Geist Story

My moratorium on “news” came to an end a few weeks ago with the December 2 issue of the Sunday New York Times. But when I pledged to unplug from all sources of cognitive dissonance, I must have known that my plan (which by my reckoning spanned a little under five months) would be more diet than hunger strike. Restricting myself to Inside Higher Ed–even if I resisted the urge to click on stories about Betsy DeVos or other politically contaminated subjects—and the occasional scientific discovery (e.g., adding the Cleaner wrasse to those life forms that recognize themselves in a mirror), did little to shield me from the ultraviolet radiation of the geist. Current events, I learned, aren’t simply unprocessed history; as a Nobel laureate once said, even the past ain’t past. While I agree with the cliché that journalism is a first draft and all of that, the joke is that there is no final draft, so while the unwritten Carnage: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump, 2016-2020 may be worth waiting for, there are no guarantees it will be the last word on anything.

An historian I know remarked to me recently about the current fragile state of academic freedom, “We’ve been here before.” That’s true, but we can only know that so long as history still matters to us, which the American Historical Association has determined it does not, with only five out of every 1,000 23-year-olds majoring in it, a loss of 35 percent since 2011, as compared with, say, a gain of around 50 percent in nursing and computer science majors. I am less concerned with the fate of history as a major than as a department (wishful thinking on my part), and less concerned with the fate of history departments than with historically informed thinking (an unsustainable arrangement, since the professional chroniclers who supply us will need someplace to live). But although I have been disappointed by the failure of professional historians to weigh in more vocally on things, I am not surprised. Maybe the discipline defines itself by its patience; maybe historians admire historically informed thinking among non-historians in theory but not in practice. As Sydney Greenstreet would say, not an injudicious thing to do.

We’ve been here before because we never left, or at least never for good. Disinvitations of campus speakers in the 1960s were instigated not by politically outraged students or faculty but by administrators acting in an in loco parentis capacity. William Van Alstyne’s (1963) is the earliest piece of actual research I have found on the Constitutionality of administrative banning of university speakers (in his case, Communists) invited by student organizations; his verdict was that administrators would lose in the courts unless a speaker advocated unlawful conduct. But from what I can tell, speaker bans mainly inspired eloquent, principled essays rather than critical scholarship from people who likely felt they were dealing with a transient, if disruptive, phenomenon. In 1967, James Kreuzer, Dean of Students at Queens College, argued in the AAUP Bulletin that while guest speakers were indeed a test case of institutional commitment to Constitutional values, “an institution must be able to protect itself against those who would exploit it for their own ends,” and reaffirmed the Four Freedoms idea that academic freedom referred to institutional rather than individual autonomy. Murray Hausknecht, a sociologist at Hunter, advocated in the same issue of the Bulletin that invitations by student organizations to speakers “represent a sphere of potential autonomy” in which students exercise agency in their educational experience and, by implication, assume co-ownership of the choices they make—the other owner, of course, being the hosting institution, which “must endure the consequences of youthful ‘irresponsibility’… [in the form of] the storms of moral indignation from the larger community.”

I think Kreuzer and Hausknecht both turned out to be right: some speakers do exploit college auditoriums to lend a fragrance of legitimacy to their ends, and universities are going to catch hell for hosting them. What college students think about these things, on the other hand, has clearly evolved since the 1960s. In a landmark study, Hanan Selvin and Warren Hagstrom (1960) left a snapshot of Berkeley undergraduates’ attitudes towards specific civil liberties, with freedom of the press, assembly, and speech as the top three items in their 1957 survey. The result: 85 percent of participants disagreed with the suggestion that government should be empowered “to pass laws making it illegal to speak against racial or religious groups.” Subsequent studies by Crotty (1967), Nunn (1973), and Rich (1980) yielded equally robust levels of support for unregulated speech. The long-lived American Freshman National Norms survey revealed that the ratio of students who agreed that a school should reserve the right to ban speakers declined more or less steadily during this period, from 39 percent in 1967 to a record 22 percent by 1974. “Speaker ban” questions disappeared from the American Freshman by the late 1980s. Then suddenly, in 1992, when the survey first asked whether “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus,” slightly more than half agreed; by 1996, the number who agreed had risen more than 10 percentage points, and in 2015, the figure stood at nearly 71 percent.

