America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats)
By David Gelernter
Encounter, 185 pages
Why is the American academy so monolithically left-wing?
David Gelernter, himself a tenured professor of computer science at Yale, attempts an answer in his new book America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats). For Gelernter, a postwar cultural revolution saw America’s elite colleges laid low by the double punch of the “Great Reform” and the rise of “Imperial Academia.” Institutions that had served the WASP elite found themselves transformed into pseudo-intellectual salons, the pipe-smoking pedants who (as Yeats wrote) “cough in ink” replaced with amazing speed by modish dilettantes. The old establishment, through a combination of naïveté and upper-class manners, stood aside and made way for the revolutionaries storming the gates. The change agents hacked away at the idea of college as an inculcator of knowledge and virtue and asserted instead the primacy of theory, “substituting for the intractable bloody mess called reality a seamless, silken tapestry of pure ideas.”
History departments were seized by the ideologues of post-colonialism and anti-Occidentalism, political-science courses by antagonists of the United States and Israel, and law schools by activist theorists for whom the Constitution was to be understood through its emanations rather than its plain meaning. The principled opposition to bigotry was diverted into radical victimologies: critical race theory, gender studies, and sexual identity politics. Empiricism was deposed in favor of the epistemic dead end of post-structuralism and its showy progeny, postmodernism. Critical thinking, which is to say thinking critical of America, was encouraged. Ideas that had been orthodoxy became heretical ciphers for racism, sexism, and homophobia and were dissuaded, forcefully. Hiring practices and speech codes formalized the boundaries of this new closed-shop of left-liberalism.
The result is the replacement of the WASPs by the PORGIs—post-religious globalist intellectuals. Gelernter says they have remade universities into production lines churning out an army of leftist drones trained on the battlefield of ideology and now occupying the newsrooms, classrooms, and social institutions and saluting one of their number who made it all the way to commander in chief. He writes:
Everyone agrees that President Obama is not only a man but a symbol. He is a symbol of America’s decisive victory over bigotry. But he is also a symbol, a living embodiment, of the failure of American education and its on-going replacement by political indoctrination. He is a symbol of the new American elite, the new establishment, where left-liberal politics is no longer a conviction, no longer a way of thinking: It is built-in mind furniture you take for granted without needing to think.
There is no conspiracy, no collusion, merely a new politics of vacuity: “All former leftist movements were driven by ideology. Obama’s is driven by ignorance.” If that seems harsh, remember that Obama, the Harvard-educated law professor, said there was no precedent for the Supreme Court to strike down unconstitutional statutes. The closing of the American mind has been followed by the opening of the post-American mind, a process whose first concrete political achievement was the election of a post-American president.
Gelernter contends that Obama’s reign of ignorance portends implications far beyond the current president’s term (or two). Those who care about the future of the academy, the culture, and the country cannot claim they haven’t been warned. Obama is not a blip but a blueprint for the future direction of the American left, and he could also be the trajectory of America for the next generation. Where the old-style Democrats won power by dominating labor unions and immigrant organizations, the Obamacrat ascendency will be guaranteed by their monopoly over the education cartels, chief among them the universities and graduate schools.
What is to be done?
“The true university of these days is a collection of books,” Thomas Carlyle believed. Gelernter’s “one-point plan” updates this. Given that the Internet represents the world’s largest “collection of books,” Gelernter says our salvation from Imperial Academia is to move the American educational system onto broadband networks as a remedy for political indoctrination. How this would work in practice is a little fuzzy, but there is no question that the ability of digital media and socially networked individuals and organizations to challenge establishment universities should not be dismissed. It could succeed, however, only within a framework of higher-education reform that prized rigor and merit while creating real disincentives for faculty-lounge radicalism and soft-focus, easy-A degrees.
Gelernter’s critique is in the great tradition of William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. This succinct book is as streamlined as a dart—and as precise. Far from harking back to a chimerical past, America-Lite bristles with frustration that America is not moving forward to meet her potential. The United States is a supercomputer that has slowed down. Gelernter, like a systems analyst, tears through the hard drive deleting without pity every superfluous and corrupt file. The starkness of his admonition is matched by an unfashionably American optimism that the academy’s course can be corrected and that the nation, by extension, can be made great once more.
Gelernter, who has contributed articles and reviews and stories to Commentary, writes with the precision of a technologist and the range of an artist. His citations run from statistics to philosophy to history, and you can almost hear the sucking of teeth from social scientists when he turns to novels and movies for evidence (a brief detour on silver-screen intellectuals, from Cary Grant’s bumbling professor in Bringing Up Baby to Fred Astaire’s tap-dancing psychiatrist in Carefree, is insightful and entertaining). Gelernter is an intellectual in the truest sense of the term: He is an educated man but also a lettered one, boasting a frame of reference far beyond his professional field
America-Lite is lean, incisive, convincing, delightfully indelicate, and, in a break from the conventions of the literature on education, honest. It is a fine dissection—deconstruction, if you must—of the corruption of higher education and the resulting debasement of political culture. If it makes its way onto a single college reading list, Hell will have frozen over.
Originally published in Commentary. Feature image © Doc Searls by Creative Commons 2.0.