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The True Purpose of the University

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The True Purpose of the University

Students would scorn free speech less if colleges honored their mission to transmit knowledge. Spring 2017
Education

Yale University’s president recently provided a window into the modern university’s self-conception—an understanding embraced by both liberals and conservatives but flawed in essential ways. A primary purpose of a Yale education, President Peter Salovey told Yale’s freshman class last year, is to teach students to recognize “false narratives.” Such narratives, Salovey claimed, are ubiquitous in American culture: “My sense is that we are bombarded daily by false narratives of various kinds, and that they are doing a great deal of damage.” Advocates may “exaggerate or distort or neglect crucial facts,” Salovey said, “in ways that serve primarily to fuel your anger, fear, or disgust.” (Salovey repeated this trilogy of “anger, fear, and disgust” several times; it was impossible not to hear a reference to Donald Trump, though Salovey tried to stay nonpartisan.)

According to Salovey, the Yale faculty is a model for how to respond to false narratives: they are united by a “stubborn skepticism about narratives that oversimplify issues, inflame the emotions, or misdirect the mind,” he said.

Two things can be said about Salovey’s theme: first, it is hilariously wrong about the actual state of “stubborn skepticism” at Yale. Second, and more important, Salovey mistakes the true mission of a college education.

To assess whether Yale is, in fact, a bastion of myth-busting, it is necessary to return to one of the darkest moments in Yale’s history: the university’s response to a shocking mass outbreak of student narcissism in October 2015. The wife of a college master had sent an e-mail to students, suggesting that they were capable of deciding for themselves which Halloween costume to wear and didn’t need oversight from Yale’s diversity commissars. (Halloween costumes have been the target of the PC police nationally for allegedly “appropriating” minority cultures.)

The e-mail sparked a furor among minority students across Yale and beyond, who claimed that it threatened their very being. In one of many charged gatherings that followed, students surrounded the college master, berating him for the pain that his wife had caused them. One female student was captured on video violently gesturing at the master and shrieking, “Be quiet!” as he gently tries to answer her tirade. She then screams: “Why the fuck did you accept this position [of college master]? Who the fuck hired you?”

Of all the Black Lives Matter–inspired protests that were sweeping campuses at that moment, Yale’s shrieking-girl episode was the most grotesque. In reaction, Yale groveled. President Salovey sent around a campus-wide letter declaring that he had never been as “simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community—and all the promise it embodies—as in the past two weeks.” He proclaimed the need to work “toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale”—implying that Yale was not “inclusive” —and thanked students for offering him “the opportunity to listen to and learn from you.” That the shrieking girl had refused to listen to her college master—or to give him an opportunity to speak—was never mentioned; she suffered no known repercussions for her outrageous incivility. Salovey went on to pledge a reinforced “commitment to a campus where hatred and discrimination have no place,” implying that hatred and discrimination currently did have a place at Yale. Salovey announced that the entire administration, including faculty chairs and deans, would receive training on how to combat racism at Yale and reiterated a promise to dump another $50 million into Yale’s already all-consuming diversity efforts.

If ever there were a narrative worthy of being subjected to “stubborn skepticism,” in Salovey’s words, the claim that Yale was the home of “hatred and discrimination” is it. There is not a single faculty member or administrator at Yale (or any other American college) who does not want minority students to succeed. Yale has been obsessed with what the academy calls “diversity,” trying to admit and hire as many “underrepresented minorities” as it possibly can without totally eviscerating academic standards. There has never been a more tolerant social environment in human history than Yale (and every other American college)—at least if you don’t challenge the reigning political orthodoxies. Any Yale student who thinks himself victimized by the institution is in the throes of a terrible delusion, unable to understand his supreme good fortune in ending up at one of the most august and richly endowed universities in the world.

But the ubiquitous claim that American campuses are riven with racism is not, apparently, one of the “false narratives” that Salovey had in mind. Not only did the president endorse that claim, but the husband-and-wife team who had triggered the Halloween costume furor penned a sycophantic apology to minority students in their residential college: “We understand that [the original e-mail] was hurtful to you, and we are truly sorry,” wrote Professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis. “We understand that many students feel voiceless in diverse ways and we want you to know that we hear you and we will support you.” Yale’s minority students may “feel” voiceless, but that feeling is just as delusional as the feeling that Yale is not “inclusive.”

So Salovey’s claim that Yale resolutely seeks out and unmasks “false narratives” is itself a false narrative. But is the routing of “false narratives” even an apt description of what a college education should ideally be? It is not, even though that goal, in different iterations, is widely embraced across the political spectrum. The most urgent task of any college is the transmission of knowledge, pure and simple. American students arrive at college knowing almost nothing about history, literature, art, or philosophy. If they aspire to a career in STEM fields, they may have already picked up some basic math and physics, and possibly some programming skills. But their orientation in the vast expanse of Western civilization is shallow; they have likely been traveling on a surface of selfies and pop culture with, at best, only fleeting plunges into the past.

