1930) on the characteristically low quality of American colleges of education all along. There has never been much to lower, certainly not by the time the 1990’s rolled in.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant
2 years ago

What saves America from the ineffectiveness of its universities is that only a tiny fraction of the population are required to direct the action of the government and large corporations. These people arrive at their positions through personal effectiveness that isn’t helped or hindered much by their schooling.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Grant

You might be right, but currently I feel personal connections and conformist thinking play more of a vital role than personal effectiveness in getting into leadership positions.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Grant

Au contraire: although what Ivar Berg wrote over half a century ago in Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery (viz., most people are over-credentialed for the work they actually do — think also more recently, David Graeber, in Bullshit Jobs) remains true, so many more corporate and governmental employees are (“college-educated” is not quite right) college-credentialed that the rot is not confined to corner offices or boardrooms (if one imagines that power always coincides with authority), but extends all the way down through mid-levels, HR etc. Besides — as I suggested in another post — the educational system does not rot from the head; the rot starts in K-12 and just proliferates later on in higher ed. (There is a multiplier effect in that K-12 gets, and always has gotten, much steam from what passes for schools of education in American universities.) By the way, this general effect of mass university education on ordinary workplace life — and the multiplier effect of American schools of education — might still be true even if Jonathan Cole is also right about the real strengths of The Great American Research University.

Helen E
Helen E
2 years ago

Exactly. The author uses the phrase “high-stakes assessment regimes” to refer to the hoops students must jump through to reach matriculation at an elite school.
But the whole enterprise is high-stakes. Thanks to the increasing precarity of the economy, and the middle- and upper-middle classes’ position in it, students can never exit the achievement game—be that in GPA or woke points.
These students will have to replicate their own parents’ financial investments, under ever more exacting circumstances, if they wish to build families of their own. It will take two highly respectable incomes for housing, health care, savings, paying off their own student loans, etc etc.
There’s just no room for mistakes or dissent, let alone exploration.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

Many thanks for this essay. Quite a number of quotable passages are tucked into it.
There are a lot of interweaving, dynamic processes at work, surely. Some folks wonder about “indoctrination”. Does indoctrination really work? Can people really be trained to believe certain things or to think in certain ways, or might “self-selection” be a more prominent phenomenon — that is, do people think in certain ways or believe certain things, because they’re disposed to think in certain ways and believe certain things? Or, maybe, there can be a soft indoctrination at work: denying voice to certain, challenging ideas makes it less likely for active minds to be activated…
This is the second heavy (and very nicely crafted) piece about the homogenization of education I’ve read today. Let me recommend this one: https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/the-takeover-of-americas-legal-system
It’s time to go to the gym and get some relief …

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago

Well, indoctrination really worked under communism.
Question is what does “work” mean in this context?
Clearly, most people had two personas, one public and one private.
In late communism stage, at least in my country, even fairly senior officials were joking about the ideology in private.
The way West is going, it is becoming not much different.
You will not go to Gulag when you express “wrong” opinion but you will lose your job or your career prospects will be limited.
I never thought, I would write this about West, but here we go…

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
2 years ago

Real learning is doubtless still going on at universities here and there— or perhaps it’s better to say “here and there at universities,” but for how much longer?  Wokeism suppresses dissent and, probably, curiosity, but it is also expensive.  The university where I work has hired quite a number of diversity administrators lately and, apparently, special faculty who have been charged with enforcement of the narrative quite apart from whatever it is that they are to teach.  This is costly, certainly, and is yet one more layer of administration laid upon the layer that was there.  In real terms— that is, in constant dollars— the tuition at the university where I teach is now four times higher than it was in the 1970s.  I believe we have more administrators now than instructors.  A silver lining to all of this administration may be the pricing of universities beyond the reach of most, and, one hopes, with happy consequences.  
Because of the university’s measures in view of Covid, I see a sharp drop in class attendance (We are required to hold classes in person and on Zoom simultaneously.  Recordings of the classes are made available for students to watch at their convenience if they don’t attend at the time.  I suspect strongly that few of the students watch these recordings.)  The combination of recorded lectures with no pressure to attend classes, wokeism and stunning tuition may force some sort of salutary change on universities, if only by reducing the number of those willing to pay so much for so little. 

