Gentlemen Prefer C’s
According to a recent front-page story in the New York Times, the latest innovation of a particularly ambitious segment of the upwardly mobile American middle class is the replacement of the old-fashioned summer camp with getting-into-college camp. In proportion as the Times is ignorant of One Big Thing, its editors are highly knowledgeable about many small ones, among which the modern education rat race ranks high. It seems prudent, therefore, for the rest of us to listen up and pay attention to what they have to say.
Summer camp as it used to be—lakeside in the mountains, with enforced training in swimming, boating, shooting, equestrianship, tennis, fishing, hiking, wilderness survival, and singing silly songs around the campfire—was as American as Huckleberry Finn and Nick Adams, though both escaped its disciplining formalities by lighting out on their own for the territory ahead. I was spared them myself, being given the run of a 200-acre Green Mountains farm instead. Nevertheless, the idea of the summer camp of yore yielding place to an intellectual boot camp for neutered nerds from the suburbs is, to me, as shocking as the spectacle of a lovely agricultural valley turned into a silicon one. This newest Upward Bound program for what its patrons themselves would call the “overprivileged” is simply another training course for the Long Island Olympics. Is there no satisfaction in life for the elite (or aspirants to it) beyond cutthroat meritocratic competition for place, preference, and riches? Are the most intelligent human beings really no more than disembodied minds at work according to cybernetic principles? Was the motto of the ancients, Mens sanis in corpore sano, a menacing prophecy of Naziism or a formula for developing the good, the balanced citizen? Has the unbought grace of life become totally eclipsed in our time? Is American society rotting from the head down, like a fish? When a civilization no longer can produce wholly formed men and women at the top but only troglodytes, no matter how “intelligent,” it is doomed.
We call it “higher education,” but the thing is scarcely that. Rather, like the elementary and secondary education that precedes it, it is fake education, developed from positively anti-educational principles. The purpose of post-secondary education was never to outfit a class of narrow-minded sharklings with all the tricks necessary to seize and devour what they consider their just deserts but to graduate cultivated Christian men and women, bred to social deference and the habit of command: fit to accept their place in an established upper class, in the absence of which civilization devolves into society in the merely anthropological sense. If there were nothing more to a civilized person than a high IQ, developed technical skills, and a ruthless competitive instinct, civilization would be a cheap commodity indeed, rather than the precious and perishable thing that it is. That, however, is—whether fortunately or unfortunately—not the case.
The Spanish-American War was the direct (though infinitely more successful) forebear of the calamitous Iraqi war now being fought. Yet, while the war in the Philippines produced atrocities far exceeding those of Abu Ghraib, the Cuban campaign had its gallant aspect, provided in considerable part by Theodore Roosevelt’s volunteer Rough Rider regiment—which, so far as I am able to recall, has no parallel in subsequent American warfare. The Rough Riders included recruits from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and clubs such as the Knickerbocker of New York and the Somerset of Boston. (Hamilton Fish, Jr., the ex-captain of the Columbia crew, was among the first casualties on the slog from Daiquirí over to Kettle Hill.) It included as well hunters, ex-sheriffs, cowboys, mining prospectors, and mountain men from the Western territories—uncouth frontiersman who had hardly suspicioned the existence of anything like a Fish, a Page, or a Channing. Roosevelt was initially pleased by the refusal of the bluebloods to lord it over their social inferiors by demanding commissions for themselves, being content instead to serve under whatever roughneck they were assigned to; after the regiment had returned stateside and been mustered out, he was delighted to be able to claim that not a single man had backed out after volunteering for service nor failed to do his entire duty. As for himself, Roosevelt explains in The Rough Riders,
During the year preceding the outbreak of the Spanish War, I was assistant secretary of the Navy. While my party was in opposition, I had preached, with all the fervor and zeal I possessed, our duty to intervene in Cuba and to take this opportunity of driving the Spaniard from the Western World. Now that my party had come to power, I felt it incumbent on me, by word and deed, to do all I could to secure the carrying out of the policy in which I so heartily believed; and from the beginning I had determined that, if a war came, somehow or other, I was going to the front.
Imagine Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, or Douglas Feith forming a regiment and taking it to the Iraqi front! Or a modern-day Harvard or Columbia graduate volunteering for service with it. Really, it is unimaginable. Probably fewer than ten percent of American males with college degrees have ever handled a firearm. America in 1898 was still a whole society, raising up whole men. The difference between then and now is, to some degree, the difference between summer camp and college camp.
I have written sometime within the last year that I had always been a defender of the gentleman’s C until George W. Bush entered the White House. Since then, I have reflected that, had Bush graduated from Yale with an A-plus average, he would have been no less dangerous as president (and even quite possibly more so) than he has proved himself in fact to be. TR, in spite of his intellectual brilliance and his greatness as a man, as president was almost as wrongheaded as W., overall. And it is worth noting, moreover, that there is no reason to believe that Roosevelt’s formidable intellect, encyclopedic learning, and literary ability are relatable to the report cards he received from Harvard.