A postmodern theorist, the prime product of today’s university culture, would immediately object that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge. But this hyper-sophisticated critique is irrelevant to the problem of widespread student ignorance. There exists a bedrock of core facts and ideas that precede any later revisionist interpretation. They would include, at a bare minimum: the events that led to the creation of the nation-state in Europe; the achievements of Greco-Roman civilization; familiarity with key works of Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, Twain, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Swift, among others; an understanding of genetics and the functioning of neurons; and the philosophical basis for constitutional democracy, among hundreds of other essential strata of the human geology.

The concept of “false narratives” is simply irrelevant to the vast bulk of what students do not know. Before you can challenge a received narrative about the past, you should be expert in its established contours. President Salovey gives examples of the Yale faculty’s overturning of “distorted narratives.” One example was undoubtedly selected to resonate with more conservatively inclined listeners and readers: a professor of medieval history who allegedly demonstrated the religious roots of the secular legal tradition. Such scholarship is an essential part of any university; but when it comes to undergraduates, it would be triumph enough if Yale gave them even a foggy notion of the difference between medieval canon law and British common law.

Moreover, it is inaccurate to define a received understanding of the common-law tradition as a “false narrative,” a term that connotes an ideological agenda and that is itself highly ideological. That Salovey would insert the work of a medievalist into the “false narratives” conceit reflects several streams in contemporary academic thought. In the 1970s, a fantastical idea took hold throughout the humanities—that the goal of criticism was to unmask the alleged deceptions afflicting, and perpetrated by, “texts.” The assumption was that all language carried hidden meanings that either subverted alleged power structures or reinforced them. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur labeled this outlook the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Ricoeur traced its roots to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, who advanced the view that humans live in a tissue of lies and illusions about the world, whether with regard to economic relations, the rational self, or philosophical truth.

A less precious antecedent to Salovey’s “false narratives” paradigm is the progressive-education mantra from the late 1990s that “critical thinking” should be the goal of education. The Internet has made the allegedly mindless transmission of facts obsolete, the educrats proclaimed, since students can always look up such boring things as facts on the Web. Instead, schools should cultivate in their students the capacity to “think critically.” A typical exercise was to have students “deconstruct” an advertisement to expose all the ways that big bad corporations were trying to dupe consumers. The “critical thinking” idea conveniently let teachers off the hook for failing to teach their students anything, by declaring that there was nothing substantive that needed teaching anyway.

But the “false narratives” idea really came into its own with the rise of academic identity politics. To the modern academic, the quintessential “false narrative” facilitates the oppression of victim groups by white heterosexual males. Salovey hits all the requisite notes in his final example of a Yale professor debunking a “false narrative.” “Professor Hazel Carby [a black feminist theorist] wrote a telling remark in her foreword to a book called Silencing the Past,” Salovey says, “highlighting the power of challenging false or incomplete narratives about the marginalized: ‘We learn how scanty evidence can be repositioned to generate new narratives, how silences can be made to speak for themselves,’ ” Carby wrote. Predictably, the book that Carby was introducing blames the West for distortions regarding a Caribbean slave revolt, the Holocaust, the Alamo, and Christopher Columbus.

In the realm of daily politics, it may be fair to say that we are awash in false narratives. But the past is filled with accomplishments that are not “narratives” or not “false” in the sense intended by the phrase “false narratives.” These accomplishments should be approached with humility and reverence. The task of both scholar and student should be to understand them on their own terms.

Conservatives have, of late, stressed a process-oriented notion of education that shares certain similarities with the “false narratives” approach. This emphasis reflects their understandable revulsion at the silencing on campus of politically incorrect views. Education should be about reasoned debate and the airing of all opinions in the pursuit of the truth, critics of campus political correctness say. Students should take courses from professors who challenge their views and should attend lectures by visiting scholars whose ideas they find uncongenial, Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Students should not be so “deeply in love with [their] opinions” as to not listen to “others who see things differently,” George asserted.

This ideal of the Socratic academy is so reasonable that it may seem foolish to quibble with it. Of course, students should engage with ideas that they disagree with rather than silencing anything that challenges their worldview. But there is a universe of knowledge that does not belong in the realm of “opinion.” It would be as absurd for an ignorant 18-year-old to say: I have an opinion about early Mediterranean civilizations, but I am willing to “listen to others who see things differently,” as it would be to say: I have an opinion about the laws of thermodynamics, but I am willing to listen to the other side.

The free-speech model of education tends toward a focus on the present. The issues about which students are going to have the strongest opinions concern current political and policy matters: Is Donald Trump a fascist? Is immigration enforcement racist? Does the criminal-justice system discriminate against blacks? Which bathrooms should “trans” individuals use? The fact that only one answer to these questions is acceptable on college campuses is indisputably a problem. But they are not the questions that undergraduate education should focus on; there will be time enough after students graduate to debate current affairs. While defenders of the open university rightly fight for free speech, they should not lose sight of the knowledge that is the university’s core mission to transmit. If students had been more deeply immersed in acquiring that knowledge and less taken with challenging “false narratives about the marginalized,” we might not have seen the narcissistic campus meltdowns after the last presidential election.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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