Acquisitions

I don’t know if people still give each other books for Christmas. (I know they give Kindles, but that’s like giving someone a juicer.) Since I give myself books all year without also giving myself a time frame in which to get to them, by year’s end I tend to accept books as gifts with pangs of disguised guilt and resentment, especially when the titles beckon me in directions completely unrelated to my unstructured meanderings. Like CDs, sweaters, and original manuscripts, books fall into the category of items best left unsent if unsolicited.

Which is the nice thing about advice: though seldom solicited either, it can be safely ignored, especially in the form of book reviews (or blogs). So here goes.

Though there may have been a connection between my interest in Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage,1998) and the fact that I’ve been guiding permanent residents through U.S. history as part of their preparation for the citizenship test, it’s undeniable that the Sage of Monticello authored a major chapter in the history of American higher education. Among the many things I didn’t know, was the scope of Jefferson’s historical imagination, fired from an early age by Whig texts chronicling the corruption of a pure “Saxon” civilization in England after the Norman invasion and, in his urgent pre-Declaration research, by the writings of the sixteenth-century promoter Richard Hakluyt, whose descriptions of self-reliant British migrants served less as an account of the facts than as a broadside for English colonial investment—myths which, in one form or another, exert a pernicious effect on national identity to this day. The visionary/revisionist quality of Jefferson’s mind went into high gear with the election of 1800 and the emergence of a “textual presidency” both well suited to his indirect style (he was a famously awful public speaker) and to managing debates over policy entirely via workshopping by memoranda. Unlike many of his successors, he found open arguments among cabinet members unseemly and scheduled few full meetings, and politics were officially off-limits at presidential dinner parties. Much of this was clearly in keeping with Jefferson’s passion for etiquette and civility—his political philosophy was predicated on a civilized society—but it was also a function of the new “revolution” he saw symbolized by his administration, essentially a restoration of the “pure republicanism” embodied in the Spirit of ’76 but only now, after over a decade in Federalist hostage, free to spread its wings. Ellis is sympathetic but unsparing in his analysis of how his subject’s self-deceptions (and capacity for deferred maintenance, both intellectual and material) positioned him to become not just the country’s first genuine ideologue, but one of ideology’s first victims, as Jefferson, pushing eighty, recluses himself on his mountaintop with a subscription to the antebellum equivalent of Fox News. It seems fitting that the founding of the University of Virginia provides the only sunlight by this stage in the narrative. There were the inevitable cost overruns and a near miss on academic freedom (Jefferson initially saw no contradiction in insisting the university be nondenominational on the one hand but politically partisan on the other), but Ellis evokes the “academical village” as its founder envisioned it: “There was no need for flying buttresses to order or stabilize the interior structure of his university; all meaningful discipline was internalized and invisible. It was the epitome of the Jeffersonian ideal—a society without government.”

***

Richard Hofstadter was only 54 when the academic world lost him to leukemia, but the conservative turn his thinking had already taken, prompted in large part by the excesses of the student protest culture of the 1960s, could easily be mistaken for the meditations of a much older man. In fact, the cantankerous brilliance was already on full display in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage, 1963), and there was enough of it to go around for everyone. Revivalists, Federalists, Jacksonian Democrats, Gilded Age industrialists, labor leaders, self-help writers, public school reformers, beatniks, and even John Dewey have contributed in one way or another to what Hofstadter variously defines as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it” and “having an excess of commitment to some special and constricting idea” as opposed to the world of ideas. I like this second definition better for being at once more precise yet more versatile, given the sometimes character-driven, Russian-novelistic quality of Hofstadter’s survey, although it does beg the question of where actual hostility to the examined life ends and pinheaded zealotry begins; both remain lamentable traits of American society, but though they certainly complement—and frequently campaign with—each other, they are not the same. Even Hofstadter observes that the resentment of intellect, along with a measure of awe and respect for it, often occur together, though for different reasons. Whether it was freelance revivalists in early America responding to “Letter-learned” professional clergy that they needed no more credentials than to be “qualified by God” to preach, or Progressive era politicians first courting, then turning on, experts on tap, or the small-town fundamentalist crusade against the teaching of evolution and modernity in general, it becomes clear that the fate of the intellectual in America closely tracks the market value of knowledge as power. This is the real theme of Anti-Intellectualism, though it only begins to be articulated fully in its final pages:

[F]or intellectuals in the disciplines affected by the problem of expertise, the university is only a symbol of a larger and more pressing problem of intellect to power: we are opposed almost by instinct to the divorce of knowledge from power, but we are also opposed, out of our modern convictions, to their union.

