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The DIEing Prestige of the Academy
The managerial class's legitimacy is predicated on their academic pedigree, which is itself a function of the cultural prestige of the university, and that suggests a way to beat them.
This is the fifth part in a series on the DIEing academy - that is, an academia that is committing seppukku in no small part due to its embrace of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (I’m being more than a little glib with that characterization, as there are certainly additional, very important factors, and one could certainly argue that DIE is more symptom than cause, but work with me here, it’s a cute gimmick and it gets the point across).
The introductory essay can be found here. In Part 2 I took a close look at the price we paid for the death of academia. Part 3 explained what this dumpster fire has meant for students. In Part 4 I looked at one of the many ways that academia is no longer even working for academics - in particular, the broken job market. In what follows, I look at how the prestige of the university system is related to our society’s power structure, and what it means when those premises are altered.
Universities have an enormous amount of power in our society. As the home of the de facto priestly class of our godless social order, they delineate the boundaries of the official reality, determining both where those boundaries are and how they change. As the finishing schools of young adults, they form (or deform) the minds of the next generation during the critical stage when their brains are completing their maturation and settling into the habitual neural pathways they will use to interpret the world for the remainder of their lives. They regulate entry into the professions of law, medicine, and engineering, and determine who will be allowed to join the ranks of the managerial class that controls state, corporate, and non-governmental bureaucracies.
The managerial class itself derives the legitimacy for its power directly from their academic pedigrees. The idea is that the universities are meritocratic training centres, where the best and brightest of the next generation are selectively admitted, provided with access to the knowledge and skills they require to master a profession, and then evaluated on the basis of the degree of mastery they attain. As a result, the upper echelons of the occupational class - those given the reins of federal bureaucracies, voices in the corporate news media, direction over the vast flows of capital animating the global economy - are simultaneously those blessed with the greatest intrinsic talents for these positions, and those who have completed the demanding intellectual gauntlet required to convert those talents into skillsets of the highest and most rarefied order. Thus, the story goes, not only does the occupational class uniquely possess the ability to manage the world, they alone possess the wisdom to wield the powers entrusted to them responsibly and humanely.
All of this would be wonderful if it were true, and I have no doubt that when our current system was established those who built it very much believed it would accomplish these goals. Indeed, reviewing the history of the past century, which say what you will was suffused with remarkable technical and social accomplishments, there is good reason to suspect that this narrative was more or less the case in the past. Certainly, the managerial class itself continues to believe very strongly in the basic truth of this narrative.
The relentless series of absolute cack-ups that has comprised the last several years provide strong evidence that it is no longer true. A moment spent looking at the actual people who comprise the occupational class, as in evaluating them on the basis of their individual human qualities - whether intellect, or virtue, or even such basic things as health and beauty - is also a powerful argument that things have gone badly awry.
We are ruled over not by titans, but by goblins.
A common mistake when evaluating the systems of power governing the information age is that it's all about money. Don't get me wrong: money is important, and the centralization of wealth that has accompanied the strip-mining of value from local communities and the middle class as social capital has been converted into financial liquidity explains a lot about the diseased state of our social organism. Still, unless one is a billionaire - and the overwhelming majority of the occupational class are not - money only goes so far.
Financial wealth plays no role in legitimizing the rule of the managerial class. They don't point to their fat stock portfolios as the reason for their right to rule; rather, they explain their financial rewards as emanating from their right to rule. Their legitimacy arises instead from their academic pedigrees. They went to the best schools, and are therefore the best people. Simple as.
Seen from that angle, the power of the managerial class is a direct function of the prestige of the universities.
So then, why are universities prestigious? To a certain degree it's a circular logic (prestigious people are educated at prestigious institutions, therefore the institutions are prestigious), but that's not really it. Universities weren't always prestigious; they've existed for about 1000 years in one form or another, and the medieval warrior aristocracy certainly didn't predicate its right to rule on the basis that their sons attended Oxford (indeed, their sons were frequently illiterate; their right to rule was hereditary, arising from their superior blood, and if you disagreed you were welcome to fight them for it).
Universities became prestigious because they served a valuable social function. They were where the smartest people gathered to study and debate the most intellectually vexing problems of the day. With a large number of highly intelligent people gathered in one place and paid to do essentially nothing but think, they were able to generate useful technical innovations. All those smart people also had a tendency to generate interesting public intellectuals, who would come up with fascinating new ways of seeing and interpreting the world that would seize the popular imagination, thus making universities a source of direct cultural influence. Even though the vast majority of scholars never bother talking to or writing for the great unwashed, there's something weirdly cool about just knowing that there's a place where a bunch of nerds sit around poking at the fundaments of nature, not because it's profitable, not to get a strategic military advantage (though certainly those are sometimes factors), but simply for the sake of it. Scholars are fascinating to the public in the same way that mountain climbers are: they do heroically difficult things, going places ordinary mortals can't, not because it is necessary but simply because they are there.