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

I remember writing assay about remote learning in mid 90s during my masters degree.
Technology was still limited those days, but it was obvious that university education is will eventually go the way of football.
Some star lecturers will have star incomes but average one’s will become poorer or unemployed.
Covid brought this clearly into focus.
Why would you pay the same for web based lectures as for face to face ones?
Why would you attend some useless university when online learning is, mostly, better if provided by great teachers?
It has already happened in many areas of IT education.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

There is a wonderful writing program used extensively in the homeschool world called Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). It teaches writing the way this professor wishes his students had been taught, in stages, with outlining, specific phrase openers, banned adjectives, etc… It’s based on how Thomas Jefferson says he learned to write in his brother’s printshop, by reading the best material he could, outlining it, then trying to rewrite it better a few days later.
We’ve used it with all our kids. I highly recommend it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago

I sense remarkable truth in the following from the article:
“Indeed, after decades of postmodernism, with its assault on the very idea of grand interpretive narratives, wokeism represents a return of the repressed — the repressed in this case being the ineluctable human hunger for meaning. For wokeism, like those earlier belief systems, offers a framework that is not only cognitive and historical, but also moral and existential. It tells you not only where you come in, but also who you are and how you are to orient yourself toward others and the world. In other words, it offers purpose and direction.”
It is very much like a religion.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
2 years ago

Yes. And we’re already living its effects in the one narrative.

Last edited 2 years ago by Hendrik Mentz
Peter Beard
Peter Beard
2 years ago

Thanks for this. An informative and thought-provoking article.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

What has happened to debating societies? It was an excellent forum for making students think and explore different ideas and ideologies, especially when they could not choose the side on which they wanted to stand. Making a case against ones set views (and students are inclined to have set views acquired through upbringing and parents’ ideology) widens their societal knowledge and understanding of other people’s viewpoints, enriching life.
.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

I guess, you know the answer?
How can you debate when only one “approved” ideology is allowed?
It is like communism but now called CRT, multi-culti, GBLT+ alphabet soup, etc.
If you express “right wing” views your social life and career prospects are limited.
That why you have so many “hidden” Conservatives in uk.
I know many people who voted Brexit but hide their real views in order not to lose, so called, friends…

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Probably not much of a loss.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Speaking as a Brexit-voting Tory with zero tolerance for woke, very open about my views, and living in Bristol where everyone is basically communist, I definitely notice the cold shoulder.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

Some remarkable similarities here with Robert Pirsig’s discussion of ‘Quality’ in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’.
He describes similar exercises with his students…..
I found something similar when I was teaching ‘Critical Thinking’ to the top students (~2010) in the 6th form – almost none could construct an argument.

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Ah, Zen, And the Art …..What a great book! After almost fifty years since my first reading of it (while OE in hot summer France) I still recall my thrill at the intellectual stimulation. And the same physical book, a bit dog-eared to be sure, is still sitting on my library shelves, next to his sequel, Lila (which moved me less I admit.)

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago

Maybe a fish rots from the head; but a school system may rot from the bottom. I would connect Deresiewicz’s remarks about Claremont students who lacked any sense that writing must be metacognitive, with his observation about a parenting style (and by extension, K-12 acting in loco parentis) “allergic to authority, uncomfortable with negativity, and eager to be seen as friends.” You’re perfect, buddy, just as you are! “Murder your darlings” is essential advice for any writer but it is unlikely to be learned in a bisounours educational culture in which negativity is violence to self-esteem.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Excellent.. It is interesting how America and Britain are most blighted by woke, whereas the old communist eastern block countries actually educated their populus to the extent that by 1989 they saw that communism did not work…. and down came the Berlin Wall and the USSR! Britain and the US are actually doing the diametric opposite!

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago

Well, we knew that communism didn’t work well before 1989.
We were prevented though from doing something about it by Soviet Union.
Watching Ukraine situation should be very educational.
Although many on this forum will never (want to) learn.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew F
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I’m not convinced that this is a recent phenomenon. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire an ear for language and be able to write well; and reading as a leisure activity has been in decline for many years.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Nash
Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

‘To paraphrase the joke from the old Soviet Union, students pretend to work, and professors pretend to grade them.’
More like ”professors pretend to teach and students pretend to learn’.
Decades ago I taught at a university. These were my two main conclusions:

  1. Students invested much effort in working out how to achieve grades without disturbing their intellects (i.e. learning anything). But they eventually realised that:
  2. Lecturers tacitly assured students they would get degrees if they turned up for all exams and submitted all their written assignments. That minimised the effort lecturers needed to invest in teaching and marking, and freed them up for career-enhancing activities like research and publishing (not teaching).

I assume all this is still true but now even worse.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael James
Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

Quite a sad commentary and I wonder what’s to come of it societally.

Ben M
Ben M
2 years ago

Mao’s Red Guard seemed like something that could never happen here, the young gleefully destroying institutions with a religious zealotry. Well that’s now the Anglosphere, even if it took 50 more years to appear.

