the state of higher education


If you can think a problem through and have clarity about what you think needs to be done, with a healthy respect that you may be right or you may be wrong, then people will say that’s anti-intellectual.

Well said, Mr. Rove. And long live the anti-intellectual approach.

Here, if I may, is the “intellectual” approach. I offer it as a rudimentary handbook for the liberal arts programs that have yet to install it.

1) take kids who are, many of them, not very gifted.

2) introduce them to a body of ideas that are, many of them, not very clear.

3) insist on a relativism that gives each student a certain freedom from judgment, as in ‘this is what I believe, so you may not judge me.”

4) engage these kids in a classroom debate in which political or personal correctness is more important than power or acuity.

5) engage these kids in a classroom debate in which certain hallowed beliefs are ‘taken off the table” and removed from scrutiny.

6) evaluate these kids on written work in which they are allowed to reproduce the lack of clarity (aka discursive delirium) of the authors on which they have been raised.

7) create a classroom in which “real world” issues and outcomes are never discussed in strategic or practical terms unless they might be seen as ways ‘to fight the man.”

The “intellectual” and “anti-intellectual” approaches are, how shall I put this, different. And the difference makes for differences: in presidential elections, the on-going culture wars, and the changing disposition of the American campus.

The “intellectual” approach pays dearly for it’s epistemic and pedagogical investments. Smart kids are obliged to forego some of their intelligence. Not very smart kids are confirmed in their mediocrity. The “anti-intellectual” approach creates astonishingly capable people. Native intelligence is multiplied and maximized. Smart kids get smarter. Ordinary kids get smart.

Karl Rove qualifies as a poster-boy here. (He did not get a college degree, but just as clearly he learned something from the 5 schools he attended.) But my favorite example is a student I taught at the Harvard Business School. I described “Jack Dawkins” [not his real name] in a piece I published a couple of years ago. I reproduce a passage here [lightly edited]:

Jack […] used to sit on the uppermost row of the classroom, the “sky deck,” as it’s called. Jack was amiable in a Gary Cooper, Kevin Costner sort of way. In a room of 80 gifted students, he was not the most aggressive or the most vocal. In the courtly, challenging convention of the school, I would have to call on him. “Mr. Dawkins, what do you say?” He would describe the problem with great clarity and then he would strike the problem with such power and systematic ferocity that it disappeared. Other students would continue to fight over the remaining “problem parts,” but, really, the class was over. After a particularly dazzling Dawkins strike, I heard one of his fellow students murmur, with a touch of envy and irritation, “Thanks for coming, everyone. Drive safely.”

Mr. Dawkins had just given us a little tutorial in the “anti-intellectual” approach: the application of intelligence, whetted by system, rigor and clarity, to a real-world problem. I remember being visited by a little revelation of my own after a Dawkins’ display, “Perhaps the liberal arts have become just a little too liberal.”


Tumulty, Karen. 2004. The Rove Warrior. Time Magazine. December 27, 2004, (unpaginated; roughly: bottom of second page of text)


With thanks to Stephen Karlson for keeping us on issue.

2 thoughts on “the state of higher education

  1. Patrick

    Grant, I think you are (intentionally) underselling intellectuals by quite a bit. It isn’t much of an exageration to say (with Keynes?) that that even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long dead economist. I’d add that the economist probably has a (very dead) philosopher standing in his shadows as well. Perhaps, much of the actual hustle and bustle of the world is done by the anti-intellectual, but the method to their madness has some antecedants in the scribblers.

  2. Scott McArthur

    The marxist intellectual is undone by the havard MBA, but the harvard MBA is undone by the liberal humanist.

    George Orwell trumps Wall Street.

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