Now, when was the last time you came across a book or a talk by a university professor that absolutely blew your mind? One presenting ideas that grabbed hold of your imagination, setting it on fire as you saw possibilities you'd never even intuited exist, or opening your mind's eye to vistas of reality whose existence you'd not even suspected? Or even simply presenting a perspective on current events that enabled you to understand them in a more profound fashion than you had before?
Yeah, it's been a while for me, too.
What we do have is Ibram X. Kendi telling us we're racist, and he can prove it because the definition of racism is being racist. Or something. Honestly who even cares.
Our current crop of academics - those who dare speak publicly under their own names, at least - can be relied upon to be boringly conventional. Before they open their mouths, we know precisely what their opinions will be on climate change, race relations, gender dysphoria, the coronavirus and the response to it, foreign policy, and so on and so forth. The Overton Window of academic discourse is so exceptionally narrow that it might better be described as the Overton Line Segment. The result isn't simply that academics aren't allowed to tell the truth about anything; much, much worse than that, they aren't permitted to be interesting.
And it's not just on the hot-button political topics du jour that academics are forced to maintain a drab orthodoxy. It's on everything. An archaeologist who dares look into Ice Age civilizations; an astronomer who has the temerity to bring up UFOs as anything but an object of ridicule; a psychologist who has the bad taste to suggest there might be something to psi phenomena; a physicist who declares that no, actually, there is a God, and moreover everything we see in the cosmos points to it; a paleontologist who wonders a little too loudly about the discrepancies between the Darwinian synthesis and the abrupt phase changes in the fossil record; a molecular biologist who points out that the intricacy of the molecular machinery of the cell seems a bit hard to reconcile with natural selection acting on random mutations ... all risk their careers merely by mentioning such things.
The result is that academics are simply dull. Everyone who's educated enough to be potentially interested in what they have to say, by and large isn't, because they know what they're going to say before they say it.
Meanwhile, on the weird and wacky world of the Internet, you've got independent scholars who don't give a tug of a dead dog's boy parts what the academic community thinks of their theories, and boy, do those guys get an audience. I'm not even suggesting that the Internet's punk rock scholars are correct about more than their institutionalized counterparts (although I suspect they are; that just isn't germane to the argument). The point is that they're more interesting, so they get a bigger audience ... and by and by that means they're gathering organic cultural prestige to themselves and their ideas.
That leaves the other source of the Ivy League's prestige, which is their notional selectivity and high academic standards. I think we can dispense with this one almost immediately. In the era of diversity mandates, it's now common knowledge that getting admitted to a prestigious institution often has a lot more to do with one's background (whether as a member of a 'marginalized minority' or as the scion of a wealthy legacy family) than it does with innate talent or academic performance. The ultimate result is pretty obvious: a diploma from one of these institutions will no longer carry anything like the cachet that it has historically, because everyone will know that it signifies nothing about intellect or mastery, and is merely an indicator of having the right beliefs and belonging to the right group.
"Oh, you went to Yale? Well yes, I could already see that you're black...."
In the long run, this points to a collapse in the prestige of the academy, which in turn will corrode the legitimacy of the managerial class. It's very difficult to see how the self-styled smartest guys in the room can maintain their positions when it has become common knowledge that they are not, in fact, all that intelligent, and when no one really believes that the institutions that selected them possess much in the way of intellectual merit. This can also be framed in terms of the circularity noted above: if universities were to a degree prestigious because prestigious people came from them, what happens when they become (as they have) the reliable source of towering incompetence married to an invincible arrogance that is supremely ignorant of everything of consequence, most especially including its own incompetence?
This is already happening around us as we speak, more or less organically, as a natural reaction to the wokish conservatism that has accompanied the decay of virtue and ability in the top echelons of our society. The punk rock scholarship of the Internet has emerged due to a combination of smart people getting frustrated with the rigid conventionalism of the academy, and talented scholars being pushed out of the academy due to their (often involuntary) defilement of some recently sacralized bovine. Meanwhile, young people are increasingly turning to cheap, effective online resources as a means of teaching themselves the skills and acquiring the knowledge that the universities no longer provide (or provide only packaged together with a large helping of political indoctrination, all offered at considerable monetary and temporal expense).
As Nietzsche said, what is falling should also be pushed. The particular challenge of scholars as we move further into the 21st century is to make this process conscious and deliberate. So far, the development of the ersatz online academy has been mostly reactive - stop-gap measures taken by individual scholars trying to ameliorate the defects of a malfunctioning intellectual community while scrambling to make some kind of a living.
If we can succeed in building a superior competitor to the academic system - one that offers greater intellectual freedom and an overall better standard of living to scholars, while providing the public with cheaper and better education, a greater selection of more interesting ideas, and a more accurate model of reality - we can suck out whatever prestige the academy has like a swarm of vampire bats draining one of its sacred cows.
Following that, the managerial class, which relies entirely on its academic pedigree to justify its control of our lives, will be deprived of its legitimacy, and if history is any guide will be replaced in short order by a new ruling class that has, as the Neoreactionary philosophers of the teens would put it, become worthy.