January 4, 2021
W. E. B. Du Bois was a trained scholar in an era when to be trained meant something. His first book after he completed his dissertation (on the African slave trade), The Philadelphia Negro is breathtaking in its scope, acuity, grace, and confidence. As a teacher, he enforced the rigorous scholarly standards to which he was held at Harvard and University of Berlin. Many a lyrical passage in his Autobiography is given over to his determination not to teach down to his students at Atlanta University (a predominantly Black, poorly endowed, institution) but, on the contrary, that they rise up to the scholar’s calling. “The true college,” he solemnized, “will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” It is his version of a line in Plato’s Republic that, immediately as I read it and ever thereafter, resonated: “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”
I cannot say that my time in college was spent in the pursuit of beauty. The salient fact of those years was that I was a Maoist: a reverent disciple of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought. I quoted with pride at every occasion that allowed it what “Chairman Mao said.” (A later generation of young people would quote with comparable pride what “Noam Chomsky said,” which irked me as it evoked a bad memory.) I was insufferably smug and self-righteous and, as it turned out, significantly wrong in my certitudes. It was an intellectually stunting period. Where I should have been, to use the hackneyed expression, “broadening my horizons,” I instead constricted them to the point of philistinism. My course selections each semester read something like this: Introduction to Marx, Introduction to Engels, Introduction to Marx & Engels, Introduction to Engels & Marx; then Intermediate Marx, Intermediate Engels, Intermediate Marx & Engels….—well, you get the idea. Not exactly what Plato or Du Bois had in mind. Once I decided to stray by registering for a course in Ancient Roman History. My Trotskyist friend/enemy sighed, “How bourgeois!” I was stung to the quick. To be called bourgeois back then was like being called cis-gender nowadays: the ultimate putdown. Needless to say, I dropped the course.However, even as I intellectually squandered those years, my college experience was far from a total waste. In one critical sense, I, and my generation, fulfilled the mandate set by Plato and Du Bois. Back then, college was pretty much free. (Even the Ivy Leagues were, by current standards, a gift.) College was perceived as a time of personal growth: “to know the end and aim of life.” Each of us was expected to “find” ourselves: who we are, what was our destiny. Parents didn’t interfere. It was hands-off. No one needed a job to support themselves. We were on our own, not a care in the world. My parents never asked me or my siblings what was our major. I’m certain they never knew. The only reason my parents knew my grades was because I wanted them to know. (Revolutionary, yes; but also a stereotypical Jewish grind.) I don’t recall a single conversation in college about what we planned to do when we graduated. I knew I wanted to be a revolutionary, but how I would earn my keep was never a concern. We knew that when the time came to find a job, there would be one waiting for us. Except for premeds, no one calibrated his or her major to a prospective job. You majored in what you wanted to major. It was truly a wondrous time. I grew as a human being. I set my life’s course and, truth be told, never looked back. The trajectory I set for myself at age 20—I’m still on it. Even as my intellectual horizons were stiflingly narrow, still it was exciting. Maoists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, Social-Democrats: We passionately argued, we heatedly debated in the student center. (The motley leftist sects on campus were bound by a love/hate relationship—no one outside our world of internecine cliques would abide our bullshit. We needed even as we, technically, loathed each other.) One of my Marxism professors, Morris Watnick, was a crusty right-winger. But his is my most vivid memory. He would, at each class meeting and to my exasperation, shred Marx; then I’d make a beeline to the Marx guru in the student center to find out why Watnick was wrong. (It never even occurred to me that he might be right.) I pity college students nowadays. They keep down two jobs. Tuition is through the roof. Everyone’s on loans with obscene interest rates. No jobs await them after graduation, so college has become mostly a trade or vocational school, in which student majors are narrowly tailored to the job market and devoid of intellectual content. There’s no possibility of personal growth and exploration. The college experience has been reduced to a business transaction. I should note, however, that I’m talking now about college education for the 99%. The 1% in the top schools continue to receive a first-class classical education, because they are being groomed to rule the world. The rest are being disciplined for a life of serfdom.