Chris Hedges “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff”

It isn’t unusual to hear conservatives criticize the elite institutions of higher education—despite the fact that many of the Republican and conservative leaders are products of those same institutions. Critiques from the left are far less common, which the recent essay by Chris Hedges rather intriguing.

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service—economic, political and social—come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter…

…While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it…

…These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and salient details of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but they were unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void…

…Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous. The point is to get ahead. Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day electronically moving large sums of money around.

“The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name,” Deresiewicz wrote. “It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.”

“Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul,” he went on. “These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus.”

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us ( “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff” )

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7 Responses to “Chris Hedges “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff””

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Are you kidding?

    America is failing because its universities are indoctrinating their students with too much unthinking conservatism?

    The Ivy League preaches “the primacy of unfettered free markets”?

    You really believe that?

    I went to Weber State. I’m sure it is far more conservative than the typical Ivy League school and I still didn’t hear a single professor mention the idea of unfettered free markets in anything near a positive tone. I might be able to buy this if every Ivy League school were just like Chicago University or George Mason University. They’re not.

    I’d argue that the current problems Hodges complains about are the result of the current dominating political philosphy in higher education that a mixed market in the hands of a more leftist government can be tinkered with to the point that equal outcomes for everyone are possible. Of course this idea is complete foolishness. This ideology always creates problems like those our current economy faces.

  2. Joseph Owen Says:

    Wonderful essay. I work in higher education (at a community college) and I will be sharing this with colleagues. The essay is directed at elite schools, but since every place else wants to be Yale, they apply to education in general, I think. Of course, Chris Hedges isn’t saying anything new, but he does say it well.

    I am hoping, though, that Obama will be able to be to open enough to at least a little bit better job than what Chris Hedges is willing to give him credit for. Obama does seem to possess some real intelligence.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    The idea that our economic problems can be traced back to ivy league universities preaching the benefits of unfettered free markets is laughable on its face.

    Even at conservative Weber State I never heard anything positive about the idea of laissez faire capitalism. Maybe there is a secret course of study at the ivy league institutions that isn’t well publicized that covers what Mr. Hedges was talking about?

    If all these students Hedges is complaining about were going to University of Chicago or George Mason University his argument might work. The rest of the higher education system has been indoctrinating students with the same leftist dogma about the beauty of mixed markets and command economies that you always preach about here on your blog!

    • Derek Staffanson Says:

      Jeremy, I wonder how you would define “command” economies. I’ve never encouraged any five-year plans. I’ve even agreed that ideas like subsidization of the ethanol industry are foolish. The fact that I am willing to recognize that an economy based solely on profit motive has disastrous consequences does not make me a command economy advocate.

  4. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Jeremy, I can’t claim to know how conservative the Ivy league-type schools are. My only experience with any of the elite universities is wandering in the vicinity of Harvard during my Boston trip. Do you have more?

    Right wing pundits are constantly telling us the “elite” academic institutions are full of “ivory tower” liberals. I thought it worth airing a differing point of view.

    At USU, I heard quite a bit talk about about the beauty, magic, and transcendence of free markets. I doubt USU is much more conservative than Harrison High 😉

  5. Joseph Owen Says:

    I don’t think the issue is how liberal or conservative the universities are. I personally tend towards the left, but a knee-jerk liberal is even more annoying to talk to for me than a conservative. The point of the essay isn’t what philosophy they were indoctrinated with, it’s that they were indoctrinated. In other words, they were told what to think, and those who got good grades were the ones who accepted without question. Chris Hedges is asserting that higher education should not indoctrinate, it should teach students how to think. That’s the failure. The philosophy that led everyone over the cliff isn’t quite so important as the fact that everyone was led over the cliff without questioning why.

  6. RaiulBaztepo Says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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