Free thinking is a community service


With many US universities, in recent years, having become full-time academic factories, manufacturing petulant protests and PC meltdowns, is there someone out there who seriously thinks that students today are not focused enough on social justice? The answer, apparently, is a resounding “yes” – and it comes from the core of the educational establishment.

Last autumn, I received word through the usual alumni channels that my alma mater, Yale University, was going to be revising its undergraduate application and admissions standards. On the face of it, the revisions appeared innocuous, swapping an open-ended essay question for a more targeted series of prompts, with the student having to respond to two out of three. The first prompt read: “What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left.”

As the Yale Daily News explained, the new standards were a reflection of the priorities of Jonathan Holloway, the soon-to-be-departing Yale dean and African American studies professor, who has “challenged students to accept all the responsibilities of being a Yale citizen – from making substantive contributions to the community to embracing the challenges and differences of their new classmates…[and] made civic engagement a central part of his vision for Yale College”.

But the new admissions standards were not just the hobby horse of a single activist dean. They also “reflect input from Yale’s Faculty Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid”, the newspaper continued. Furthermore, back in January 2016, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report with recommendations endorsed by a who’s who of deans, admissions officers and education experts representing all eight Ivies, as well as a host of other prestigious universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and even a few of the nation’s top high schools.

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasise personal success rather than investment in others or our collective future,” begins the report – which has the vaguely Orwellian title of Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. “The messages that colleges do send about concern for others are commonly drowned out by the power and frequency of messages from parents and the larger culture emphasising individual achievement.” So the report “describes how college admissions can motivate high school students to contribute to others and their communities in more authentic and meaningful ways that promote in them genuine investment in the collective good and deeper understanding of and respect for others, especially those different from them in background and character. Second, it demonstrates how the admissions process can more accurately and meaningfully assess young people’s contributions to others and their communities, especially students who vary widely by race, culture and class.”

A “healthy and fair” admissions process, the report says, “needs simultaneously to reward those who demonstrate true citizenship, deflate undue academic performance pressure and redefine achievement in ways that create greater equity and access for economically diverse students”. To this end, it makes a number of concrete recommendations. These include that “students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement…that deepens their appreciation of diversity”, which can even take “the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income”. But “admissions offices should warn students and parents that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can jeopardise desired admission outcomes”.

The report and its recommendations are, unfortunately, an irremediable muddle of the largely praiseworthy and the deeply misguided, mashing together an attempt to address at least four distinguishable issues.

The first of these is instrumentalism: the concern, memorably articulated in disaffected English professor William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, about bottom-line-oriented students checking too many boxes just to get into top universities. Such students major all too often in the same success-oriented subjects (economics), and then funnel themselves into the same soulless careers in finance or consulting while never developing any actual intellectual passions or appreciation of the finer things in life (as in fine art, rather than fine wine) of the sort that universities should, in theory, be perfectly positioned to inculcate.

The second concern is that students are overly focused on themselves and insufficiently focused on making a difference to others. The third is over the “gameability” of the admissions process, enabling the wealthy to buy their children’s entry into prestigious universities through test prep, coaching and participation in expensive or time-consuming extracurricular activities. And the fourth is prestigious universities’ failure to exhibit a sufficient panoply of ethnic, racial, sexual, religious or other identity subgroups.

It is critical to note that neither the first two of these concerns (instrumentalism and selfishness) nor the last two (economic inequality and diversity) are the same. And before going any further, I will make my own views clear: the concerns about instrumentalism and inequality are completely legitimate, while the concerns about selfishness and superficial diversity are not.

Because the issue has already been the subject of much public discussion, I will not linger on the many reasons why economic inequality is a significant concern while superficial diversity should not be. Suffice it to say that a just society should strive for equality of opportunity, no matter where on the economic ladder one started out. On the other hand, a just society should not be in the business of discriminating among skin pigments; imposing racial, gender or religious quotas; scrutinising students’ sexual preferences or otherwise categorising and polarising people.

Let me focus instead on what I think is the more interesting issue: the distinction between instrumentalism and selfishness. Most of us can agree, I would hope, that we want students to take more than a pecuniary interest in their chosen subjects of study. We want them to mature into the kinds of adults who have sincere interests and abiding passions, rather than mundane hobbies and financial portfolios. Interested, passionate people make for an interesting and enriching society that fosters creativity and great aesthetic, intellectual and technological achievements.

