Will: An excess of intellectual emptiness
WASHINGTON – In 2013, a college student assigned to research a deadly substance sought help via Twitter: "I can't find the chemical and physical properties of sarin gas someone please help me." An expert at a security consulting firm tried to be helpful, telling her that sarin is not gas. She replied, "yes the (expletive) it is a gas you ignorant (expletive). sarin is a liquid & can evaporate ... shut the (expletive) up."
Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, writing in The Chronicle Review, says such a "storm of outraged ego" is an increasingly common phenomenon among students who, having been taught to regard themselves as peers of their teachers, "take correction as an insult." Nichols relates this to myriad intellectual viruses thriving in academia. Carried by undereducated graduates, these viruses infect the nation's civic culture.
Soon the results include the presidential megaphone being used to amplify facially preposterous assertions, e.g., that upward of 5 million illegal votes were cast in 2016. A presidential minion thinks this assertion is justified because it is the president's "long-standing belief."
"College, in an earlier time," Nichols writes, "was supposed to be an uncomfortable experience because growth is always a challenge," replacing youthful simplicities with adult complexities. Today, college involves the "pampering of students as customers," particularly by grade inflation in a context of declining academic rigor: A recent study showed "A" to be the most commonly awarded grade, 30 percent more frequent than in 1960. And a 2011 University of Chicago study found that 45 percent of students said that in the previous semester none of their courses required more than 20 pages of writing and 32 percent had no class that required more than 40 pages of reading in a week.
"Unearned praise and hollow successes," Nichols says, "build a fragile arrogance in students that can lead them to lash out at the first teacher or employer who dispels that illusion, a habit that carries over into a resistance to believe anything inconvenient or challenging in adulthood." A habit no doubt intensified when adults in high places speak breezily of "alternative facts."
"Rather than disabuse students of their intellectual solipsism," Nichols says, "the modern university reinforces it," producing students given to "taking offense at everything while believing anything." Many colleges and universities, competing for tuition dollars "too often drawn thoughtlessly from an inexhaustible well of loans," market a "college experience" rather than an education. The experience "turns into five and, increasingly, six (years)." Nichols notes that "the fragility of 21st-century students" results from "the swaddling environment of the modern university" that "infantilizes students" who demand "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."
Much attention has been given to the non-college-educated voters who rallied to Trump. Insufficient attention is given to the role of the college miseducated. They, too, are complicit in our current condition because they emerged from their expensive "college experiences" neither disposed nor able to conduct civil, informed arguments. They are thus disarmed when confronted by political people who consider evidence, data and reasoning to be mere conveniences and optional.
For all the talk in high places about emancipating the many from "the elites," political philosopher Walter Berns was right: The question always is not whether elites will govern but which elites will. And a republic's challenge is to increase the likelihood that the many will consent to governance by worthy elites. So, how is our republic doing?
What is most alarming about the president and his accomplices in the dissemination of factoids is not that they do not know this or that. And it is not that they do not know what they do not know. Rather, it is that they do not know what it is to know something.
The republican form of government rests on representation: The people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide. Who, that is, will conduct the deliberations that "refine and enlarge" public opinion (Madison, Federalist 10). This system of filtration is vitiated by a plebiscitary presidency, the occupant of which claims a direct, unmediated, almost mystical connection with "the people."
Soon, presidential enablers, when challenged about their employer's promiscuous use of "alternative facts," will routinely use last week's "justification" of the illegal voting factoid: It is the president's "long-standing belief," so there. In his intellectual solipsism, he, too, takes correction as an insult. He resembles many of his cultured despisers in the academy more than he or they realize.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.