What altered the sociological settings? The PC movement? The Canon Wars? “Consumerism” in higher education, promoting a customer-first mentality (see Bellah, 1999)? The normalization of the microaggression concept (see Sue, et al., 2007)? My pet theory is that the great Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin’s brilliant, but I suspect merely facetious, notion of illocutionary acts, as appropriated and later popularized by John Searle as “speech acts,” gave a name to and made discussable the experience of words that, among other things, wound or wield power. Earlier this year, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, of Cornell, made the first serious attempt to throw a scholarly net over the rough beast of disinvitation terrorizing academe, complete with citations and a two-tailed test; what they discovered was both unsurprising (academics carry political biases) and anticlimactic (universities need to instill greater tolerance among students for divergent viewpoints). More intriguing than any of these is what should probably be called the Marcuse Effect.

My first encounter with the idea that widespread campus malaise could be traced to the pernicious influence of the Frankfurt School’s slightly disreputable attack dog, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), was in Guenter Lewy’s position paper for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni last February. Lewy did not exactly claim to have discovered the link between Marcuse and the rash of symptoms (disinvitations, antifa cells, demands for trigger warnings) afflicting students and many faculty these days, but ACTA gave him a bullhorn, and the eminent revisionist historian used it to attribute disinvitations and university speech codes to Marcuse’s signature concept of “repressive tolerance”—not quite accurately, it turns out: repressive (or “indiscriminate”) tolerance was exactly what Marcuse was arguing against, i.e., the principle of indulging all points of view in the marketplace of ideas. I found Lewy’s analysis unsatisfying, and went on to find a couple of earlier attempts at establishing the Marcuse meme in the National Review and Salvo, both of which condemned it, and Sculos and Walsh (2016), who positively endorsed “liberating tolerance” as an instrument of the New Left and college campuses as a “key environment” for the application of it.

Marcuse’s combustible 1965 essay on repressive tolerance is freely available on the Internet, so there is no reason to take any of these commentaries at face value. Of course, social critical theory of this nature notoriously borders on the unreadable, so it is puzzling that such texts could inflame any kind of popular movement at any time without help from an interpreter, such as an angry adjunct. I found it hard going. In the first place, it helps to be familiar with John Stuart Mill’s utopian ideas, in particular the one that the right to liberty is constrained by the pace of historical “stages of civilization.” The ideal, in Mill’s formulation, is a society of people completely self-determined and therefore “capable of being free with the others.” According to Marcuse, the problem of making such a state of affairs possible “is…of creating the society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning.” This is a problem, and Marcuse does seem to suggest that the “society of the future” can begin to be policed even before it comes into being. But he draws distinctions.

Indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion…But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed…without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.

Blink and you miss it: the bad kind of tolerance should govern what goes on at higher education institutions. Whether the lumping of academic discussion with harmless debates was meant as a veiled jab at universities is hard to say. Marcuse was primarily concerned with bigger game, like Society at large. It is also important to keep this more than half-century-old manifesto and its language in perspective: 1965 was a watershed year in racial violence (and progress), and those events flicker on the surface of the text, as Marcuse excoriates the “deceptive impartiality” of broadcasters reporting on Civil Rights atrocities in the same nonjudgmental tone they use to segue to a commercial. Certain passages might even appeal to today’s conservatives:

Under the rule of monopolistic media—themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power—a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of society. This is…a matter of semantics: the blocking of effective dissent, of the recognition of that which is not of the Establishment which begins in the language that is publicized and administered.

By and large, however, Marcuse’s program does in fact call for traditional democratic speech norms to be overturned and for “counterrevolutionary” voices and arguments to be suppressed in the interest of liberation. This isn’t as blatantly self-contradictory as it sounds if you don’t forget that Marcuse is a Marxist who believes in dialectical materialism, namely, that society has surpassed certain preliminary historical phases and stands at an Archimedean point of either sweeping emancipation of the oppressed, or a sharp fascist contraction. Marcuse, again echoing the tensions of his time, described it as a period of “clear and present danger,” one that calls for emergency measures.

