HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: The Meaning of Middlebury: Why the cultivation of the mind is at odds with “passion” and “engagement.”

Though the authors and signatories of the statement do not say so explicitly, attending to the purpose mentioned in the first principle will go a long way toward securing the intellectual modesty emphasized in the second principle. That is to say, a “good education” is one whose primary purpose is the cultivation of the mind. This might seem like a truism—universally acknowledged and undisputed. Yet the authors of the document know otherwise, and they are correct to emphasize it. They understand that, however uncontroversial the sentiment, the people who matter most in this context (college administrators especially) tend not to allow that sentiment to inform their behavior. There are too many other competing interests vying for their support.

The cultivation of the mind has an increasing number of competitors for the purpose of higher education. Frank Bruni of the New York Times and the Jonathan Haidt of New York University produced a very illuminating discussion of the Middlebury incident on Charlie Rose. Haidt explained that students today do not really learn to argue; rather, they are “trained” to discredit their interlocutors. What happened to Charles Murray, Haidt suggested, was a “modern auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.” The word “training” is particularly apt. Campuses now serve as training centers for the production of “correct opinions” on subjects like race and gender. The “long march through the institutions” having long since been completed and reified, the benighted and unenlightened must have their consciousness raised, and then must adopt the ideology that will set aright the wrongs of the world. And a heretic like Charles Murray, someone whom one cannot hope to “train,” must be publicly shamed and cast out.

The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate engagement. The problem for the academy is that it runs on Other People’s Money, and the Other People are getting tired of this.