Ben M
Ben M
2 years ago

Mao’s Red Guard seemed like something that could never happen here, the young gleefully destroying institutions with a religious zealotry. Well that’s now the Anglosphere, even if it took 50 more years to appear.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

STOP donating to universities and colleges until they come out against the ‘woke’ rot that is destroying the academy.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

STOP donating to universities and colleges until they come out against the ‘woke’ rot that is destroying the academy.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

Euan Ballantyne
Euan Ballantyne
2 years ago

Excellent

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

A very interesting article.
The difference between being clever and being intelligent seems largely unrecognised and undervalued today.

J S
J S
2 years ago

Brilliant. Thank you.

Laura Kamienski
Laura Kamienski
1 year ago

I wish I could add something other than – Brilliant! But I can’t, other than thank you.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Show evidence of participation in a dozen or more extracurricular activities?
A dozen? As many as twelve? A Bu-bu-bu baker’s dozen, like? Crikey.

Yet “curiosity and passion must be actively suppressed.” This is what is ingrained in the hopeful youth.

So they, the fancy admissions offices, just want the student to show ‘em evidence of participation.

“Just show us what you can show us. Nothin’ fancy. We haven’t got all day.”

Could that be quickly concocted by the student? Could attending film club once a month be counted? Once a year? After all, one may not, indeed must not, be passionate about one’s activities. One’s passion must not only be suppressed but actively suppressed. Yes, actually actively suppressed. (Which is the woke way of saying “actually suppressed”, “”actively suppressed” is. Anything to get the idea of “activist” into the young student’s head, I imagine).
Surely the admissions people approve! Of such zeal for old movies! (“Do you watch any black-and-white ones?” “Oh yes. A few, every now and then. As time goes by. Casablanca!”).
How many extracurricular activities do THEY, the fancy admissions folk, ooops, people, do? Does, “I like to cook” do?

“And, finally, Scott, your twelfth extracurricular activity? I hope it’s still yet CV-worthy.”
“Ah. I like to cook. I cawk-up my cooking quite a lot, though. I’m a passionate guy. Just kidding. But I am infected by so much zeal for it. Is what I mean. Eventually it might pay dividends. Who knows? I might open a restaurant in five years’ time! Am I jumping the gun? Getting ahead of myself?”

Must be “actively suppressed.” The curiosity and passion. That brutal piece of streetwise, campuswise advice almost sounds like Stalag Luft whatever and The Great Escape or Colditz or Stalag Luft Kampus. I imagine a new student being received by a wise older companion, on arrival on campus, who is told, earnestly, with rapidity, à la British officer, “You must stifle any urge to be curious. And don’t be passionate about anything. Except about being what is expected of you here. Got that?” “Um, yes sir. Yes.”

That’s what “actively” means in “actively suppressed”: it means being an activist in terms of your routines, for your daily duties, and for conformism. It is more command than instruction. It is more an order than a request. Your peers are the ones watching your daily duties rather than the faculty members, I imagine. Your peers are the eyes for the faculty and vice versa, possibly. Got that? Careful now! What sort of person you are will be determined how well you blend into the hive, the hive of very active activities.

Imagine now a little older inmate proffering the mantra of controlling the passions and all that to a newcomer dorm buddy – but tweaked a tiny bit:

“I say, curiosity and passion must be actually suppressed.”
“Actually suppressed? Suppressed where?”
“Well, my dear chap, here, at your most precious choice of institution, what!”
“Well, 
 that is par for the course. I knew that.”
“You did? Well, I’m astonished. Peabody’s the name, by the way. Charlton Peabody. An English blow-in. My mother’s American-born. It has only just occurred to me, the moment you arrived, that after all this time, after all this time, silly me, I had not realised how incurious and button-lipped every bright little soul around this place is. And that’s what I meant. You’re brand new here. Straight from school and short pants, what! But 
 I’ll walk you around. Everybody is, well, is like a carbon copy of each other. And as mundane as a stick of carbon. And I had never really picked up on that. Just not your standard bunch of Americans I would have thought. How curious! Look here, curiosity and passion are extinct here. They 
 are actually extinct. Actually. Did you hear that?”

The two go outside to the square.
On seeing a toppled statue, its head decapitated, Peabody breaks down, collapses to his knees, crying out, his fist beating the ground.

“They’ve gone and actually done it! They’ve gone and actually done it! Nooo!”

“Um, Charlton. I trust you mean, They’ve gone and actively done it. It’s beautiful. I’m actively impressed.”

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I don’t understand the downvotes. That was highly amusing.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Well, thank you Dear Drahcir. Not just amusing but 
 highly amusing. I’m chuffed all over again.

Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago

They’ll always be in a minority and will never get into power so why worry?

Last edited 2 years ago by Milos Bingles
Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

Wouldn’t be too sure about that!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

They’re already in power; at least in the institutions that wield financial, cultural, business and technological power.