Born in 1898, Marcuse was too young to be classified as a German mandarin, although in the years before he fled the Third Reich he studied with Husserl and Heidegger, who embodied in their own way the set of traditions, preoccupations, and anxieties that defined the community of scholars chronicled in Fritz Ringer’s The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (1969). I was always curious about this intellectual history, not least because I suspected it might reveal parallels between the once towering German higher education establishment and our own by showing how various crises—both exogenous and self-inflicted—were experienced by academics and how they responded to them. Yes and no. As in the U.S. after World War II, the German higher education system in the period under discussion was under broad pressures to expand opportunities to students from myriad social and secondary educational backgrounds. As in the U.S. during various periods, academic stakeholders in German universities (mandarins) were apprehensive that the state’s grand reorganization of their institutions would include vocational training alongside, or eventually in the place of, Bildung in their mission. As in the U.S. among those academics who still lose sleep (and in the worst case, their departments) over such things, there was considerable concern among mandarins that the rise of positivist approaches to knowledge posed a serious threat to an intellectual tradition that had been founded on something less cause-and-effect based and quantifiable, and more Wissenschaftlich, which in the case of Germany meant something closer to philosophical, humanistic, and designed to cultivate the whole student. On the other hand, we have no analogue for the relationship of German universities to the state, by which, in return for lending its patronage to the universities without expecting them to justify their existence through “practical” scholarship, would receive the latter’s political loyalty. Nor has U.S. higher education ever been convulsed by a purely philosophical concept to the extent that German academia was by the neo-Kantian idea of geist, which in Ringer’s story means different things to people as different as the historian Wilhelm Windelband, sociologists Max and Alfred Weber, and the philosopher Karl Jaspers. Postmodernism and political correctness were about as bad as we ever got, though “internationalization” might have been a contender had it ever gotten past the strategic planning stage.

In my understanding, geist was a set of loosely related coping strategies for academics and assorted intellectuals who felt their cultural values threatened in a climate of rapid modernization, a situation the First World War only exacerbated. For the historian, it could mean finding eternal truths present in individual minds of the past, and past insights in the present; for the psychologist, discerning a deep structure linking different worldviews; for the sociologist, describing the elaborate rationalization of human interrelationships. Ringer indefatigably reconstructs these and myriad other approaches to what, in the end, became a self-defeating project: a large number of very intelligent, very comfortable people lecturing, writing, and ruminating, somehow believing that the gestalt of it all would bring about a revival of premodern German cultural identity and “wholeness.” It’s a pretty depressing story, whether you know what’s coming after the book ends or not. Then Ringer offers up this anecdote and commentary in the final pages:

At a meeting of the Corporation of German Universities in October 1932, [the philosopher Edward Spranger] argued against a resolution introduced by [educator] Theodore Litt. Litt would have censored the National Socialist rowdies among the students. Spranger dissented, because he thought “the national movement among the students still genuine at the core, only undisciplined in its form.” The whole story of the mandarin reaction to National Socialism is contained in that sentence.


Long before Martin Trow was sounding the alarm about the promise and perils of massification in higher education, he was a young sociologist at Berkeley and the author of “Small businessmen, political tolerance, and support for McCarthy” (1957). He amassed survey data from Bennington, Vermont which revealed, first, that when respondent education was held constant, supporters of Joseph McCarthy were still just as likely to support free speech; and second, that (again holding education constant), small businesspeople were more likely than manual workers and salaried white-collar workers to agree with McCarthy’s methods. In explaining these results, Trow advanced the novel theory that “McCarthy’s appeal was not that of a man repressing free speech, but of a man exercising it, in what appeared to be bold and fearless ways.”

Moreover, much of his boldness, violence, and aggression was directed precisely against the conservative authorities and institutions—the “big shots,” the “stuffed shirts,” the “bureaucrats”—against whom many of his supporters felt anger and resentment…We found the highest levels of support for McCarthy in social classes and categories which…do not have their hostilities and discontents channeled into and through existing political and economic institutions.

Sure enough, it could be inferred from the survey that much of the opposition to McCarthy came from the educated middle class, people who often fell into the salaried classes, those less “alienated” from modern society. Small businessmen, by contrast, felt themselves increasingly alienated—from the perceived metastatic trends of postwar capitalism, an ever-larger federal government, and other manifestations of secular modernity.

[T]his nineteenth-century liberalism appears both as a wistful nostalgia for a golden age of small farmers and businessmen and also as an expression of strong resentment and hatred toward a world which makes no sense in terms of older ideas and which is conducted in apparent violation of old truths and values of economic and political life…But as important is the fact that this particular well of resentment and indignation has no effective and institutionalized channels of expression.

I am going to make like a mandarin here and suggest that we are all potentially small businessmen in that sense, at one stage of civilization or another. McCarthyism, obviously, is only one response to the sense of having been dispossessed of—or outlived—one’s era and cultural habitat. Those of us in the business of multiculturalism or social justice, who had no reason to believe that the Obama era would come to an abrupt end in 2016, know something about resentment and indignation as well. It’s not that the golden age will have always just ended, but that we will be the last to know about it.


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