I am speaking here of a college education, not a postgraduate or professional one. Obviously, it is the duty, as well as the business, of law, medical, business, mining, agricultural schools, and the like to accept the best applicants, give them the most rigorous training, and graduate competent and responsible professionals. (Although lawyers, in particular, should be humanists as well; while Americans of a certain age can recall their general internist having played the cello and collected works of art, and the music for their Sunday church service being tastefully selected by a Wall Street banker.) As for the humanities, postgraduate work in history, literature, languages, and the sciences ought, of course, to be conducted according to the standards of professional scholarship. But, as to undergraduate education? To hell with the grade-grubbers! Admissions departments should be firmly directed to discriminate unapologetically and refer them directly to the professional schools. Where the colleges are concerned—the Ivy League colleges in particular—the inflexible rule should be: Only dilettantes need apply.
Because it is from dilettantism that civilization arises and on which it depends. Civilization, in the highest sense, is play; and civilized play is play in the highest sense of the word, as art is play. I do not say that the creation of civilization, and of art, is not the result of rigorous and exacting labor, involving blood, sweat, and skill as well as genius; but that the end of art and civilization is itself not rigorous. (Aquinas beautifully defined art as “reason in making,” which is exactly opposite in concept and purpose of making for a reason.) Artists, philosophers, and scholars, before the age of mass education, were a minute minority of the human race. That they are a much larger minority today goes far to explain the vulgar decrepitude of modern times. Whether or not everyone in a modern democracy can be famous for 15 minutes, the chances of anyone becoming a great creative artist for a lifetime are infinitesimal, on the order of dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning. The overwhelming majority of those people who have an interest in art and learning at all are destined to be patrons of these things, not creators of them. That is to say, they will spend their lives in contemplation of them. And, while it is certainly possible to help a student to appreciate a Mozart sonata, a poem by John Donne, or a painting by Velásquez, it is the height of philistinism to grade him on the quality of his appreciation. Worse, it is the height of fatuity. Worse yet, it is, in one sense, entirely unrelated and, in another, completely antagonistic to the enjoyment of art. It is possible to listen to a Bach fugue, comprehending the structure of the piece in its every measure, and yet not be moved by it—which is to say, not to enjoy it. (The student who can do so nevertheless grades A-plus.) Conversely, it is possible to be moved by the whole without having attained to a technical comprehension of the sum of its parts. What sense does it make for the academic instructor to insist that I am not enjoying Bach’s composition for the “correct” reasons? The fact remains that I feel the piece for something the composer put into it and that, since what Bach put into his fugue is Bach, I cannot go wrong in appreciating his work in any one of its aspects, at any level. (And why should I pay much heed to Professor Julius J. Julliard’s remonstrances or care that he grades me C or C-minus?) The broader and fundamental objection to the competitive approach to a liberal-arts education really comes down to this: that the competitively precise assessment of the liberal-arts student is as much beside the point as the scientific evaluation of him as a gentleman would be. And the purpose of a college education should be—as once it was—to produce gentleman and ladies, not meritocratically distinguishable specialists of whom the world has an enormous surfeit already, together with a dearth of ladies and gentlemen. The issue, I suppose, can be put as follows: What level of academic accomplishment suffices for the civilized generalist? The answer is probably in the C to C-plus range.
When I was preparing to apply to colleges in the mid-1960’s, the ideal—fixed beyond the most cogent object or rational argument—was “the well-rounded student.” (Though I was told of one admissions director at a prestigious New England college making mild fun of the applicant who “was so well-rounded he rolled away into a corner and was forgotten,” it seemed this gentleman pretty much rolled along with his counterparts at other schools where the actual application of admissions criteria was concerned.) Since I have always detested this shallow positivistic ideal, together with most well-rounded people themselves, I should emphasize that well-roundedness is not what I have in mind. The notion that the model college acceptant should boast an A-plus or (as perfection is denoted these days) four-point average; have been elected class president and made captain of his high-school football team; served as editor of the school paper and shone as matinée idol of the Glee Club; spent his summers working with Habitat for Humanity or in his hometown ghetto and volunteered as poll-watcher on Election Day; and so on, and so forth is no more than a preposterous caricature of the prevailing liberal bourgeois mind. So far from directing young people toward reality, such absurdly artificial activities lead them away from it and into the fatuous mental morass of modernism. Young ladies and gentlemen ought to be introduced at the earliest possible age to the genteel pursuits of literature, the fine arts, history, and the natural sciences. Beyond that, and rigorous religious training, they need to be taught according to the formula of Jeff Cooper, and, before him,the court of ancient Persia: “to ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth.” None of these accomplishments is likely to be gained at college camp, for the obvious reason that neither camp nor college values such things.
There is a major and fundamental objection to be made to this alternative ideal, and with no reason to believe that a satisfactory answer to be made to it exists. The problem, of course, has to do with competition and success in later life. If grade-grubbing and academic achievement alone are recognized by the professional schools and rewarded by business and professional offers, then educated gentlemen must lose out competitively, not as individuals only but as a class, to the intellectual robber barons of the aspiring meritocracy. The civilized minority thus faces a choice: whether to become the enemy or to be displaced by him. The choice, to be certain, is a terrible one. It is not more terrible, however, than the billions of individual choices, some large, some small, faced by hundreds of millions of Christians—day in and day out, year after year, for the past two millennia—who, by some miracle of God, have not yet been displaced from Western civilization.
This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.