The Harvard report’s recommendations on weeding out those who are just in it for grades and greed are a promising start. However, I have mixed feelings about its discouraging tone when it comes to the issue of academic achievement: we already live in a world chock-full of idlers, slackers and wilful ignoramuses. Where the report goes utterly off the rails, though, is in its conflation of instrumentalism and selfishness and its unnecessary picking of a battle with the latter. Why is success contrasted with concern for others? The proper contrast is surely between the mere instrumental focus on education as a means to an end (such as financial success) and education as an end in itself. We can then distinguish a second issue: the contrast between students whose goals are self-focused and those whose focus is on a larger community beyond themselves.

Books in lecture theatre

The problem with juxtaposing selfishness/self-focus and concern for others is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on cultivation of the self; more than that, such focus is an absolute virtue. One of my favourite people, a man named Jack Angstreich, lives an existence that the signatories to the Harvard report would likely perceive as thoroughly selfish. He does not work, spends as little as he can, produces nothing and devotes his time to going to films, lectures, plays and ballets, reading and engaging online in often passionate philosophical debates on facets of Marxism and concomitant critiques of capitalism, or on more abstruse questions in analytic philosophy. He is single, has no dependants and no other family life to speak of. Taking to heart Marcus Aurelius’ admonition to “retire into thyself”, he lives for himself alone. And yet I am sure that I am far from alone in feeling that I have benefited far more from the knowledge and passion that he has shared in discussions with me than I have from the actions of any of the typical community-minded do-gooders in our midst.

Judged by the revised admissions standards that the Harvard report would foist upon us, I am also quite sure that his application to university would be disfavoured. Yet, in my view, he is exactly the kind of person universities need – now more than ever. He is someone who engages with the life of the mind and of the soul, with no regard for practical value, financial gain or personal advancement. And by living the life of contemplation famously favoured over the life of action by no less an authority than Aristotle, he broadens our range of ideas, our intellectual horizons. Merely by cultivating himself and his interests, he is growing a garden from which many can be nourished.

The very notion of community service can be subjected to criticism both from the Right (think Ayn Rand) or from the Left (Slavoj Žižek’s argument that private acts of community service shift the moral burden of taking care of those in need from capitalist society as a whole and into the private realm). But even leaving such concerns aside, there is a further difficulty in knowing which causes are worth supporting.

“To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake,” says Thomas Carlyle; “and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.” Bertrand Russell makes a similar point: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Wisdom is a quality in which teens are in notoriously short supply: where is the sense in stirring them, these “fools and fanatics”, into flurries of ill-conceived action?

We are, as it is, living in an age when we suffer from a dearth of thinkers and an over-abundance of doers. Precisely on point here is Matthew Arnold’s discussion of the imbalance between the forces of what he called “Hebraism”, a Puritanical endeavour to reform the self and the world in conformity with one’s vision of the moral good, and what he called “Hellenism”, the intellectual urge to pursue the truth in order to see reality for what it is. In an ideal world, these forces would be in balance, but in the world in which Arnold lived, and even more so in our own, there is too much Hebraism. We have been doing too much acting to make things “good” and not enough thinking about what is good in the first place.

Today, the core liberal arts are under attack from several angles. Conservatives see them as useless bastions of out-of-touch radicalism; liberals see them as purveyors of dead white male privilege; and millennials would have their education consist of a series of comforting confirmations that they are great exactly as they are. In such a climate, universities have been hard at work watering down the liberal arts, leaving a hollow shell so empty of content that it could neither offend nor inspire anyone. But we need intellectuals who are seriously engaged with art and ideas; without them, our doers, movers and shakers are doomed to a lifetime of running on the spot: a frenetic standstill culminating in our collective stagnation. And, as Arnold argued, intellectuals necessarily stand at somewhat of a remove from society in order to scrutinise, question and reimagine the common institutions, stock notions and habits taken for granted by their less reflective peers.

In an increasingly ignorant and superficial society teeming with disposable, time-bound tweets, chats, pics, pundits and protests, we need to cultivate the long, the deep and the slow. We need to educate more high-minded philosopher-kings to steer us away from false idols, and fewer self-righteous Jacobins speeding along our already clogged road to nowhere.

Author Bio: Alexander Zubatov is a partner in the New York law firm Scarola Zubatov Schaffzin PLLC. He majored in English at Yale University and went on to study at Harvard Law School.