***

Published forty years ago and recently reissued with a new introduction, Magali Sarfatti Larson’s The Rise of Professionalism: Monopolies of Competence and Sheltered Markets (Transaction, 1977/2013) was acquired by this reviewer as yet another investment in his unending institutionalization-of-disciplines project, conveniently overlooking the author’s stated intention to examine “how the occupations that we call professions organized themselves to attain market power.” By the time her thoroughgoing Marxian program was underway—and the going was sometimes tough—it was too late: I was hooked. Larson argues that non-elite (i.e., rising middle-class) practitioners of the learned professions were challenged to differentiate themselves as old social hierarchies and state-sponsored monopolies were being undermined by the unprecedented phenomenon of an emergent market economy. (If you haven’t already read Karl Polanyi’s 1944 classic The Great Transformation, I recommend doing so before tackling Larson.) They accomplished this by pooling their entrepreneurial energies in a “collective mobility project” that enabled them to establish, in effect, a monopoly on profession-specific production, knowledge, and competence—a market of their own, paradoxically run on the anti-market principle of the service ideal. But such adaptations did not occur in a vacuum. The rise of corporate capitalism brought with it a bureaucratic revolution more far-reaching than the structures devised by the professions, and when its reach extended to one of the key institutions of the mobility project—the legitimating, producer-producing university—proletarianization became a foregone conclusion (an insight which Clyde Barrow, who cites Larson, later explored more aggressively in Universities and the Capitalist State [1990]). More interesting, if underdeveloped, is Larson’s detour into the professionalization of administration; strivers within the technobureaucracy that increasingly comprises all professions stand apart in that they are organization, rather than client, directed. Larson writes that “[o]nly a general crisis of legitimacy could seriously question the motives that govern profit-making in large private organizations,” but the same point could be made about the governing mission of any rationalized organization, which is as blunt an explanation as any for the conservatism of universities as institutions.

***

So what role, if any, do universities as institutions play in the development of conservative student identities? That is the research question of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton, 2013), and I admire Amy Binder and Kate Wood for undertaking the task. During the politically fraught year of 2008-2009, the UC-San Diego sociologists conducted interviews with the undergraduate and alumni communities of two large research HEIs, Eastern Elite and Western Public. What they found was, on the whole, not terribly surprising: students who identify as conservative describe themselves as outnumbered and in some cases outgunned by an overwhelmingly liberal campus demographic (never mind that HERI surveys find that middle of the roaders make up the vast majority of the incoming freshman population, which does suggest that at least most kids arrive nonpartisan). Anecdotes of “grade retaliation” by liberal faculty and teaching assistants, of administration officials indifferent to free speech issues where conservative speech is concerned, are reported. In response, conservatives reach out to likeminded students and organize in a variety of ways, some of the performance art variety (e.g., Affirmative Action Bake Sales), or reserve their venom for campus newspaper columns, or if they really mean business, turn to national organizations like the Young America’s Foundation or Leadership Institute for networking and fundraising purposes (because “often schools are spending a lot of money on the equivalent [university-sponsored] lectures on the left”). Binder and Wood’s subjects are clearly intelligent, confident, and in most respects no different from other American students; if their principled stances remind me of anyone, it’s their liberal counterparts. Compelling reading for anyone but student life wonks it mostly isn’t, except when it adduces ample evidence of their key discovery: institutional characteristics—regionality, saga, selectivity, teacher-student ratio, registration management norms, the continuous variables of campus culture—wield considerable influence over how conservative students express their ideas and opinions in the classroom and on campus. Put simply, the provocative and public forms of expression (chalking, die-ins, political campaigning) that prevail in the “atomized” landscape of the Western flagship are culturally unacceptable at Eastern Elite, where, personal convictions notwithstanding, “conservatives tend to view their fellow students as classmates they should act respectfully towards” because they will “very likely be wandering the same corridors of power” with them down the road. But that’s how Binder and Wood put it. I’ll let one Kingsley Griffith have the last word:

From a practical point of view it kind of depends if I have any aspirations of working in government or becoming a judge, to be perfectly honest. You don’t want  too many extreme, or what could be considered extreme, political positions…It’s also sad that you have to think of that now in some sense, just because, especially the confirmation process has gotten so brutal and they bring up everything.

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